Sudanese Refugees Descend on Dallas, Ascend at Ascension

Episcopal News Service. August 21, 2001 [2001-221]

Jim Goodson, Missioner for Communications in the Diocese of Dallas

(ENS) Forty-four Sudanese refugees have found a home in Dallas, thanks to the committed involvement of Episcopalians at the Church of the Ascension. More are on the way.

"They arrive here with $40 and they have 90 days to find a job," Ascension parishioner Curtis L. Gadsden says. "That's it. These are people who have witnessed war and famine firsthand, but they are people who have also taught us a lot about faith in God. They are convinced God sent them here."

Gadsden heads the North Dallas church's involvement with the refugees, who are placed here through the North Texas Refugee Center. Catholic Charities and the Church of the Ascension are the two prime centers for Sudanese refugees to land here.

"The media calls these young men the 'lost boys of the Sudan,' but they are not boys and they are not lost," Gadsden says. "They know who they are, where they are and they have faith they will survive and thrive in the United States."

Newcomers 'too trusting'

Church members brought the young men to Ascension in early May, divided them up according to apartments and began an attempt to meet their needs--from toothpaste to shoes to describing Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) routes. Many of the young men work at Café Express, a new restaurant in the just-completed DART rail line at Mockingbird Station.

They live in the Park Lane-Greenville Ave. area of Dallas in apartments that have seen better days. Once a popular "swinging singles" part of town, the apartments have deteriorated into a nest for drug-dealing and prostitution.

"One of our problems is that these young men--despite all they have seen--are too trusting," Gadsden says. "Everyone they have met in the United States has helped them, so they tend to think everyone here is a friend," Gadsden says. "That is certainly not true in their neighborhood."

Understanding culture

Gadsden and committee members Tom, Dabney and Christopher Dwyer, John Irvin, George Rutherford, Winifred Rutenbar, Doug Taber, Scott Raines, Dodie Reagan, Teddy Okonkwo, along with Ascension's rector, Kai Ryan, devised a program that's built around understanding Sudanese culture. The refugees are some of the initial wave of 3,800 young men scattered throughout the U.S. after a year spent in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

The largest country in Africa, Sudan was cobbled together by the British before they abandoned North Africa. Light-skinned Muslims populate the arid north and mostly dark-skinned Christians or people who follow native faiths inhabit the fertile south. Oil lies underground the middle ground and valuable water flows north-south in the Nile River along the Sudan-Ethiopia border.

"The Sudan has experienced one of the most protracted civil wars in modern history, the result of which has been the death of over two million Southern Sudanese at the hands of an extremist Islamic regime," says Richard Parkins, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries. "The ongoing bombardment of civilian targets is fueled by revenues generated by oil exploration and the willingness of several external powers to help Khartoum maintain a military arsenal."

"Constant warfare keeps Sudan from establishing a successful agrarian or industrial society," says Mulla Nkrumah, who helps place Sudanese refugees in Dallas through Catholic Charities.

Church of the Ascension members took note of dietary requirements, language barriers and other needs of the young men, all of whom are Anglicans.

"The parish spent three weeks learning about Sudan and its culture," Gadsden says. "We welcomed them with a big meal in early summer. Then we paired them off according to living arrangements. They are grouped into 11 apartments.

"We asked each group what they needed. We did a full assessment of their needs. Then we began the process of getting to know them. We invite them into our homes on Sundays and we all worship together.

"We've formed very close, familial bonds with all of the young men."

More on the way

Gadsden, former IBM Vice President for Sales and Marketing in North America, and his wife Marsha (also a retired IBM executive), says he is proud of the church's accomplishments. Ascension's program has been so successful that 13 more Sudanese refugees are on the way.

"This has been one of the most difficult jobs I've had," he says. "At first, it was very stressful because we are dealing with people's lives. But it has become very rewarding.

"It took us several Sundays, but now we have a ton of programs that the young men can utilize," Gadsden says. "All of our committee members have specific areas of responsibility. Everything from health care to transit schedules. DART is wonderful. It's not widely known, but DART provides free transportation to non-profit groups who want to take an outing to, say, the Ballpark in Arlington or the Dallas Zoo."

The refugees worship at Ascension every Sunday, along with a large group of Nigerian nationals and the mostly-Anglo population of the rapidly-changing North Dallas neighborhood.

"Everyone at Ascension has always worshiped together," Gadsden says. "We try to be one, big family."