I was persecuted in Sudan for being a Christian, but America welcomed me
It's a hard thing growing up knowing that you can't become who you want to become -- not because you're not smart enough or don't work hard enough, but because of your faith. Growing up as a Christian in Sudan in the 1980s, before South Sudan became an independent country, this was my reality.
Because Christians faced persecution under the authoritarian government in Muslim-majority Sudan, life was difficult. Before I was born, my father was shot simply because he was a Christian. Five men took him and several of his Christian friends to a deserted area outside of town and shot them. The others died, but my father lay, half-dead, the vultures picking at his body, until an old lady passed by and found him and saved his life.
In Sudan, you could be accused of a "crime" you have never even heard of, without knowing why. When I was a kid, it was normal for a schoolmate to go missing and never come back. One day, you might wake up and go to school and he would be gone. It wasn't until I was in college that I experienced these dangers firsthand, when I was told a warrant had been issued against me, for a reason I never found out. A security guard at the school warned me that there were armed men looking for me. He looked me straight in the eye and said, "Son, it's your turn now. You need to have a plan."
I called my father, but he told me he couldn't help me; he knew they would find me there too. Without my father to protect me, I didn't know what to do. Running was not common. So many people were killed every day, and the general attitude of most men was that, if death finds you, then you accept it. But when I went to one of my college professors for help, he said, "We have lost enough people." He hid me in his house for three months, until I could find a way to escape.
A friend from my church worked at a travel agency. He told me he could get me on a trial flight out of the country, to Egypt. Because there were not supposed to be passengers on the flight, there would be no security checks. He said he would come with me to the airport, but if anyone stopped us, he couldn't protect me.
This is how I left my country. I left without telling anybody goodbye -- not even my family. I just had to disappear. I brought nothing with me. The only thing that mattered was my life.
I lived for four years as a refugee in Egypt while I waited to be resettled somewhere else. Finally, after various interviews and background checks, I heard the news I thought would never come -- I had been accepted into the U.S.
I landed in New York on Halloween day. Halloween is not a good day to come to America for the first time. People were walking around in costumes, some of them with horns, some of them with tails, and I had no idea why. I wondered what kind of country I had come to. When I woke up the next morning in the apartment World Relief had found for me in suburban Chicago, I looked outside, and no one was in the street. In Cairo, people are in the streets at all hours of the day and night. I was frightened; I thought something had happened.
Today, 13 years later, my experience is a blessing. In my role connecting refugees to churches and providing support services to refugees and immigrants at World Relief, I see myself in my clients. I see them walking the steps I walked not so many years ago. I recognize their fear, their mistrust and their awe. This has helped me be able to connect with them, and to foresee challenges they might encounter before they happen. I tell them about my life, and I can see their relief that they are not alone.
It is important for Americans to know that most refugees did not choose this path. We never wanted to leave our homes, our families, our friends, our schools or our work. We came because our lives were at stake, and we had nowhere else to go. We also know that we may never truly be considered Americans. Even if you live somewhere for twenty or fifty years, you will always be from the place where you are born. As an African, part of me will always belong to my hometown. I can say I am from Chicagoland, but I do not fully belong to Chicago.
My children, however, will have a different experience. They are Americans. They tell people they are from Wheaton, Illinois, and they will have the right to say that. Because they belong to America, everything I went through will be worth it. I am proud of what their lives can be -- no matter what religion they are. Here, they can be anything they want.
I'm grateful to the United States for receiving me. My prayer is that this country would once again be a beacon of safety and religious freedom for refugees, who have been forced to flee.
Durmomo Gary, of Wheaton, is an Immigrant Church Engagement Liaison and Senior Support Services Specialist at World Relief DuPage/Aurora.