Sweet home Chicago: Darfur’s Hashim Bakhit’s first month

Hashim Bakhit, a 36-year-old Sudanese refugee, has only been in the United States for a month, and he’s hard-pressed to find anything to complain about.

“We are so comfortable living in the United States. The people are so friendly,” effuses Bakhit. “There is good education, freedom and justice. We don’t find anything wrong to dislike, mostly like everything.”

Most of Bakhit’s enthusiasm for his new country seems to stem from his newfound security and the promise of stability for his wife and three young children.  These have been Bakhit’s aspirations ever since his stable, rural life in Darfur, a western region of Sudan, was interrupted one traumatic day in 2004.

Life in Sudan

Bakhit’s childhood spent in a rural village in Darfur was normal and unchanging. Every day, he followed the same routine: take the cattle out in the morning, go to school to learn the Koran, bring the cattle back in at night. But when the government’s policy of taking land from the non-Arab tribes of Darfur and giving it to Arabs affected Bakhit’s village, Genena, his predictable peace was shattered.

According to Bakhit, the conflict stems from the Arab government’s discrimination against the non-Arab population. The government began taking the land of the non-Arab tribes and giving it to Arabs, no matter how much violence and death was needed to gain the land.

One day in 2004, Bakhit, who had been away from the village with his cattle, returned to Genena to find that the Janjaweed, the Arab militia supported by the Sudanese government, was attacking the village by both land and air. In the resulting panic, Bakhit was unable to find his wife and kids. For seven days, Bakhit searched for his family, fearing the worst.

“You think of course that maybe something happened to them, maybe they were killed,” says Bakhit. “You live in some horror, a nightmare. You think, are they still alive?”

On the seventh day, they were finally reunited, but their ordeal had just begun. For two years, Bakhit and his family traveled across Sudan from town to town on foot.

“When we left, mostly we walk, we never use any transportation to reach most of the places we spent a couple of years,” relates Bakhit. “With the kids, it’s a challenge. If you have a small boy or small girl, you have to carry them also.”

Eventually, the family ended up in Kenya, where they were registered with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and placed in a refugee camp called Kakuma, where they would spend the next five years. For Bakhit, life in the camp was boring but refreshingly safe.

“You feel secure and safe, and you feel that some people try to help you, to ease the problem, to make sure that you are in a safe place where there is no war inside there,” explains Bakhit.

They fell back into a routine, and his wife gave birth to a son, Mahmoud. Bakhit sought more for his family, and after five years, attempts to resettle came through, and they were chosen for relocation in Chicago.

Finding their way

A month into the family’s move to Chicago, Bakhit takes English classes four days a week and spends the rest of his time trying to find a job. While Bakhit and his wife, Malka, 26, struggle with the language barrier, their kids: Abrar, 8, Hamat, 6, and Mahmoud, 3, have started school and are quickly picking up English. Despite Bakhit’s optimism, he fears being unable to provide for his family.

One of his friends, a fellow Sudanese refugee, explains, “We’re concerned about living. The expenses are too much, comparing what we hear at orientation that the minimum wage is $8.25. How will we pay our rent and other expenses?”

Bakhit, however, is still motivated and has big plans for his future. Once he finds a job, he plans to go to school and get the education he was unable to receive in Sudan.

“Whatever type of education I can get would be better than before because if I had a little bit of education I would not even have to run away. I would know what our rights are,” says Bakhit. “That’s one of the reasons most of the people have been targeted, because they don’t have enough education.”

Still, Bakhit he misses his country and hopes to someday return when the conflicts end.

“The future will be more better, if I can go back to my country later, because there’s nothing, no place like your own home,” he says. “It’s not going to be solved in a matter of one year or two years.  It’s going to be a long, long battle until people realize that everybody has to be recognized, you know, and not be discriminated against.”

Until then, Bakhit is optimistic about his family’s future here.

“The things that keep me hopeful now is that I still have this chance to come here and to let my kids have a good education and a good life,” said Bakhit. “That’s one of my motivations, really, that’s keeping me going.”

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