By Michael Fitzpatrick, Medill, Immigrant Connect

Fear and uncertainty come naturally to Chutmagai Bul Ayual. Ayual spent 13 years walking across Africa and in refugee camps.

The scarring experiences left Ayual in a position to confront almost anything. The Covid-19 pandemic was a crisis he could deal with. Not being able to work during the pandemic has been challenging, Ayual says, but he’s coping.

“For the African community, once you have lived in a refugee camp, when you get to this country you come with the intention to do whatever it takes to make your life better,” Ayual says. “You come knowing the struggle of what you have been through in those refugee camps.”

In the late 1800s, what is now known as Sudan was colonized by the British Empire. In 1983, the president of Sudan declared the country an Islamic state. After this, the government and military began imposing Sharia Law on the non-Muslim residents in the southern part of Sudan.

Dimma refugee camp (Photo credit: Flickr)

The tension this created eventually boiled over and started the Second Sudanese Civil War, Ayual says. The fighting made its way into Ayual’s village in 1988, forcing him and other children to leave home. He was only 8 years old. He and the other children walked for two months. They walked mostly at night to avoid the unbearable heat of the dry season and to avoid being attacked by the northern army, Ayual recalls. Ayual and his fellow “lost boys” found their way to Ethiopia’s Dimma Refugee Camp, where Ayual received military training.

The mental toughness that the training instilled in him has helped him stay focused and determined. When the Ethiopian Civil War ended in 1991, the new government did not want Sudanese refugees staying in the country. The Sudanese government was waiting for Ayual and his fellow “lost boys,” so they couldn’t return to Sudan, Ayual says. Ayual moved on to Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, where he lived for nine more years before getting a chance to come to the United States as a refugee.

In 2006, he obtained US citizenship. With the ability to travel, he returned to Sudan to see his family for the first time since 1991.

The desire to create success for one’s self when getting to the United States is common, Felicia Apprey-Agyare says. Aprey-Agare was born in the United States but moved to Ghana when she was a child. Her experiences in Africa inspired her to create the African Life, an organization that promotes African culture in the United States.

“The Africans who come here, they work hard,” Aprey-Agare says. “They know how unfortunate they had it, and you come here, it’s the land of opportunity. They do their best to be successful in anything and everything they do, so they can help themselves or their people back home.”

No matter how hard one works, finding a way to turn one’s life around once coming to the United States from Africa is not easy, Jean-Pierre Ngoy says. Ngoy came to the United States from The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), known as Zaire at the time, in 1990. Africa has a long history of tribalism, Ngoy says. Even though Africa has plenty of large, modern cities, the instincts to stay with one’s “tribe” or close family group remain, Ngoy says. Ayual experienced this first-hand when traveling to refugee camps with the “lost boys.” There were a wide range of ages in the group, Ayual says. The older members looked out for the younger ones and made sure they were safe. The “lost boys” are still in communication.

When the pandemic hit, Africans, like others, had to face the issue of working or not through the crisis. “In general, I don’t think Africans are occupying a lot of white-collar jobs that would allow them to work from home,” Ngoy says. “Even though many of them have higher degrees, I don’t think they have a big opportunity for working from home, so they have to be out.” The tendency to stick with one’s tribe has made it difficult for African immigrants to make connections and network, both essential parts of landing white-collar jobs. This has put African immigrants at a disadvantage and left them with low paying jobs that are putting them at risk during the Covid-19 crisis.

Chris Munwam, a civil engineer who came to the United States from the DRC, worked hard to build his own business once he got to the United States, but lost it because of the pandemic. Most Africans don’t have savings, whether it be because they aren’t working a high paying job or because they’re sending money back home, Munwam says.

Some African immigrants are realizing the limitations of sticking with your “tribe” and hope to stop it. Kirubel Mesfin, a freshman at the University of Missouri, came to the United States from Ethiopia in 2005. He says he’s noticed the trend in those around him and is taking steps to avoid continuing it.

“It’s absolutely a thing,” Mesfin says. “A big reason I decided on a bigger school like Mizzou as opposed to staying close to home is because there are so many networking opportunities.”