The Gangs of Omaha: Sudanese Who Fled Their War-Torn Country Face Growing Violence in Their Ranks
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Interstate 80 begins in Teaneck, New Jersey and ends in San Francisco. It was blandly renamed the "Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways" in 1990, and its flat, unencumbered concrete path continues to connect travelers from the East to the West, though few use it as a point of entry to Omaha, Nebraska, choosing to disregard the bright green sign advertising the state slogan ("The Good Life") and keep on driving. In the late 1990s, however, something changed the city irrevocably. A group of Sudanese refugees decided to move there, despite the long winters and the unyielding suburban landscape of eastern Nebraska. They settled in Omaha because of the low unemployment rate, because people with low levels of education can still make decent wages, and because there was subsidized housing available. As the years passed, more Sudanese Americans arrived, and the population swelled to upwards of 9,000, with another 5,000 in Lincoln, a forty-five minute drive away. Though many don't know it, this area has become the home to the largest Sudanese refugee population in the country.
Now, nearly 8,000 miles away from the violence in Darfur, Sudanese residents of Omaha are experiencing their own share of turbulence in this unassuming Midwestern city. And they're fed up with it.
Dak More is a former Sudanese gang member who has recently started his own private security force, patrolling the Sudanese communities in North and South Omaha, as well as the projects on 24th and Mason, trying to get teenagers to stop joining gangs. He was involved in gang life when he was in his teens, but became disillusioned with it last year, saying, "I have three kids I want to take care of and I didn't know what they were fighting for." His father died in 1986 in the second Sudanese civil war, where nearly two million were killed and four million fled--becoming refugees or IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). More was ten years old and his brother was nineteen when they were able to come to the U.S. They spent some time in California in the late 90s, then moved to join the burgeoning Sudanese community in Omaha, where he went to high school. Last year, his mother was finally able to join them, but by then he was already a man.
More is a lanky twenty year old with close-cropped hair and an indifferent way of throwing out a sentence that reveals his age. A large black t-shirt hangs from his bony shoulders. He glances at me, then looks away, mumbling, "Every weekend you hear the news--Sudanese on Sudanese."
Seventeen-year-old Buomkoth Tang was driving his car down Ida Street last Easter Sunday. A witness said he pointed a gun at Keenon Robertson, who was walking down the street with an SKS assault rifle aimed at Tang. Seconds later, Tang was shot in the stomach. He ran from his car and made it about thirty blocks before he was found, then hospitalized. Omaha has had its share of gang violence since the late 80s, when the Bloods and Crips arrived to cash in on the emerging crack market. However, Sudanese gangs are an entirely new phenomenon arising in this city of half a million residents. Tang is allegedly a member of the "South Sudan Soldiers," a gang made up of mostly Nuer youth who have established a growing presence in the Omaha area since its founding last year. As More said, there's been a lot of fighting between Sudanese, but the shooting last Easter was the first instance of African-American-on-Sudanese gang violence.
Bruce Ferrell, a retired Omaha police officer, is the chairman of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association estimates that there are three Sudanese gangs in Omaha right now (More claims there are fourteen.) Ferrell said the first gangs in Omaha began in 2004--MJ, a Nuer acronym for "Dog Pussy," and Afrikan Pride. Others followed, like MOB, GBLOCK, 402 (the area code for eastern Nebraska), South Sudan Soldiers, and TripSet. Gang members are mostly Nuer and Dinka, and, predictably, live in low-income neighborhoods. They are the children of refugees or are refugees themselves, coming from camps in Ethiopia, Egypt, and beyond, but ending up adrift in the middle of America.
To avoid an E. E. Evans-Pritchard-type anthropological study, let's just say that the Dinka and Nuer are the two largest groups in southern Sudan, and are mostly Christian and Animist. In the 2009 South Sudan Census, the Dinka make up about three million and the Nuer are just shy of 1.6 million, but these numbers would have been a lot higher if the war didn't start in '83, of course. There was a peace agreement in 1999 between the two groups (the Wunlit Dinka-Nuer Covenant), which carried over to Omaha, for the most part, although Sudanese gang members will sometimes tell the police it's tribal conflicts just to confuse them.
Ferrell said of the South Sudan Soldiers in a phone interview, "They're doing graffiti, they're wearing colors, they're identifying by specific group names, they're participating in crimes that are against rival Sudanese gangs. We're seeing that more [in the past year]."
The gang violence started in Omaha, but then spread to Lincoln when there was a stabbing at a house party last year. And it continued to escalate after Buomkoth Tang was shot. More says, "That's when everything got worse, after that shooting. We don't even know what they're fighting for." He keeps repeating this point, distancing himself from the gangs and insisting that they started not because of drugs, or money, but out of boredom. There's no ideology guiding them. The bulk of the members are young men, aged fourteen to seventeen, who go to house parties, ready to fight. Except that before the shooting, they used to just carry knives. Now they carry guns.
When the police have a problem with a Sudanese youth, they call Malakal Goak, and he tries to do damage control. Goak was accused of aiding rebels back in Khartoum while working for an international relief organization, and was set to prison in Juba, in the south. He escaped one night and ran through a forest littered with land mines, while officers shot at him in the dark. He then began walking southeast, and arrived in Kenya four days later.
He came to Omaha in 2003 and set up his nonprofit, Caring People Sudan, two years later. The nonprofit offers domestic violence prevention classes, HIV/AIDS care and outreach, and decision-making classes for adolescents in the attempt to instill critical thinking skills and provide alternatives to violence. It all looks good on paper, but there's still a lot more to be done. Goak and his six employees are trying to figure out how to partner with the YMCA to offer recreational after-school activities and maybe even a basketball or soccer team, anything to get kids off the streets for a few hours. In the meantime, Goak acts as the interpreter for the Sudanese community, providing Dinka, Nuer, Arabic, Somali, and Amharic translation services.
I caught Dak More, the man in the black t-shirt, sitting in the front office of Caring People Sudan one afternoon, along with Elizabeth Dume, a recent college graduate who used to hang out with the guys that started Afrikan Pride and South Sudan Soldiers and now works with Goak. Dume lived in California for a few years, where "most of us were Nuer." Then she lived in Utah, where she was one of the only Sudanese kids in her private school, and eventually moved to Omaha with her family, where she became immersed in the Sudanese community.
Dume said, "I had friends from Denver, Tennessee, or Texas, but when they came here everything changed. Omaha has that effect on people." She continued, "I grew up with MJ and went to college with some of them. They started this group [in 2004] and hosted fundraisers and then out of nowhere started to get violent. It was a fast turnaround."
Goak realized that the transition to life in the U.S. can be difficult for Sudanese youth, so he set up a council of elders in 2006 because "The future of our own country are the kids growing up here, so it worries us if they're off track." These elders are Dinka and Nuer men who attempt to solve problems within the community so that the police or aid organizations don't have to get involved. But that doesn't always work that way.
The missing link is the parents. Goak says, "Nobody goes after their seventeen-year-old. They just think, We know what he's doing, he'll come back later." And he will come back later, but he might be escorted by the police. These kids grew up speaking English and attending public schools in Omaha, or private schools as scholarship recipients. They are able to navigate American culture while their parents work long hours for low pay, speak halting English, and stay within the borders of the Sudanese community. This generation is able to interpret American social and cultural mores for their parents and manipulate them in the process. Their parents become an easy mark, a minor obstacle. If there's a problem at school, the child will read the letter to the parent and frame it in a favorable light. Or if a cop knocks on the door, the kid will talk to the officer and then explain to the parents that it was a case of mistaken identity. Goak admits, "I know a few families whose kids are the top ringleaders of the gang [and] they don't want to admit their kids are in a gang. It's not that they are defending the kids, they're just ignorant of what their kids are doing."
It's this gap between first and second-generation immigrants, but it's more pronounced because of the extreme differences between life in Sudan and life in Omaha. The parents escaped from the fomenting political unrest in their home country to find themselves in a foreign country, lost and confused. At this point, they're away from the gunfire, but don't know how to really process what had happened to them, especially not alone. As they adapt to this new life, many women feel isolated in their new roles and their husbands start to feel dejected, because these "new roles" are a step down for many men. Women were able to find jobs as domestic workers, but their husbands remained unemployed, or stuck doing menial labor. What skills can you transfer from an agrarian life in Sudan to life in a white-collar city? Not too many. So then your manhood is called into question. If you can't provide for your family and your wife is the sole breadwinner, then what does that make you? Eventually, it turns you into someone who beats his wife. And when it gets too hard you contemplate suicide.
To learn more about this, I called Dorian Crosby, a professor at Spelman College in Georgia who began working with Sudanese women when she taught in the Black Studies Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Crosby decided to organize an event where the Sudanese community and Omaha residents could talk about their issues in an open forum. "Omaha and the Sudanese: A Dialogue towards Solutions" took place that April, which was the first and, unfortunately, last event of its kind. Crosby now teaches Introduction to Refugee Studies at Spelman, but tries to keep in touch with her colleagues in Nebraska. She says, "Omaha is the center, literally, of the United States. It didn't have to deal with the multicultural issues that some of the coastal states and cities have been dealing with for years."
Two flights up from the offices of Caring People Sudan, the clocks at the International Center of the Heartland give the time in Sudan, Burma, Bosnia, Costa Rica, and Iraq. I sat in the lobby for a few minutes and waited to talk to Sudanese refugees who came here for advice on housing, employment, or legal issues. A mother in her mid-thirties arrived to get a document translated from Bari to English. She told me she works as an assistant nurse at a nursing home, though she was a registered nurse in Khartoum. When I asked her if she could get the documents sent over so she could prove her title (as an RN), she laughed and said, "You don't know Africa." She spent four years as a refugee in Egypt before moving to Omaha. When she arrived, she thought, "This was the place I'm going to be safe in." Her son is seventeen, and she says he's a good kid; she's proud that he wants to go to college. But her expression sours when I ask her about juvenile violence in Omaha. "Here, I would like to beat my kids up." She laughs, then says, "Deport me to Africa--I don't care. It's better to beat up [my kids] so I can relax. Kids don't listen when you're talking, but they'll listen when you hurt them." She's angry that Sudanese youth in Omaha have forgotten where they came from, but she's also disappointed that the communal atmosphere that existed in her homeland doesn't exist in Omaha. She, like many Sudanese women there, are working hard to get by and don't understand why their children are acting up, or why they've seemed to forget where they come from.
Elizabeth Dume says, "In our community, a lot of parents don't know how to discipline their kids without using physical violence. That's what they grew up with. They don't know how to put their kids in time out and make them follow that or ground them. They don't want to get in trouble for hitting their kids, but they don't want to try a different method that they don't think will work, so they just kind of leave it, they just let it go. And that's when kids start to get in trouble, because they have no structure and no consequences to their actions."
Back at the International Center, I met a college student undergoing counseling training with a representative there. She's a social work major on scholarship at UNO, and came to Omaha as a refugee in 1999 with her four brothers; the eldest was only 19 and was in charge of looking after the rest. During our interview, she couldn't hide her disgust with her more violent peers, and then revealed that her cousin is Buomkoth Tang, the gang member who was shot last Easter. She says, "People came here because they're escaping from problems but they didn't follow up on what they came to do."
She used to go to parties where gang members were present, but got sick of the mayhem about three years ago, saying, "Guys fight; girls fight with girls and even guys sometimes. My husband's cousin went to party, drank alcohol, and got his teeth kicked out."
Some of her peers dropped out of school to work so they could send money back to family members in Africa. Others dropped out because they were placed in public schools by their age, not their grade level. Which meant that some teenagers who spent years in a refugee camp were placed in high school classes when they only had a sixth grade education. Tot says, "Some friends I used to hang out with ended up bad. They don't go to school, drink, and depend on welfareThey don't know nothing about Sudan. They don't care about Africa or where they came from."
She believes that the kids who ended up alright are the ones who came without parents, because they had no one to fall back on if they got into trouble. Her eldest brother, a college graduate, was her example of what you could do despite the odds. She says, "I was in a refugee camp and remember it. I don't live how I used to live. I want to go back and make a differenceI want to achieve something better."
To do this, though, she'll eventually have to leave Omaha. She wants to return to southern Sudan as a social worker, but the country isn't stable enough to repatriate its sizable refugee population yet. In the meantime, she said she wants to live "anywhere without Sudanese."
The difference between immigrant and refugee is a key point, since it will determine the future of Sudan. When I spoke to Todd Reckling, the director of Children and Family Services (within the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services), he wanted to ensure that I addressed the differences between the two because he feared people would think the Sudanese were illegal immigrants trying to get state money. They're not. There's the 1951 United Nations definition, which is lengthy, and then there's the general definition, which is that refugees are people fleeing from a conflict in their home country. Before arrival, they receive a loan for travel to their new home. Once there, they can receive a small amount of funding to settle in (in Omaha, it's under $300 + food stamps), and when the conflict is over, they can return home. In the meantime, they often live in limbo in a host country.
Internecine conflict has plagued Sudan since it gained independence from the British in 1956, and military governments have been ruling the largest country in the Africa ever since. The North/South Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in January 2005 and gave southerners autonomy for the next six years. Their time is now up. In Khartoum, as the UN Security Council delegation tries to placate the war criminal that is president, protestors from the south are calling for the vote for succession, which is slated for next January. The date keeps getting pushed back, though, as fears of another civil war become increasingly real. This makes the second generation of refugees integral to the future of Sudan. Dorian Crosby says, "If and when there's time to return them, the focus will be on Omaha." This is the generation that will be able to talk to an international audience; they will be the ones to negotiate peace agreements, or start the next round of civil wars. Crosby sighs, then says, "If they don't kill each other before they reach 30, they're going to be the power brokers for this large Sudanese community."
On the morning of September 24th, a 26-year-old resident of Lincoln, Nebraska, entered the cold-storage plant where he worked, took aim, and proceeded to shoot three coworkers, then himself. Akouch Kashoual was a Sudanese refugee who had moved to Buffalo, New York in 2003 and ended up in Nebraska a year later. Before the attack, he wrote on his Facebook page, "Life is unfair it doesn't matter whatever you do to make things right. So tell me what to do to keep living in this world of ours!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Maybe this is an isolated case, an aberration. And maybe the gangs in Omaha are too. But to ignore these incidents of violence within the largest Sudanese community in the United States at this moment in time is decidedly ill advised. When young men's self-affirmation is coming from their peers, when the adults in their lives fail them, and when they move from a war torn country to a rundown neighborhood, then the conditions are ripe for mayhem.