Saving a culture so far from the other home

How do you save your roots so far from your first home? It’s the endless deng and his cabstruggle of immigrants.

By Katie Kather

Ekhlass Arnihol’s house is quiet on weekday mornings. Her six oldest kids are at school. Only 3-year-old Danny is home, watching cartoons on South Sudan TV. The house is dark even though it’s a sunny day. It smells strongly of incense, and a framed poster of President Barack Obama hangs prominently in the living room.

Arnihol brews two cups of an Arabic chai, served on a platter with a ceramic container of sugar. The Sudanese like sugar. They tell anyone who asks they put an average of three heaping tablespoons in one 8-ounce cup of tea.

The 35-year-old refugee had 14-year-old Julia and 13-year-old Joseph in Sudan and her other five children here. Some of the older Sudanese refugees worry that  this first generation being raised in the United States won’t know Sudanese culture.

She can’t describe her childhood outside of the war. Even in times her family wasn’t running, the war was always simmering nearby, and they never knew when it would boil over.

The East African country won independence from Great Britain in 1956 but broke out in civil war the following year.

In 1983, when Arnihol was five, civil war flared up after a 10-year respite due to social and political differences between the government in the north and non-Muslim, non-Arab minority in the south. Four million Sudanese were displaced, and 2 million were killed during the next 20 years.

Her childhood was spent running, and her two oldest children spent the first few years of their lives on the run. At times there was no food, clothes or water, she said. And there was no school, at least not for her.

“How can you go to school when you are running?” she asked.

Arnihol has been in Carol Stream, Ill., since 2001, when an influx of Sudanese refugees came to the U.S. — around 13,000, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Although the 2010 census doesn’t list how many Sudanese live in Arnihol’s suburb, it lists a small number in Dupage County.

She said she is happy her kids are going to school and never have to worry about what to eat.

But for the first time this group is facing a challenge every immigrant community before them has faced: raising the second generation — a generation that has never experienced  life in Sudan.


A study by the Pew Research Center earlier this year showed a positive outlook for second-generation Americans. There are already 20 million adults in this group, and they’re better off than their parents, according to the study, which looked at Hispanic and Asian immigrants.

The same study showed a higher college graduation rate and income among second-generation Americans, but a Pew study from this month showed that the group is also catching up in another area: crime.

A researcher for that study said that the group is simply catching up to the rest of Americans. The study called it the dark side of assimilation, but the Sudanese refugees in Wheaton don’t need to be told assimilation isn’t always positive. They’re not necessarily worried their kids will commit crimes — the fear of losing their culture is scary enough.


James Deng Kog is old enough to remember Sudan before 1983. He’s from the Dinka tribe, and he said Sudan was beautiful in that 10-year break between wars. South Sudan was green, and there were cows. The Dinka are pastoral, meaning they keep and tend cattle for a living, and life was good before his village was raided.

He described a culture that values respect above all — respect of elders, respect of life. And the Dinka get married young, sometimes as young as 9-or 10-years old.

They have large families who are very close — and hard working, even in America. Kog works over 12 hours a day driving a cab, his wife works overnight and his oldest daughter works 12 hours a day, six days a week. James and his wife have nine kids. Six of them were born after 2001, when he came to the U.S. and resettled his family in Wheaton.

He said he worries about the next generation. How will they know the Sudanese culture if they have never been there? He treasures a children’s book called Little Deng’s Journey written by another Sudanese refugee.

In between colorful illustrations, the book describes the Dinka tribe’s culture from hunting gazelles to the importance of family. The book is important because it’s a story that has been passed on verbally from generation to generation, said Kog. Now the story can be passed on to Sudanese children born in America.


His son, 17-year-old Kar Reng is a junior at Wheaton North High School. He plays basketball and gets good grades. He describes his high school experience as normal; he has friends, but he doesn’t stick to one social group. He said he likes to make friends with everybody.

He doesn’t remember Sudan. The family moved to Egypt when he was just a baby, and then to Illinois when he was three.

He thinks out loud about what it means to be Sudanese in America while sitting on the couch of his family’s Wheaton home. Again, South Sudan TV plays in the background. Again, there is Arabic tea. This time it’s plain black tea, but it still has lots of sugar. And the incense burning smells just like Ekhlass Arnihol’s house.

In the background, Reng’s mom sweeps the floor and talks on the phone in Arabic.

He said he identifies with both cultures, but that it’s hard to explain. He doesn’t feel different from his classmates, even though he speaks Dinka, understands Arabic and greets his elders by looking them in the eye while he shakes their hand.

His family eats cheeseburgers and kisara, a Sudanese bread; they speak English and Arabic; they wear traditional garb and Nikes; they play basketball – got the outdoor pool basketball hoop and new screen to watch Sudanese TV. His older sister is working on a degree in fashion from the Illinois Institute of Art in Schaumburg.

“My little siblings will know less than I do because I know way less than my older siblings do, so I feel like that’s going to happen to them, and to their kids and the kids after that. Eventually, [the culture] could be forgotten.”


But there are a few ways they keep their culture alive. Six years ago, Reng’s dad James Deng Kog helped start a Sudanese church at Wheaton Evangelical Free Church in Chicago’s suburbs.

His family had already been meeting for church in their home with other refugee families, like Arnihol’s. But as more Sudanese came to Wheaton, they realized they needed something more.

“We try to come together because we have different denomination back home. We think we can come together to pray, house to house,” he said.

The group is made up of several Christian denominations: Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Baptist.

“But we come together and we are just Sudanese community,” said Kog. “We need to keep culture, keep our family to know each other more.”

One of the most important things to keeping the culture alive is language, he said.

That’s why the church worships in English and Arabic. There are at least six tribes represented at the church, but they all know Arabic.

“We worry about the generation born here: the kids who are born here 7-years old and down. If we don’t keep this culture very close, we’re going to lose it,” he said.

But he’s not worried about his son Kar.

Kar “knows how to eat Sudanese food, how to be close to the family, but in second generation coming it’s going to be difficult for us because they’re going to take all American culture, zero Sudanese culture,” said Kog. “That’s what we worry about.”

For 17-year-old Reng, the church is a chance to keep their culture alive.

It’s a place for children to hear stories about Sudan from the older generation — if they listen, he said.

“I guess we have a chance to keep it going so my great great great grandchildren, so they know where they came from and what their background is,” he said.



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