Nhial Kou fled Sudan after planes bombed his village. He made his way from Africa to Jacksonville and shared an apartment with another refugee. They found jobs and rode the bus to work. But they soon grew tired of using a pilfered shopping cart to shuttle their groceries from Winn-Dixie to their home.
They decided to get a car. That solved the groceries problem, but they didn’t know Jacksonville well enough to drive to work.
Suddenly, they had an idea: Why not just follow the bus? It would lead them to work.
We waited for the bus and followed it. The bus moved forward, we moved forward. The bus stopped, we stopped. But the bus driver called the police.
An officer pulled over the refugees’ car and went through the routine: License, registration, proof of insurance.
The driver handed it over. Finally the officer asked:
What are you guys doing? The bus driver called the police because you were following him.
They explained they were just trying to get to work. Kou said:
The officer was dying laughing.
He asked where they worked and gave them an escort. It was only a few minutes away.
Kou shared that and other refugee tales with students on Oct. 18 on Refugee Awareness Day at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla.
Students Ron Carr and Bridget Cogley created Refugee Awareness Day after taking an intensive summer course on war and genocide in Africa. Kou and other refugees spoke to students as part of a series of events that day. College faculty members who took part included Art Vanden Houten, John Young, Brenda Kauffman, Rachel Cremona and Tina Jaeckle.
Kou said he was born in 1973, a year after a civil war in Sudan ended. The fighting started again in 1983, and more than four million people were displaced.
War and famine killed more than two million people over the next two decades, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.
Most of the time I don’t like to talk about my story. In 1986, the government bombed our village indiscriminately. They were killing us because we don’t believe what they believe. The whole city fled. We fled in different directions.
Most refugees had just one thing in mind: Survive.
You have to eat another human being to survive. It’s sad. I don’t like to talk about it. Nobody and no one chose to come here. We fled for our lives just to have life.
Kou said he didn’t know anything about the United States while in Africa. He said:
The United Nations planes dropped food in the bushes. The bags have on it “USA.” We asked ourselves, “What is USA?” We learned later it was a country.
He left Sudan with little more than the clothes on his back and headed to Egypt. Families supporting refugees along the way gave them a few $100 bills. He and other refugees landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. They had to wait all day for their flight to Jacksonville and were soon hungry. Kou said he saw several Americans inserting paper bills into a vending machine and getting cookies in return. He decided to do the same, but the machine rejected his $100 bill. He said:
What’s wrong with this money?
Another thing that bewildered him was the time change. He said:
We went from Cairo to New York. We left on Thursday. Now it was Thursday in New York. How do the clocks work over here?
In Africa, he said:
We thought that when it was night, it was night everywhere. And when it was day, it was day everywhere.
Kou said volunteers greeted him and other refugees at Jacksonville International Airport. They had flowers and waved American flags. Kou said:
We felt like a human again.
About 1,000 refugees are resettled in Jacksonville every year. One of the refugees who spoke to Flagler students said a refugee agency worker warned him:
Jacksonville is not a city of Michael Jackson. It’s just Jacksonville.
Adjusting to life in Jacksonville has not been easy, the refugees said.
The English language is sometimes confusing. Said Kou:
When I got here, people ask us, “What’s up?” We look up and we don’t see anything. What do you mean, “What’s up?”
Despite such difficulties, Kou is grateful.
We are seeking one thing and one thing only. Life and safety. Nothing more than life and being a human being and your country provide it.
We came from a country that denied us everything. You gave us life.