Now We Are Free!

On July 9th, 2012, The South Sudanese Community of Massachusetts celebrated their independence at Boston City Hall and Tufts University

The Following is a speech given by our Board Chair Carl Berke at the Independence Day Celebration at Tufts University:

    "We are a nation of immigrants. Most of us come to be here because someone in the family history crossed an ocean or continental border in search of a better life.   As most struggled to adapt to a foreign culture and a foreign language, they benefited enormously from help provided by family and countrymen who preceded them. Even with that assistance, it took a generation or more for groups such as the Irish and Italians to achieve a modicum of socioeconomic parity. My grandparents were also “strangers in a strange land” and I am ever grateful for the decision they made to leave Lithuania before the Holocaust because there was no after.

I first got involved with the Sudanese Education Fund because I saw it as a way to pay tribute to those who helped my grandparents’ family find refuge. The South Sudanese diaspora are also victims of a genocidal war who escaped under horrific circumstances and eventually found safe harbor here. But life in a village of cow-herding and subsistence farming followed by residence in a destitute refugee camp does not prepare one for competition in the western world.  

I started working with SEF as a volunteer assisting a household of Sudanese men in Roxbury to deal with day-to-day life as well as plan and prepare for their future.   They had no agencies or benevolent associations to support them beyond their initial resettlement. I was immediately won over by their appreciation for friendship with outsiders like me, their generosity to each other, their dedication to extended family back in Sudan and their willingness to do hard work to restart their lives. Despite the fact that they had no schooling themselves, the tribal elders instilled a message in the young men before they emigrated: “Education is my mother and my father.” SEF took that advice as our first mission.

SEF raised funds and created a tuition grant program that enabled a large fraction of South Sudanese community members to pursue higher education in community colleges, universities and vocational institutes.  As we interacted with each other, the unexpected benefit was that SEF volunteers became friends and mentors to the Sudanese in a way that enriched our lives at least as much as theirs.   And as we came to know each other better, our organization identified other needs in the community that we could address. 

Part of modern literacy and citizenship is internet capability.   SEF undertook a Technology Project to equip any interested member of the Sudanese community with a free laptop as well as personal training to use it and technical support to maintain it. We trained Sudanese as field technicians for outreach to Sudanese households.

The civil war that raged through South Sudan for decades was largely unknown because it was ignored by the news media. There was little documentation but for the scars carried in the memory of our Sudanese committee.  SEF raised funds to acquire artwork created by refugees of that struggle with the curatorial assistance of Brandeis University Department of Anthropology.   These images speak more than words to memorialize that period of their history that is a modern version of a biblical Exodus.

The South Sudan community of Greater Boston started with about 250 immigrants, most of them men. As they have matured, worked, graduated, naturalized and formed families, the community has grown in numbers as well as diversity.  We recognized a need to have a physical center of the community to serve as a place where members could gather informally as well as for events and programs organized by SEF.  It was a difficult and risky move for us financially, but it was the right decision as judged by the intensity of multipurpose use that the Sudanese Community Center supports, including serving as an office for our own staff and volunteers.

Our new programs focus on the next generation, born here to loving families who are striving to succeed. They lack the advantage that legacy confers from parents and grandparents, like our own who passed on the learnings that have made us comfortable in our society.  I encourage all of the donors and volunteers to visit the Hardy School in Arlington to see the excitement, joy and fellowship that children and their mothers experience at our Saturday Education Enrichment Program.   Now, when I see reference to the American Dream, I have a living picture of it."

- Carl Berke