Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2007 | Every day, Dep Tuany straddles a cultural divide between the Sudan and the United States, between war-scarred refugees and their children, too young to remember the refugee camps.

As the executive director of the Southern Sudanese Community Center, he tries to cement a now-fractured refugee community. Overseas, the rural, non-Arab regions of Southern Sudan have borne the brunt of the country’s civil war. In the U.S., southern Sudanese are split between Lost Boys, widows and former child soldiers, and assimilated teens who can’t remember their homeland, who hanker after hip-hop and MySpace.

Tuany’s 50 students run the gamut. He teaches English to Sudanese parents, and Nuer to their Americanized kids. Nuer customs are listed on a hand-drawn poster on the center’s walls, where a child has written an explanatory note: “A woman is grinding corn for breakfast. They do it by labor.” Tellingly, the youth has written “They.”

Even Tuany’s office speaks of the sharp contrasts between Sudan and San Diego. A California flag hangs alongside sleek African woodcarvings. Giraffe hooves are neatly stenciled over his window, which looks out onto City Heights’ fast-food joints and immigrant markets.

“We are blessed to have this place,” Tuany says.

But the center has weathered its share of problems. Since last December, when the nonprofit moved into its Fairmount Avenue building, thieves have broken in and stolen computers. Funds have been scarce, squeezed from a small pool of foundations. Tuany earns less than $8,000 a year as director, according to the nonprofit’s last IRS filings. Despite those challenges, Tuany persists.

“The only way to remove their barrier is to go to school, and obtain employment,” Tuany says. “The family may not be able to help, but the children will have it. They have the chance to go out and do it, to succeed like anyone else, and to support their families.”

Tell me a bit about your personal story, and how you became involved in this work.

I migrated to San Diego County back in 1991 (at age 27) and I was one of the first refugees from the south of Sudan. I faced a lot of problems with being one of the first arrivals. Not knowing the culture. Not knowing the area. Not knowing where to look for a job, or to go to school. It was very hard for me for five years’ time in San Diego County.

One of the things that was brought to my attention is that when people come from the refugees camp, they have a lot of children that come with the highest expectation, knowing they’re coming to a better place than the place they used to be. Myself, I could be a resource to help them in the schools, making sure their children are learning and they come to a place where they can get employment or what they need in terms of social services. I will be there, translating, and navigating the cultural barriers.

What are the challenges facing schoolchildren who come to the U.S. from southern Sudan?

One of the major problems is the process of registration to the school. Some of the children came from refugee camps, and they’re 8 years or 10 years old. According to the American system of education they must begin class that is not related to their level, but to their age. If they are 8 years old, they must go to third grade. If they are 10, they start from fourth grade, instead of sitting in first grade because they have never gone to school in their lives. …They will be forced to attend school from fourth or fifth grade, in addition to all the other challenges they have.

What psychological or emotional impact does that have on those children? Do they feel bad about not being able to keep up?

For the family it’s very exciting, to see their children going to school for the first time. … But it can put a lot of stress on the family. …When the kids are enrolled, they come home with homework and they have stress. Teachers give paperwork to their children and say, “Give this to your family. Make sure they read your homework, make sure you bring your homework back.” The parents don’t know anything about the rules and regulations the school has.

What are some of the social issues that southern Sudanese children encounter in the U.S.?

Many were born in the refugee camp. They have a little idea what is going on, the reason they fled, that their country is still in civil war. Some of them do not have any idea at all about the civil war, about their movement from one place to another.

Those are the children that came at the age of one to five. … Sometimes you have a double culture within the same family. Because some children came from the camp, they have an idea of their own culture, while the ones who grew up in the American community are struggling with the process of learning, where did their family come from? They have language differences between those born in America and those that came from the refugee camp. There’s fighting between cultures in the same family, all in the same family. They don’t mingle.

What kind of misconceptions do the Sudanese children encounter from other kids in the classroom?

Most of the time when they start in school, the (Sudanese children) don’t know anything. Sometimes they’re looked down upon. They look like African-Americans but they don’t know how to speak English. And when they are going to the classroom they are quiet, they don’t talk, they don’t ask any questions. They are completely different. … But in a year or two, they learn from the other children.

What kind of progress have they been able to make through the program? Can they bridge that huge gap of coming into the third grade with no education?

Education is the greatest potential that they have. … But their family are the ones that have been bombarded by the school district, told, “Your children need to bring back the homework, they are failing so badly, they may be diagnosed with a learning deficit disorder, they may have some kind of cultural needs you need to deal with.”

So (the center) comes in to solve it. …We tell the family, drop your kid in the after-school program, and we will help them get to the highest standard, cover the ABCs they should learn from the beginning.

It sounds like it puts a lot of stress on the family itself, to keep children and parents connected, especially when the children think of themselves as American. Are there any particular stories that come to mind, of those kind of family situations?

Certain stories happen most of the time. Let’s say the widow. The widow is living alone, sometimes the kids do not listen to the mother. When that happens, the mother has a traumatic way of living.

The children are too many — maybe five or six or seven of them. The greatest problem is mental. She thinks of her life back in the country, and at the same time she’s dealing with her children and she doesn’t have any support. These problems are very sensitive. Sometimes we don’t even talk about it (publicly). The community leaders come into the family and discuss with the mother how she can handle this kind of crisis.

How has becoming a tutoring center under No Child Left Behind affected the work that the center does? Under NCLB, schools that have failed for several years are required to pay for outside tutoring. Centers such as Tuany’s seek state authorization to fill that niche. SSCC retains a paid, NCLB-certified teacher to supplement its volunteers.)

The tutoring program is a unique place for all children. When we qualified for No Child Left Behind, now the Sudanese children see other people coming in to join them. … It is a place they can see Hispanic children, Vietnamese children, African American children.

That really builds a relationship, like in school. When they go to school, they don’t only see Sudanese — they see other children as well. … We make sure there’s no differences, and they work together.

You mentioned that the center has had some problems staying afloat financially. What have been some of those problems?

We are a nonprofit in business for more than 10 years now, and keeping the center open is very difficult. Competition out there for funding is very substantial. … (We get some funding) but it’s not enough to cover our staff members, the building, insurance, utilities and the supplies. We have some staff who haven’t been paid for two months.

You also can’t contact the schoolteachers in San Diego Unified School District, or contact parents to sign up. (The school district prohibits tutors from doing so.) How does that affect the tutoring that you’re able to do?

The school district needs to make sure that the family makes the decision. We cannot solicit families to sign up for our program. That is a no-no with the school district. But we are allowed to have a workshop in the beginning of the school … to decide which provider they will sign with.

How closely do Sudanese kids follow what’s going on in the news? Is it something their families shield them from?

Sometimes they learn from the community in general. We have cultural days, and we explain we came from a war area. We celebrate World Refugee Day. … Some of it is within the tutoring program itself. Twice a week we tell them some type of story. … We teach them how we came out of that condition, and we want them to know. Because tomorrow you will be the world leaders, and you will have to respect international law.

What do you see as the main needs of the Sudanese refugee community in San Diego?

The main need we have now is education. There’s the education for the family, who need basic knowledge of English, so they can read to their own children. If they don’t read basic English there’s no way they can teach their children.

And the children also need to know that their parents are from a different, faraway environment. So don’t blame them when they can’t support you. Don’t abuse them because you know how to get along in the American community. We have a double way of education. Education to learn English, and education to know our culture. We need the children to respect that, and we need the family to help their children.

— Interview by EMILY ALPERT

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