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Elizabeth Lou was luckier than most refugees. She was an educated woman with a degree in public health and a good grip on English. Yet she struggled to make sense of her new world.

Even the buses were baffling. In Sudan she would board the bus and a man would come to collect money and give her the change. In San Diego there was just a little box next to the driver. Nothing was explained. Everyone seemed to expect her to know it all automatically.

Bit by bit Lou made her way — and she decided she would make the way easier for women like her. Roughly a decade ago, Lou founded the Nile Sisters Development Initiative, a nonprofit that helps refugee women adjust to the United States. It links newcomers to job training and health care and provides lessons in nutrition, preschool and conflict resolution.

When I stopped by to see her this week, the University Avenue office was packed with immigrant families waiting for their annual Christmas giveaway of diapers, dish soap and other necessities. Lou mimed how to use their new mouthwash, apologized for not having enough detergent for everyone, and somehow managed to field my questions in the middle of it all.

What kind of support was there — or not there — when you first got here?

I didn’t see much support. That’s why it hit me. I was working as a community educator with a health clinic, knocking people’s doors and talking to women to see how they are coping with the new life here.

In Africa, most of our women are indoors. They don’t work and oftentimes they did not go to school. I put myself in their situation. I went to school in my country in English and I can read and write and I’m not scared of talking to people — and yet I am struggling to get things done. How much more are they struggling?

The big challenge for refugees is health services, getting jobs and education. You have to know how to use the Medi-Cal. You have to have primary health care. You have to have a health plan like Kaiser or Molina. You have to choose one. Who can educate the refugees on all this and that?

Plus there are differences in culture. In my culture, time is not an issue. If I have an appointment I can show up one hour late, it’s okay. Nobody freaks out. Because I believe the sun will rise and set and rise again. If I did not finish something today, I will finish it tomorrow. But here, time is very precious. Everything is like this (snaps her fingers three times). It’s overwhelming.

How did you first become a refugee?

I was born and raised in war. I never stay in one place. When the first war started, my parents took refuge to Uganda. I started my education there. In 1972 the Sudan government and the rebels came to agreement, so my parents came back and I went to school and started learning Arabic.

How many languages do you speak now?

(Lou pauses, starts laughing.) I speak Arabic very very well. I speak Swahili very well. I speak Acholi, my mother tongue Mari, and Zande, and a little bit of Dinka, a little bit of Nuer …

(Lou was still thinking when someone asked what to give to a man with eight kids. I forgot to ask her to finish. Including English it’s at least eight.)

So I finished high school. I got married. I made babies. In 1988 we came to Khartoum — I’m from south Sudan, from Juba — and we were there for eight years and that’s when I got my first degree in public health. When you are a southerner and you are learned, the government becomes suspicious. They’re concerned that you may be passing information on what is happening to southerners. You don’t have opportunity to get a job. Only if you call yourself Khadija or Fatima or change your religion.

To sound more northern.

(Nods.) So we decided to look for asylum. We came to Kenya and we were there three years. Then the United Nations posted us here to the U.S.

I heard that one of your sons had to stay behind.

Yeah. Yeah. When war intensified (pauses, sighs) — it is a long story. My son was 20 months old and he went to visit his grandparents with his aunties. You know in Africa, all child is everybody’s child.

We never knew we were going to separate. Just for a short time. When he was there in the village things got tense and there was no communication, no transport between us and that village. So we are cut. Then we had to come to Khartoum and that was the end of it. No communication at all.

A few months they would stay in one place, a few months in another. He couldn’t go to school. You don’t even have materials. No books. No nothing. No building where you can sit and study. When we came to Kenya, my husband went and found him. He had no education, so all of us in the family became teachers. “This is a table. This is a cup.”

He is very bright. When we got here he was 12, and he was not placed to school according to how much he knows, but according to his age. That’s what is happening with all these refugees. They go right into high school.

(Someone asks about diapers. Lou gets up.)

Ah, I don’t know where we stopped.

You were talking about what school was like here.

He was placed in grade seven. You can just imagine a child who is struggling to learn A, B, C, 1, 2, 3, my eyes, my nose — to go to grade seven with the rest. He worked very, very hard. His grades were all perfect. When he got a C he cried. He graduated with distinction from Crawford and he went to UC- Santa Cruz. Now he is an army officer.

What are some of the challenges for refugees in dealing with the schools?

In Kenya and Uganda, students stay in one classroom. Here it is so difficult to know where is Room 101 or building such-and-so. And sports! When you make a goal they say, “Go home, go home!” My daughter heard that and took her bag and went home! (Laughs.)

Parents are invited for school open house. But when parents get there, they don’t know what to do. We need to educate them that you get to talk to the teachers. They feel maybe scared to go. Because they are coming from a system where you don’t question, you don’t ask authority.

And in some cultures when a child is sent to school, the success of the child is entirely on the teachers. Parents have nothing to do with it. And if they still have that thinking, it doesn’t fly here.

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you want to add?

We are a small organization but we do a triple job of work in our community. The community loves our service, just as you can see. We do it out of passion. But funding is our challenge. Funding is a big, big issue.

Correction: The original version of this story misidentified the location of the organization’s office. It is located on University Avenue. My apologies for the error.

Interview conducted and edited by Emily Alpert. Please contact her directly at or 619.550.5665.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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