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From eye surgery to grocery clerk, a Sudanese father's journey to safety in Anchorage

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 27, 2016
  • Published August 27, 2016

In South Sudan, William Riek performed eye surgery and practiced dentistry. Today he works at an ethnic grocery in East Anchorage, a center of the Sudanese community, while raising four children of his own. Photographed at Banadir Halal Market on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

In Africa, William Riek operated on more than 600 people to save their vision. In Anchorage, he sits behind the counter at an ethnic grocery store and cannot afford the training to be a nurse's assistant.

But he's happy to be here. In South Sudan, war was nearly constant. Riek witnessed bombardment of civilians and the death of children from malnourishment. He was displaced in 1983 and moved many times, spending years in refugee camps with his family. He cleaned battlefield wounds.

In Alaska he is safe. He is raising four children on his own, since his wife died two years ago. A daughter attending UAA hopes to become a doctor, but Riek has left medicine behind.

"This is why I am not doing anything about it: I have other things to take care of," he said. "I am happy that my daughter, she will fulfill what I am not."

We spent several hours talking at the Banadir Halal Market at Boniface Parkway and East Northern Lights Boulevard, a small shop where you can buy mango cookies, frozen goat and other products Africans remember from home. At the back of the shop is a coffeepot and a collection of mismatched chairs where members of the Sudanese community sit for conversation every afternoon.

Everyone I met offered a smile and shook my hand. I never saw Riek sell anything, but he did help a customer send money back to family in South Sudan. The young man counted out small bills for the transaction and said, "To me, family always comes first."

I was struck by Riek's humility and calm. We are the same age and our children were born about the same time. Our sons probably see each other in the halls of East High.

But he is fluent in four languages and I speak only one. I was born into a life of choices, growing up in Anchorage. Riek fought his way here on a path I can barely imagine.

Riek's father farmed a small plot and had five or six cows. During the dry season the family drove the cattle to a distant pasture until the wet season returned.

When South Sudan's war of independence started in 1983, Riek escaped to Ethiopia. But war wracked Ethiopia too and in 1991 he returned to Sudan and spent time in Kenya. Millions of people have died in these endless wars.

Doctors Without Borders and other organizations trained him to be a health aide. Riek said he is only a doctor when no doctor is available.

He cleaned and extracted teeth and filled cavities. He operated on patients with trachoma, an infectious disease common among people without water to bathe, which damages the eyelids, turning eyelashes against the eye and eventually causing blindness.

In an operation Riek performed many times, he cut and stitched the eyelid so it would function normally, saving the eye. But he could do only one eye at a time. The clinic where he worked was so busy, there were no beds for his patients. He would leave one eye open so they could find their way home on foot. When the first eye healed, they would come back for him to fix the other one.

William Riek performs an operation on a patient’s eyelid to correct a problem caused by trachoma in Sudan in 1991. The disease turns the eyelid inside out, causing the eyelash to damage the eye. (Courtesy William Riek)

"When you help somebody in an honorable fashion, it's a good feeling for me," he said. "If you get a gift of doing something, why not do it? Because it is not from you. It comes from God. That is what I was feeling very good about. Even now."

In 1994, Riek and his family again fled to Ethiopia, spending four years in a grass hut in a refugee camp. He assisted doctors by giving injections and IVs and taking vital signs. He also started a small shop selling food staples in the camp.

But one day, soldiers arrived and loaded everyone into open trucks. Riek had time to take only the money from the till in his shop. They drove three days, exposed to dust and cold nights, including pregnant women and children, and were left in a remote area.

It was there that he met an American refugee worker offering forms to request resettlement to the United States. He made it to Salt Lake City in 1999.

Coming to America was difficult. Riek's wife was upset by the cold. Simple things caused embarrassment, like trying to figure out how American showers work without getting scalded.

"We laugh at ourselves," he said. "When you do something you're not supposed to do, you're frustrated, you're ashamed, but you have to laugh at yourself."

Living in Omaha and Portland, Riek got his General Education Development diploma and a Nebraska certificate as a nurse's assistant. He arrived in Alaska in 2010 but cannot afford the $2,000 training to get a certificate here.

Prejudice as well as poverty makes life difficult. Riek said most people in Anchorage are friendly — the police here don't stop him for no reason, as they did down south — but some people, as he put it, are rude.

His friend Mike Stichick said the prejudice goes far beyond rudeness. A retired engineer, Stichick helps South Sudanese refugees through Anchor Park United Methodist Church.

In 2007, William Riek returned to his hometown in South Sudan with a load of eyeglasses provided by a United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon. (Courtesy William Riek)

Stichick said his Sudanese friends endure abuse and exclusion for their accented English, dark skin and tribal face markings. Applying for work is difficult for those unable to read and write in English and unfamiliar with the Internet.

Riek agreed. He said people don't know where to find help, and he and the church can only do so much.

But kind people have helped along the way. His church in Portland helped him take a load of eyeglasses back to his hometown, where his siblings still live.

Life is ever harder there, with climate change and continuing tribal civil war. As crops fail, people turn to hunting and gathering. But when Riek visited recently, his family slaughtered a bull. Old friends came from miles around to see him.

I imagine they must be proud that he came from there. I know I am proud that he comes from here.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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