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How refugees in Alaska feed families facing famine in Africa

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 1, 2017
  • Published July 1, 2017

William Riek straightens up the shelves at Banadir Halal Market at Boniface Parkway and Northern Lights Boulevard in Anchorage on Friday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Famine and civil war are real at a storefront grocery in East Anchorage.

South Sudanese men come in one by one with cash to send to a country where years of fighting have displaced millions of people and created epidemics of starvation and disease.

"You know it is not easy to distance yourself from where you came from," said William Riek, who was working behind the counter Thursday.

"It's not easy, because some of our mothers and fathers are still alive there, and it's hard to let them die because there is no food, or no clothes on them, or no treatment. You have to help them. You have to give them money," he said.

But these Alaskans don't have much money. African refugees I spoke to work as guards and cleaners, jobs with modest wages. In summer many leave town for fish canneries and hotels.

Peter Biel sends money to his brother, sister, uncle and cousin in South Sudan. He works part time as a janitor in an Anchorage church, struggling to cover rent on an apartment.

After paying bills, he sends whatever is left.

"They need it," Biel said. "But also the culture is different where I am from. Mostly, we share things. If you have something and your brother has nothing to eat, you give."

The United Nations warned in March that 20 million people were at risk of starvation in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen due to famine that could be the worst since World War II.

America is not the problem. Although President Donald Trump has called for huge cuts to foreign aid, bipartisan support in Congress has made the U.S. a leader in sending support. Large food shipments recently arrived in South Sudan.

But according to a Red Cross official quoted by the Voice of America, 6 million people in the country remain short of food and are going hungry and 1 million children are acutely malnourished. With the population displaced by the civil war, cholera is tearing through overcrowded communities.

The problem is politics. South Sudan is rich in oil, but has been wracked by war for decades — first a fight for independence from Sudan, and then, beginning in 2013, a civil war dividing the majority Dinka tribe and the Nuer, the second-largest ethnic group.

William Riek straightens up the shelves at Banadir Halal Market at Boniface Parkway and Northern Lights Boulevard in Anchorage on Friday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Riek said most of the South Sudanese in Alaska are Nuer, like him. Facial marks distinguish them.

The war has included genocidal atrocities. The hatred feeds on itself and carries over even to Alaska, where refugees follow the news closely.

Riek said the area where his family lives was free of fighting until Dinka-backed government forces recently arrived. He has nothing good to say about them.

Last year, I wrote about his long journey from doing eye surgery in Africa to living as a single father in Anchorage, where he found safety but could work only as a clerk because he couldn't afford medical training here.

The column brought out a flood of support from readers. Riek got his training and landed a good job at a transitional housing facility. He now works overnight, allowing him to be home in the day with four children. He was only filling in at the grocery.

But it has been a hard year. In September, Riek's 19-year-old son was arrested for a murder in the Campbell Airstrip Road area.

William said he cannot believe his son is guilty, but he also talked about the difficulty of keeping young men safe from bad influences in America's public housing and high schools.

In Africa, the community disciplined children together, teaching them respect and shaming bad behavior. The older generation carried that culture to America, but those who have grown up here don't understand it.

"They speak themselves fluent English, and they think there is no difference between them and the culture here," he said. "The culture with no respect, the culture with drugs, the culture with violence."

Each time I've visited the store, the men have greeted me with big smiles and firm handshakes and volunteered their names. They are open and friendly.

But Alaska can be a hard place for them. Some have trouble finding work. Others dislike the cold.

Riek misses the feeling of owning the place he lived in — a stone house, ground for cultivating crops and a river for fishing. Here his people live in crowded apartments at the mercy of landlords.

"In Africa, it is good. There is soil. Life should be easy for them. But when there is fighting, it is hard," he said.

Lul Minyik put a couple of hundred-dollar bills on the counter to send to family in Ethiopia. He has a long list of recipients in his file with the Ria money transfer agency. It is a record of the many people back in Africa he has helped.

Minyik has lived in Alaska for 10 years and in the United States for 20. He works as a security guard and a court language interpreter. He described figuring out how much money he needs for his bills and sending the rest.

Like other Africans in Anchorage, Minyik follows immigration news closely, including Trump's travel ban, which could affect many of these men's families.

"I don't know why they make it so difficult," he said. "It's really messed up now."

Minyik said his family has been unable to farm because of warfare in their area. They don't have enough to eat.

I asked if they are safe.

"They're safe," he said. Then he stopped himself. "Not really safe. But they still say that."

The desire to keep these people away from our country mystifies me. Their respectfulness and work ethic are obvious. The suffering of those left behind is unimaginable.

The anti-immigration movement represents ignorance and fear. America should stand for courage and generosity. We have so much power to help.

These Africans can help teach us those good values.

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(at)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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