In this interview, two former child refugees from Sudan discuss how they are working to provide assistance to the South Sudanese displaced by the deadly conflict that began December 15. Both men have joined four others to form an initiative called the Mal Clinic –“mal” means “peace”–which they envision will provide medical assistance during the crisis.
“Half a million people have been displaced. They need medical attention. They need food and shelter. They need places where they can live,” said Manyang Reath, a refugee from age 3-18 who, after finding his way to the United States, founded Humanity Helping Sudan, where he serves as CEO.
Mr. Reath and Ger Duany, a former child solider, are calling on the South Sudanese diaspora to help. “Even though [the diaspora] might be aware by now [of the crisis], they still need to be engaged,” said Mr. Reath. “Many of us here… have contributed a lot to the community—for instance, sending books to schools, shoes, money, and other things that could help.”
Describing the current state of these refugees, Mr. Reath said, “Children are forced [by the conflict] to go to United Nations compounds, live there—women give birth inside UN compounds. This is an unstable situation…you’re placed in one center and become susceptible to diarrhea, cholera, and all diseases that you might not become infected when staying in your own home. It’s a mess.”
As a child, Mr. Reath spent 13 years in a refugee camp on the Sudanese/Ethiopian border. “Living in camps is hard to define because you’re put there to live in one place…The only way you can move is when the UN decides to put you in another camp for security or medical reasons.” He said the camp is also a place where diseases spread easily. “If someone coughs TB, everybody will get sick. And that’s a life in the camp.”
Ger Duany, who was forcefully recruited into being a child soldier before making his way to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, said that child soldiers are still recruited in South Sudan, adding that, “many kids are being lured into it because they have no choice.”
“It is not like they have a process of how to recruit people. The entire area becomes subject to violence. It’s not safe, and everybody wants to protect themselves and their families. And I think that’s the one thing that lured me into being a child soldier, too,” he said.
Mr. Duany said that international agencies should focus on evacuating South Sudanese refugees all the way to the border, “where they can be safe.”
The interview was conducted by Waleed Alhariri, Research Assistant in the Middle East program at the International Peace Institute.
Waleed Alhariri: Today, I welcome Manyang Reath and Ger Duany to the Global Observatory. Manyang is a founder and CEO of Humanity Helping Sudan, which provides aid and assistance to the Sudanese diaspora in Ethiopia along the eastern border of South Sudan. Ger is a South Sudanese actor and a model based in the United States. Both Manyang and Ger were refugees for most of their lives, and after coming to the US, they decided to work in providing assistance to refugees, especially those fleeing the current conflict from South Sudan. Thank you for speaking with us today.
Manyang, what is the situation like for civilians in South Sudan?
Manyang Reath: The situation in South Sudan has escalated to become an ethnic conflict. It did not start like this, and we thought we had enough war. However, as of December 15, we find 15,000 individuals killed and half a million forced to go to bordering countries like Ethiopia and Kenya. Children are forced [by the conflict] to go to United Nations compounds, live there—women give birth inside UN compounds. This is an unstable situation…you’re placed in one center and become susceptible to diarrhea, cholera, and all diseases that you might not become infected when staying in your own home. It’s a mess.
I was also a refugee for 13 years in Ethiopia. I lived from one camp to another. And in 2005, I came to the US with the help of Catholic charities and a group of Lost Boys that gave resettlements to come to the United States.
WA: Ger, you were forcefully recruited as a child soldier during the second Sudanese civil war before fleeing to Ethiopia where you sought refuge. Are child soldiers still recruited in South Sudan today?
Ger Duany: Well, the child soldier situation still exists, and many kids are being lured into it because they have no choice. The entire environment is awful and surrounded by fights. So, we didn’t have many choices in the past, or even now, as the current situation shows on the ground.
It is not like they have a process of how to recruit people. The entire area becomes subject to violence. It’s not safe, and everybody wants to protect themselves and their families. And I think that’s the one thing that lured me into being a child soldier, too.
WA: Manyang, significant numbers of South Sudanese refugees are currently fleeing to neighboring countries, particularly to Ethiopia, and to the same camps where you and Ger grew up. What are the living conditions like in these refugee camps today?
MR: Living in camps is hard to define because you’re put there to live in one place. You’re not allowed to move from this one place. The only way you can move is when the UN decides to put you in another camp for security or medical reasons. You live there 24 hours, and you only eat one meal a day. They give you wheat, corn, or lentils, and that’s what you eat throughout. It gets you sick by itself. That’s only what they give you. One meal a day cannot serve you. Human beings don’t want to live in one place without moving for over twenty days, ten days, or even five days because they get tired of eating the same food every day. Camps also attract a lot of diseases. If someone coughs TB, everybody will get sick. And that’s a life in the camp.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees could only assist half of what happens to refugees. They only give you one ration/cot a day, and then the rest of it is up to you. They don’t have enough equipment to help all these people, especially right now, when half a million have fled to Ethiopia, and are not going back anytime soon.
So, it’s very difficult to help those groups of tired people. They come from different backgrounds—they’re not just Nuer alone. There are other groups like Shilluk, Anuak Dinka, and more, who are fearful for their life now
GD: Allow me to add that the idea of being a refugee is to just keep yourself in survival mode until maybe your situation changes. People struggle in refugee camps. From my past memories, there’s not a lot of activities that you can really do beside really being in one place, like he said, and the activities are very limited, and food is very limited as well. But it is because people have no choice—that’s the reason they are in the refugee camps. There’s nothing they can do.
WA: Both of you, along with four others, have launched a local organization for refugees called Mal Clinic. Ger, what services will it offer, and when it will start its work on the ground?
GD: Well, “mal” actually means “peace.” It’s a peace clinic, and our mission is to respond to the emergency of the suffering of our own people. Right now, in the condition that they’re enduring. It’s a temporary clinic. We are just setting it up, and the service that we will be offering is medical service—because there’s a lot of people that got hurt during this civil war. We don’t have the numbers of how many people were hurt, but we know there are about 20,000 people dead. So, many kids and women and innocent people are being hurt by guns in the crossfire in Juba. So Mal Clinic will try to help by aiding wounded people who are still alive.
So, it’s a collaborative effort of former refugee kids who came here to United States and went to school here. Some of us are nurses and some of us are doctors; some on the ground, even in Nairobi and Addis Ababa, and some here in United States. You met Laul nyang Nyak, who is a registered nurse. So we are giving back to our community by going and helping them ourselves, along with our friends who are Americans that would like to invest their time to help other people. That’s what Mal Clinic is.
WA: Are you planning on coordinating with international agencies such as the Red Cross or the Doctors Without Borders or the UN refugee agency?
GD: Yes, we are very open to work with anybody that’s really concerned about humanity. And all those organizations you just mentioned always have impact on the plight of refugees. We would be happy if anybody comes to collaborate with us. It would be a huge lift for us.
WA: Manyang, what are the key challenges ahead for South Sudanese refugees, and where should these international agencies be focusing their efforts, in your view?
MR: Well, the first thing is trying to get the war stopped; this is the first thing. The second thing is trying to rally all the diaspora community in the United States, because those people have a lot of influence. They should focus on how to get all the diaspora aware of the crisis. Even though [the diaspora] might be aware by now [of the crisis], they still need to be engaged. Many of us here—me and Ger, and other people—have contributed a lot to the community—for instance, sending books to schools, shoes, money, and other things that could help.
One person can spend up to $300 to $4,000 a year to visit Sudan. So, we have a big influence, and this is one thing that we should rally around. Ger wrote about the idea that we should, all of these Sudanese, get together in a public forum where Sudanese in diaspora can talk about the issue of peace, an idea that I very much support. And I mentioned this idea to the US Institute of Peace and many others. If you put the diaspora community together, you have a mighty strong chance of helping.
The challenge we are going to face is the far distance from where we currently live: Ethiopia, where we are going to build a Mal Clinic, is 7,000 miles away. It is going to be difficult to convince people here that we could do something, because they might say, “It’s not having an effect on me anyhow.” Helping ordinary people understand that we could really do something, and that the world is very connected, is a challenge. Look at Wall Street and its relation to the economy. If something happens to Wall Street, it will affect you indirectly.
Half a million people have been displaced. They need medical attention. They need food and shelter. They need places where they can live.
While we may be interested in helping them because we originally are from there, this should be considered by the international community, that people are displaced and need help. Help is what we need to be doing. Getting international backing is the other challenge that we are facing too.
I don’t have all the energy to do everything. Ger and I don’t have resources to do everything. But with every little bit of contribution from everyone, and by helping us do our contribution, we can do huge things. The Mal Clinic will start its field work in less than two weeks. We need donors to contribute and people who have energy and believe in the cause.
GD: If I may add that IDPs is now a national issue, like he is saying, people living in South Sudan are really struggling. I think international agencies should also focus on how to evacuate those refugees all the way to the border, where they can be safe. Some people in South Sudan might even face challenges from the government of South Sudan. They don’t feel safe, because some of their families are being killed already. International organizations should provide some medical care to those on the ground, in addition to those who have left already the country. So that’s one thing they should also do.
WA: Do you have any additional thoughts or observations you want to share before we close this interview?
MR: We just want everybody to come and support us. This is our thought. This is a very big venture we took upon ourselves. We want to ask the United Nations to get involved because they are in a bigger position to help now. We hope that they can take that into consideration and help bring about the peace in South Sudan, as well call up on individuals to help us.
GD: Well, since some of us are now Americans, South Sudanese who live here and pay taxes and vote in this country and hold dual citizenship, should still support our families on the ground. We have an influence on the ground.
WA: Thank you.