This is a bit of an unusual post for us. Here’s the story: Through my church I recently became aware of a refugee situation in Lincoln involving a young South Sudanese man named Emmanuel Chol who recently lost his refugee status due to a couple charges of felony robbery that he pled guilty to as a 16-year-old.

He is now 19 and is set to be deported on May 28 if nothing changes between now and then. If he is deported, he is almost certainly going to be killed or pressed into military service. He was not born in South Sudan or Sudan, but in a refugee camp in Uganda. He has been in America since he was five. He does not speak Arabic.

Functionally speaking, the USA is arranging for his death as a consequence for robbery charges he received for something he did as a 16-year-old. This is plainly disproportionate punishment relative to the crime and is, therefore, unjust.

We are trying to use our platform here at Mere O to raise awareness of his situation and to protest the continued abuse of immigrants and refugees that has characterized our nation’s treatment of them for far too long. It predated the Trump administration, though obviously Trump has taken the cruelty to a higher level.

There are two interviews in this post.

First, Kyle Lindgren, a volunteer at the youth correctional center in Nebraska, and his wife Chelsea interviewed Busena Akaka, Emmanuel’s mother. Second, I interview Kyle about Emmanuel’s situation. (The transcript of the interview with Akaka has been lightly edited.)

Busena Akaka Interview

Kyle Lindgren: How did Emmanuel and your family end up in the United States and why?

Busena Akaka: We came here to the United States because of war. We came here in 2005 because of war. First, when we get here, we get in Chicago. A year after that, we moved to Georgia for seven months, and after that we came here.

Chelsea Lindgren: What was it like in Sudan?

BA: The Muslim people and Christian people, they fight each other, the Muslim people, they want to take over. They want everybody Christian to be Muslim. That’s why they kill people, and get them to kill the kids and get the boys to get involved. That’s why we run away to another country, to (become) refugee(s), looking (for) where we can find peace. So, we went to Kenya, and then from Kenya went to Mozambique, and then from Mozambique, we came here. So, we traveled so many places so we can find peace. Everywhere we went to, no peace, and then, when we came here, we thanked God because we find peace here in America.

KL: How long did it take for you guys to get to Kenya? What was that trip like?

BA: First, from Sudan, to get to Ethiopia, it take three months walking, and then-

CL: How many kids did you have at this time?

BA: That time, when I walked from Sudan to Ethiopia, I was alone.

CL: You were alone?

BA: Yeah, I was alone. So, we walked from Sudan. I walked from Sudan when I was 11 years old, no parents, only by myself.

CL: Oh my goodness.

BA: So, just follow people, no food, no water. We drink dirty water, sewer where it lives, until we reach refugees’ camp in Ethiopia. Then, in ’91, the president, Mengistu Haile Mariam, (was overthrown and fled the country), and then they took the Sudanese away from Ethiopia, too, so we ran away. I was all alone. I don’t have nobody. I didn’t find my mother yet. Then, we ran away back to Sudan, southern Sudan.

Then, in a place called Kapoeta, I found my mom over there looking for me. Then, with my mom, we walked only two months and a half to Southern Sudan. Then, in Southern Sudan, no peace there. We ran away to Uganda. When we go to Uganda, we walk one month and a half, and then all those who walk in by walking, no cars, no food, no nothing, no clothes. We’re just walking. Then, we went to a refugees’ camp in Mozambique.

Then, after Mozambique we went to also Uganda, and then where I get Emmanuel. Emmanuel was born in Uganda. Then, from Uganda, we traveled again to different place. There was no food over there, and the people of that country we were in, they don’t like refugees in that place. We went another place called Malawi. Then, from Malawi, we go back to Mozambique, and then from Mozambique we travel to America. We find resettlement to bring us here.

CL: So, for five years you traveled with Emmanuel and your other kids, so four kids total, trying to find a place of peace.

BA: Yes. From place to place, four kids, and Emmanuel was very young. Sometimes, they don’t have food. I give them dirty water, and I beg people to give us food because I don’t have someone who can help. So, I’m just traveling place to place so I can find peace with my kids.

CL: Right. Was your mom with you then or no?

BA: No. After that, my mom, she wasn’t with me. When I have Emmanuel, my mom, she wasn’t with me. When we ran away from Sudan, my mom went to a different place to find food for us. After that, people were bombing over there, and we ran away. We left my mom. Until I came here, I never see my mom. When I came here I heard that my mom was in Juba, Southern Sudan, then I sent some money for my mom to buy some clothes and some food.

My mom, she was a Christian. I sent her $100, and then she said that’s a lot of money. She can’t eat alone. She bought food to go and give the church people and (used some money) to buy some clothes for the kids who don’t have (any). Then, the rebel people found her and said, “We need that food. What do you have?” Then they said, “You take some money and give (us) some because we don’t want to give any to the orphan kids.” Then my mom, she don’t want to give them (the money). So they kill her.

CL: Oh my goodness.

BA: Yeah.

CL: I’m so sorry.

BA: They killed her because of food in Southern Sudan.

CL: Oh, my goodness.

BA: Yeah.

CL: How long ago was that?

BA: 2007

CL: 2007?

BA: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

CL: I’m so sorry.

BA: Yeah, so a lot of things going on in Sudan, and even right now, the people say they sign a peace, but later on six months, two months, they fight against each other. Tribe to tribe they fight each other. Southern Sudan and North Sudan, nothing changed up to now. So yes, people ran from place to place, people suffering. They don’t have no food. If you don’t have nobody over there, you can’t eat, and you can’t drink. When you don’t have nobody over there, they treat you badly. Yeah, nothing changed at all in Sudan.

CL: So, there’s no more family over there besides your son?

BA: I don’t have no family over there, only my son.

CL: Did you ever find out what happened to them?

BA: All of them, they’ve been killed. My daddy, he died with hunger. He was running away to Nuba Mountain, and then it was really hot and he had no shoes. He died with the hot and no water.

CL: From the heat?

BA: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

CL: How long ago was that?

BA: That was ’92.

CL: So, you were just a child.

BA: There you are.

CL: Oh, my stars, yeah. So then, it was just your mom raising you guys.

BA: Yeah, my mom raising me, and I am raising my kid without that, too. Well, three kids, they don’t have no dad. Their daddies passed away. They been killed, too.

CL: By the rebels?

BA: Yes.

CL: Then, Emmanuel’s dad, he’s-

BA: Emmanuel’s dad is here, but we don’t know where he is right now. Mm-hmm (affirmative), we don’t know where he is.

CL: And Emmanuel doesn’t speak Arabic, so he does not even know the language (in Sudan)?

BA: He don’t speak it because he came here when he was five years. He don’t know Arabic. He don’t speak Arabic. He is like American because he come here very young.

KL: Could you give a little bit more detail of traveling with Emmanuel around, before you came to America? How many different refugee camps did you go to? How many different countries did you go before you came to America, with Emmanuel?

BA: With Emmanuel? I got Emmanuel in Uganda. From Uganda, we went to a place called Malawi. From Malawi, we went to a place called Zambia. That was with Emmanuel. So, that’s all the places I went because I need better place so I can find resettlement (in the United States). When I go to (some camps), they said no settlement over there, and I was by myself. The people who were there, there is no Sudanese over there. I would like to find a place that is Sudanese so I can communicate with them. So, I traveled from place to place because I needed to find a better place with my kids. So, we went-

KL: Walking, you walked everywhere.

BA: Walking, I put my luggage, on my (head), and carried Emmanuel on my back, and the kids, one hand to another kids, and then we reached. Then, when we go there, we can’t find peace. No food over there also for the kids. Then we travel a place called Mozambique. The Mozambique, over there, we find a little place, and people, they say that it’s a resettlement over there. Then, I waited over there for resettlement to come here. They gave me four years waiting for resettlement to come here. I waited four years, and the fifth year, in 2005, I travel to come here.

CL: Did you know English when you came here?

BA: No, I don’t know English.

CL: Yeah, so was that hard to try and get everything figured out?

BA: Yeah, it was very hard. But, when you don’t know English, when you tell your history, there is a translator, people helping people. If (the Americans) know your history is very interesting, they bring you here. If your history is not interesting, they don’t bring you here. They bring me here because of my history. It was very strong history, and it was true, true history.

CL: Because of all the trials you faced over there in Sudan?

BA: Yeah, I tell them. That’s why they bring me in America to have peace.

CL: That’s why they let you come here.

BA: Yes.

KL: What do you think will happen to Emmanuel, if he’s deported to South Sudan?

BA: If they deport Emmanuel to South Sudan, they deport him to death because nothing has changed. They force kids, especially kids who are healthy, and they are good, they will send them into work right away, and they give them a gun. They teach them. If you don’t want, you have to do it. If you don’t want it, they beat you up, and they can break you, and they can kill you. You have to do whatever they tell you to do. That’s death.

CL: Do you think that they would target him, too, for being more American or would that cause any issues, if they view him as an American?

BA: If you deport over there, they see you are a bad person. They do whatever they want because you are not American. If (the Americans) deported you, they don’t like you.

CL: They think America doesn’t like you, and you’re a bad person.

BA: That’s why they kill you. They do whatever they want to do (with) you.

CL: So then, he’s already stamped with a mark of-

BA: Yes.

KL: That’s a lot. That’s an unreal amount of information. With all that, if I remember correctly, you’ve told at least the majority of that to the judge during the immigration case.

BA: I do. I told (the) judge everything that happened. The kids, you send them from here, you don’t send them for peace, but you send them for death. We came here to have peace, and you can’t separate me with the kids and send the kids and leave the parents here. It’s better you deport all the family there. But, if you deport the child over there, what he is going to do over there without no parents? Someone who came here very young age is like an American. He don’t speak Arabic. Who are you going to communicate with? Nobody. I told judge everything.

KL: Well, I’m thankful that we get the opportunity to hear that. It’s unreal.

CL: We really appreciate you taking your time to share your story.

Interviewing Kyle Lindgren About Emmanuel Chol’s Situation

Jake Meador: Can you tell me a bit about Emmanuel? How did you get to know him?

Kyle Lindgren: I met Emmanuel through the Juvenile Justice Ministry of Youth for Christ. We taught Bible studies, ran clubs and life skills programs in the Juvenile Detention Center(JDC) in Lincoln. Emmanuel would come to our Bible studies and clubs. He is a South Sudanese Refugee and was brought up Christian, but somewhere in his young life he strayed. 

JM: What happened when he was 16 that caused his refugee status to change?

KL: When he was 16-year-old he was arrested and charged with multiple felony robberies and was placed into adult court. During his trial (it took about a year) he remained at JDC and I got to know him very well. Emmanuel is unlike any other kid I’ve mentored. He’s genuine and a good friend. He would sit and talk to me for an hour when he could have been playing cards like his peers. He would ask me questions about the Bible every week. He told many stories of his childhood. He would tell me often that he feels bad for the stress he put on his mom. He was afraid to tell her the deportation verdict. 

He ended up pleading guilty to multiple counts of felony robbery as a 16-year-old and was sentenced to 14-30 years in prison. He could parole in seven years.  Being too young to be put in an “adult” prison they transferred him to Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility (NCYF), a prison for juveniles sentenced as adults. They can stay at that facility until they are 21 years and 10 months old. At that time they can be transferred to one of the other adult facilities. 

JM: Can you tell me more about his trial with the immigration court?

KL: I also volunteered at that NCYF and continued my mentoring relationship with him. I have spent countless hours in one-on-one conversation with him and have gotten to know him really well. I was there when he received the papers telling him that his refugee status was going to trial, and I spent time helping him work through what the papers were asking of him. 

He would often tell me that he didn’t understand the paperwork, and I foolishly assumed he had a lawyer that was gonna help explain all of that. I was wrong. He represented himself. 

I sat at his immigration trial and listened to his mother describe the danger he would be in if he was deported to South Sudan. He has almost no family in South Sudan, except his half-brother who has already been recruited by the rebels and is on the run. They don’t hear from him anymore.

With all this information being presented to the judge and lawyers I thought once again, foolishly, that there was no way they would send a 19-year-old to his likely death in a country he has never actually lived in. I was wrong again. On April 28th, 2020 the verdict came down that they would deport him to South Sudan. He only has 30 days to appeal. That is when I woke up to what was happening to him.

JM: One thing that I noticed about this is that you had certain ideas about how the system ought to work that were so obvious to you that you just assumed it was true. And this case is making you question those assumptions. Is that fair? Can you talk a bit about that process?

KL: I made lots of assumptions for sure. I assumed someone was defending Emmanuel. I assumed that America would never deport someone to a war-torn country. I assumed that a judge would hear the reasonable fear of death for a refugee and decide it was sufficient to keep them here. I am questioning many things now. It all boils down to the fact that I was ignorant to the injustices happening to refugee and immigrant families. Now I wonder how many other Americans are making the same false assumptions? And what can we do to fight for those without anyone to defend them?

JM: What is Emmanuel’s current status?

KL: We got to work on finding Emmanuel a lawyer, and the Christian community and broader Lincoln community has been responding. I started a fundraiser for his lawyer fees via Facebook and within 16 hours we had raised our first goal of $3500 for the immigration lawyer’s retainer. As of today he has met via phone conference with his lawyer and they are working on the appeal in order to get it moving before the 30 days are up.

Conclusion

At this point we are trying to raise awareness about Emmanuel’s situation. So please be praying that his attorney would act quickly and that the judge who hears the appeal would respond favorably.

Additionally, if you live in Nebraska, call Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse and alert them to the situation.

Here are their DC office phone numbers:

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry: (202) 225-4806
Sen. Deb Fischer: (202) 224-6551
Sen. Ben Sasse: (202) 224-4224

If you want to get involved with serving refugees in your area, contact local organizations that already assist refugees in your area. In Lincoln, Catholic Social Services and Lutheran Family Services are two of the main organizations working with our refugee community.

If you want to learn more about the situation in Sudan, you can read about one particular group of refugees, often referred to as the “lost boys” in They Poured Fire on Us from the Skies. The Vox explainer on the specific issues in South Sudan is also worth reading. You can learn more about how the politics of colonialism have shaped contemporary Africa from reading Emmanuel Katongole’s Sacrifice of Africa.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.