By Utami Kusumawati
It was the lowest moment in her life. Khamisa Abdulla was tired of everything. She felt constantly nauseous and wanted only to sleep.
She and her seven children had been struggling to live in Cairo, where they had been waiting for almost two years to hear about their application for refugee status. The family had fled war-torn Sudan in 1998 and now were in limbo in Egypt.
“I didn’t know whether my husband was still alive or not,” Abdulla said. “It was so hard living there because people started to take advantage once they knew you were refugees.”
After recently thwarting an attempt by some Egyptian men to kidnap her sons into a sex-trafficking ring, she was feeling the weight of being a single parent to her daughter and six sons. She was so lonely and desperately wanted to talk with other adults.
She also was homesick for her village in the Nuba Mountains and missed her mother, Toma Kambal. Abdulla would daydream about her modest house, a store that she turned into a residence after the Sudanese government bombed the family’s previous house. They had everything — clean water, television, good furniture, nice clothes and health insurance. She worked as a math and science tutor for wealthy students.
But the family was not safe there. A civil war between the government and rebel groups had been raging since 1955 — and the Nuba Mountains region was among the most perilous of places. The government targeted civilians by bombing the area and prohibiting humanitarian aid.
The family was increasingly isolated because her husband, Mohamed Kambal, had joined the rebels. Abdulla and her children left without him because Abdulla worried for her sons’ safety — the government recruited boys older than 15 into the Popular Defence Forces, a reserved military army for the Sudanese government.
“I saw many male students lose their limbs because of joining the army and going to the war,” she said. “I have six boys and one daughter. I felt at that time, as soon as possible my boys would be taken into force to join the military.”
During their time in Cairo, Abdulla had occasionally felt blue and homesick. But on this particular day, the sorrow was intense, she said. She was paralyzed. But as she laid in bed, she heard the voice of her worried daughter, Nazik Kambal.
“Mom wake up, please,” her daughter said. “I think you are not sick, but you are depressed. Just get up. I will make you soup.”
As Abdulla considered her daughter’s concerned words, the faces of her children appeared one by one. If she lost hope, she thought to herself, her children would, too. As a mother, she did not want that to happen.
“I have lost my country; I don’t want to lose my children, too,” she said. “What will be left for a mother, then? My bigger picture is that I need to save myself from getting lost again.”
In that moment, Abdulla made a promise to herself to always be strong for her children.
From that day forward, things changed. She helped the children find work in safe places, like grocery stores. And on days when they did not work, she taught them math. She sewed clothes and shoes and sold them in the markets.
“We maintained to communicate and support one another. This helped us to survive.”
Since they were resettled in Lincoln in 2000, the family not only survived but flourished.
Four of her seven children are college graduates. Two are currently studying at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and one will be joining the U.S. Army.
Abdulla herself pursued and obtained a college degree.
But the family’s success hasn’t come without pain. When Abdulla’s husband, Kambal, joined the family in Nebraska in 2004, he was extremely depressed.
“He was suffering because he had gone through the traumatic experience,” she said. He was nearly killed in a bombing at a school where he taught. A government plane bombed the building, killing all of the children. Kambal was spared because he had left the classroom to use the bathroom.
“It was really hard for him to forget that accident. He was deeply affected. Even until now, he still prefers to sleep under the bed because he felt it was safe,” she said. “There are many Sudanese people in Lincoln who have the same problem as my husband.”
Abdulla said that the ongoing trauma affected the entire family. Kambal was distant and isolated from the family members, so relationships became tense.
“We had to force him to come join and talk with us.”
And she witnessed other Sudanese refugees in Nebraska struggling with emotional trauma.
Realizing that the Sudanese community needs more psychological services to help the refugees cope with trauma, she decided to seek a degree in psychology at the College of Saint Mary in Omaha.
Abdulla, 59, now works as the Women’s Program manager at the Asian Community and Cultural Center, where she helps refugees deal with their problems, including mental health issues.
“The reason I choose to do this is because I am aware that we often misunderstand American or Sudanese cultures,” she said. “Therefore, I feel that maybe this major can help myself and other Sudanese refugees, too.”