Personal Interview of Gatluak Thach, NICE Executive Director
By Rebecca West of Alive Now Magazine
While I was teaching English as a Second Language, I met Gatluak Thach, a refugee from Sudan. Gatluak taught me about some of the challenges and struggles related to his life as a refugee. Here he is:
I’m now a family man with a wife and two kids. My wife is not working; she just had a baby and I am the only one that works. I work here at the Nashville International Center for Empowerment (NICE formerly known Sudanese Community & Women’s Services Center) that I founded with a group of the guys. It’s not really a bad life to be honest. Every day I receive thank you’s from the people that I serve. It makes me feel so good about what I do, because you can only know that you do good things when the people that you impact reveal that to you. So my life is happy. I may not be making enough to support my family, but we are supporting one another. I might not be living in a very fancy place, but I live in an apartment and I like. I might not have the kind of car that I could [would like to] drive, but I like the car that I drive. Nothing is more challenging to me than dealing with what is going on in other people’s lives. I don’t focus a lot on my own personal problems as I do with other people.”
Tell me about your life growing up and what that was like, especially as a child.
I was born in an area called Kuechar, a village of Nasser in Malakal region in South Sudan. I grew up playing with my brothers. I am the 3rd child in my family. I was very close to my mother and also to my dad. I liked playing with other kids and also [enjoyed] making jokes about the things that I see. I liked to be a leader and I liked giving orders to the other children.
We lived in the village and I didn’t go to school. My dad was a farmer. We had a church. We had been going to the church and then come home where we would care for the small cow and we would go to the fields where we could get food. So life really wasn’t so bad. We just didn’t have [an] excess of things that could let you be more than just a village boy. When the war came, I was six years old. When I came to the camp and then back to the village and back to the camp, there was not a chance to go to school. So I didn’t go to school until I was probably 14.5 or 15 years old. And that happened when I came to the camp.
So, how many people were in your village? Was it big?
“Our village was not really so big. I don’t know how many people there were, but it would probably be less than 2000 people.
Did you know everyone there?
We knew everybody. We knew all the kids that were there. If anything happened in our village, everyone would know about it. And my dad was a singer and he had this song he would go and sing with other people. When he came home at night, he would be singing and all of the kids would try to see him and other guys would join him. It was a good life. And then when my dad came home he would call us by name and he would always make sure to ask us what we ate and what did we do today, whether or not we supported our mom. And he would always make sure that we did what he told us to do. If we did not do it, he always liked to ask me who did not do what was supposed to be done. The guy that I follow was a very smart guy so he always came up with ideas. But my dad always wanted to make sure as to whether what my brother said was true so he would count on me.
So were a lot of people in the village farmers also?
A lot of people in the village were farmers. They all had cows, cattle. The kids would run out to the cattle to protect their cattle to prevent the baby cows from taking milk from their mothers. We had to defend our milk because we used it to cook our food and the cow milk was the only milk we had. If we let the baby cow take the milk, then we wouldn’t get that. Some of the little boys would chase the baby cows away. The little boys also liked to go fishing. They used small, long fishing nets that they would cast out in the river and the fish would just grab it. Then they would pull the net in and bring the fish home. Some of the boys would do that. There were a lot of ways to bring income to the family. I really liked that because everyone could contribute.
What about your faith? You said you went to church with your family. What was that like?
I did not know how Christianity arrived at my village. After I grew up, I learned how Christianity came to Sudan, but I did not know how it came to my village. But for me it seemed that my family and the family that was close to us were the first to embrace Christianity. So my dad was not really a Christian, but he allowed us to go. The guy (a missionary?) put together a small hut—a Christian designed hut. It was a small thing with grass on top of it and it was built with mud, and the ceiling was made with grass and the walls of mud, and they had a podium set up whereby a pastor could go. We did not have a preacher and we did not even have an evangelist, but a man in my village called himself an evangelist. He called us.
I liked beating the drum and I liked singing. He [the evangelist] made it where we went every afternoon to go and sing. And my dad didn’t have any problem with that. I can envision now that it was me, my other two brothers, my cousin and some other boys that were there and then two girls came and joined us. The girls were really young! Then this guy would come and sing a song for us in my language. He told us about Jesus, but we really didn’t know about Jesus.
What did you think?
I would look and wonder what kind of person that was. He would tell us what was in the Bible None of us could read or write or anything and he could just tell it like history. When we went home, the only thing we could remember were the songs. Then the next day we would go and encourage another boy to go join us. So that is what happened. We actually enjoyed it, but I was not baptized. None of us were baptized because we did not have time to be baptized. We did not have a pastor. We went to the church for two years before the war came but none of us were baptized. Yet we still called ourselves Christian.
How long was that before the war?
I think that happened in 1982-83 and the war came in 1983. I was very young at the time.
What happened when the war came?
When the war came, I was scared. Places that were not attacked were afraid they would be attacked. In the places that were attacked, people would run away. There was a lot of fear because people heard about people being bombed and killed, children being kidnapped, women being raped, cows being destroyed. We didn’t know if it was a curse from a God or where the war came from.
You didn’t know why there was a war.
No. Just bombs started falling on you and killed you. People couldn’t believe that. We were use to a war between two people or between this family and that family. Clan by clan, they would know who killed who. If someone was killed, there would be compensation. The one who killed someone would fear that he had killed a person and that was the wrong thing to do and he would feel guilty. His family would pay the victim’s family for the loss of that individual. This was settled by the chief court. After the compensation was done, there would be no more fear. But they would not drink or share food together or they could not marry until some point in the future
To have some sort of reconciliation.
Right, but still you could not marry because now you are like families because there is blood between you.
Oh interesting, so you really become closer in a sense.
Not really closer. It isn’t just that you have blood between you. Blood is like this—if you are related to someone, you have blood between you. If someone killed someone, you have blood between you. That means if you get married, someone will die. So those were the kind of wars we knew. My dad may have known something other before that, but no one really believed that something like that [the bombs falling] could have happened. But it did happen and destroy our lives and make us feel like our lives were meaningless. Someone you knew yesterday is gone today. The home you know is gone.
So was your village attacked?
Yes, we were attacked several times.
Several times? Did people run away and come back?
Yeah, yeah. You run with nothing on your body. You run with who you are. If you are like this, you run like this. You don’t even grab something small.
So did you do that? Did you run?
Well, there were two occasions where a significant problem like this happened. One time it happened at night where we were attacked and had to run. This was a war between the government and the soldiers. It happened to be fought at our place. The other time was in the morning. In the morning usually, when the cows have not been milked, the cow would be sleeping. The kid[s] would be playing and the mother would be cooking. You all would be sitting. You are not prepared for someone to attack you at that time because you have not even had food yet. You had all your cows there. Everything there would be killed. And cows are most valuable because that is what people depend on. So you don’t want anything to come while all your family is there because they will all be victims, but we had an attack at that time. You cannot forget [the attack] if you survive. We had to run, and not all of us returned. Some of us survived, but those who did get killed were gone. In an interview like this, it brings back difficult memories.
If there are any parts that you want to skip over let me know. Do you want to move on?
Yeah, we can move on.
After that, when did you go to the refugee camp?
I think I got to a refugee camp in 1988.
So it was a while later?
It was a while later, because, after the attack, we were trying not to go to the camp. We were trying to move around place to place to find somewhere to settle.
Was your whole village doing that?
Some of the people remained in the village and some of the people left the village for other places.
Was that hard making that decision?
The father decided this.
Was that hard for your father and family though?
It was, but you have to look at what is best for your family. And that was the main thing for them.
Did you still have your whole family at this point?
At the time, my older brother was not with us. My other brother was there, and so it was me, my other young one, and my dad. We had to leave together with my dad. I remember walking at night and we came to a river and we did not know how to swim. So my dad put sticks together and put us on top of it to cross the river. It was a difficult time. In the middle of the river, the sticks came apart and my mom had to try to hold my neck above water and my dad had to hold my brother.
So she kept you alive.
Yes, she really kept me alive. That was one of those times where you want to thank the person but you don’t know how. But its your mom.
Yeah, she knows, she’s your mom.
Yeah, so those were the hard days where you don’t have anything with you. You don’t even have food. But the food will be on the ground or in the leaves of the trees. Your clothes are what you have on your body and you fear everybody. You never know if someone you run into on the street is an enemy.
Did you run into enemies?
My dad was a very smart guy. I don’t think there is anyone smarter. He wasn’t educated, but he made decisions that to my knowledge could only be made by a very few people. He decided to only let us walk at night. At night no one would know who we are. And when we walk, we would have to keep a distance from people because people at night fear anyone who walks at night. When daytime comes, he has to find shelter under a tree that has branches all the way down with grass and things so that we cannot be seen when we sleep. At night when we walk and have nothing to eat we have to make sure that where we cook it is not where we sleep so that they could not see both. So those are some of the decisions my father made.
So where did you find food?
It was difficult. Sometimes you would find meat. Sometimes you depend on fruit on the trees. If you find a place where no one was there, you could try to find whatever you could—dried beans, dried fruit.
Did you end up settling anywhere at all?
That did not happen when we were on our way to the camp because we walked on foot a distance that would not even take a day in a car, but it took two months. Especially because we had to be careful of the way you walk. Sometimes we had to come back the way we came because of people we would run into or if we misdirected ourselves and went the wrong way.
Did your dad know where you wanted to end up?
He wanted to go to the refugee camp. We knew where the refugee camp was, but the problem was how we get there.
When we got to the camp, the camp was ok. You don’t really fear that someone will kill you; you only fear what you can do to become a better person and what you can believe in that situation in a way that you could believe. Camp life was a very difficult life because you are depending on someone else to assist you.
Was it a UN or government run camp?
It was a UN run camp but the security was provided by local government. Again, it is not the kind of life you would like it to be, because you would be given a tent and 5-10 families would be put in one tent. Tents at night are too cold and during the day are too hot. In the camp, people are getting rations, and they came in and it [the rations] would not even take you a day from the time it was given. So the food was not enough, but there were things you could do to help yourself and a lot of people in one place with no sanitation. If one person gets sick, everyone will. For the drinking water, people take water from the river, where people take baths. It’s just so terrible. There is no hospital. They don’t have what it takes. They didn’t have the equipment that it takes or the training.
You didn’t receive an education there did you?
No, there was no education. Education in the camp came later. The older kids were taken by the military for training to go to war. You had to be very careful of where to keep your kids, even though you don’t have control. The rebel army would come and collect the kids because they would support them during the war.
The rebel army attacked your…
The rebel army was not really attacking, but they are the ones who had access to the camp. They wanted people to support them.
Who attacked you all then?
The ones that attacked us were the government army before we came to the camp.
Is it the rebel army that has security at the camp?
No they are not. The security was provided by the local government, but the security they provided was with no gun. So they just have the command to say you are here.
But its not the same government that attacked you because it is not the national government?
The rebel had access to the camp because they knew the government that provided security didn’t have what it takes. And they probably also had some sort of relationship. So they come to collect the boys to take them to the training.
So you had to look as young as possible.
You had to look as young as possible, but again they take [children] from 6 years old up. There was no exception for me.
So you went!
I went. And training was to go down to the war and I had to find another way to come back. I came back to the camp and tried to make a life with my family.
So how did you get back to the camp? Did you sneak out?
Well you have to sneak out at night. You drop the gun and find a way out. Or you have to have someone in the army who is a relative to get you out. Kids at my age when going to war might not understand the system. They might be taken advantage of by others. They all get killed. The army sometimes went 2 or 3 or 4 days without food and young people like that they can’t survive that.
So you were about 8 years old?
By then I think I was about 10.
And how long were you in the army?
I was there for a year.
And then you snuck out?
Yeah, and then I came back.
I bet it was dangerous to sneak out.
Yeah, it is, it is dangerous.
How did you find your way back to the same camp?
Well, I know the way I got there.
Did you sneak out with other people?
I did it with a group of guys. Some of them went; some turned back; some were stopped along the way and didn’t make it. So we really wanted to do it, but it was very challenging and very difficult and you really just don’t know.
Did the time you spent with the missionary influence your thoughts at all during that time or was that too long before?
Well you see I liked the song. I like the preaching of the guy who did the preaching. I also liked the fact that I didn’t want to see myself believing in the traditional beliefs. I didn’t like them and the reason I didn’t like that is that they would kill the cow and go back and eat the cow. They did things that didn’t really make sense. They would say things like, somebody did this to you so you must do this to me. I just don’t like that belief. And I didn’t want to see the same person that would cause a kid to die. They tell them that they have the power. When I am sick, my dad would take me to them. They would tell him [to] give them this [medicine?] and this, and your kid will not die. But people were dying from it. If my dad is worried that I might die, why would he take me to them who let the kid die? So this is a technical question, but again you look at [the situation] and think “wow, they might not have the power. Maybe the power is bigger than them.” But they might be playing with people’s minds. They might be doing things that don’t really make sense. I was looking at a God as a high powered person, a person that you might not see, a person that might be out somewhere, but again that person [God] might have a way to communicate with people. Whatever way possible to only communicate with a person that you don’t see is a real God. So what I believe is that faith in Jesus is believing in a God that is bigger and calling himself the Son of God. And I would love to be called the Son of God—it’s a good thing. But calling me, or calling someone else [and telling them that] ‘I am the God, come bring me this, or go do that’—I don’t agree with that. That was my time. My other brother [and I], like the song. We liked to be there in the quiet. We liked to beat the drum. Those things were very encouraging. So I can tell you that it [worship in church] has influenced me in some ways during that time. Whenever I had a problem, I had a song that I sang that said “My God is my Savior and there is nothing that I fear.” You know, you probably know that song in English. And it says, “Anywhere I were, anywhere I be, He is there with me’. So I look at that as “Oh, ok, that is the God that is here with me. Nothing can be more powerful than that.” So I had that influence, but I would not get baptized until 1989.
So once you got back to the refugee camp—really this is an IDP camp?
No its not.
Was it outside of Sudan?
It was outside of Sudan. That was when we got to the Ethiopian border.
Oh, gotcha. So how did that feel having to leave your country?
It was hard. It was really hard. I didn’t really know much about “country” because I was young and in the village. But I liked my village so much. I liked the things we did in the village so much. Especially because I was so young, I liked things like I had the protection of my parents and I was thinking that nothing was bigger than them and I was so sorry when they came and chased us away and we didn’t have any control over it.
It must have been so strange to leave home.
Did you think you were ever going to go back?
I don’t know. I think there were some times that I had the feeling “we can go back.” But there were times that I felt, “even if I could go back, I know one of my friends that I used to play with no longer exists, is gone.” And I know that because of him I would sit in the same place and think this is where we do this and do this and do this, and it would not be the same. So I had this condition. I had this thought that told me, you can go back and see your home is home, but there was also another thought saying to me, “If I go back, I will have the memory of everybody and everything thing I had.” It would be terrible. I might even want to die, if I go back there. Those conditions are so bad you never know what to do. It is hard. You always want to go back to your place, but again you want to see the people you know. There is nothing that would bring back the person, but it something that is hard to get away from your head.
Did you have your family as you moved camps? Was your family still with you?
Well, yeah. When we moved to the camp to eat, we had all our family together. Another problem that happened while we were at the camp caused some of the people to go back to Sudan. The country we found refuge in, in Ethiopia, had another problem at home. And then there was also an issue in them. And then our refugees became the victim. But the only place to run was to run back to Sudan while Sudan was still in the war. And some of us we now became older kids, and also they say there is another way to get around to the camp, that is where us and our parents said why don’t you go that way with the children and then we will go back to Sudan. And that is when with our parents we separated and that was about 1992.
Was that really hard?
It was difficult to go away from your parents, but then again your parents can look at what might be an opportunity for you. But they didn’t really know what is best.
Yeah. So now bring me up to getting to the United States.
After my dad and my other family went to Sudan, my dad left me with my young brother. It was almost 1992-93. My young brother and I had to leave to Ethiopia to come to Kenya. And when we went to Kenya, we had heard that people in Kenya camp were talking to America, so if we went to that camp we might be able to get away to America. So the only people we knew in the camp were me and my brother. I was about 17 and my brother 13 so we had to find a way to come back with other people to Kenya. We stayed there from 1993 to 1994 to 1995. In 1995 we had that picture—that’s us right there. That’s me and him. He might be outside right now if you want to talk to him. He’s now a grown man and has his own family. So 1995 we got permission to come to the United States. But to come to the United States is a long process. In the camp people were given a better opportunity, not only to come here but to come to Canada, Europe, and other parts of the world. Again that had us looking at how to come. You had to come through a relative, through random selection, through a …being sent to you for some reason. After one of these becomes the case for you, you have to go through a process that included doing an interview, doing some orientation, doing medical check up. Once you do this and all this is clear for you, you have to work on how to come to the United States. Who in the US is going to receive you and be responsible for you?
The person had to work with an agency that is the local state or region and they had to have your name. In our case, after we got all this process completed, we were told to come to the United States. And where we had to go was South Dakota and it was springtime. We saw the snow and it was like “wow.” We couldn’t believe it. We had never seen it before. It was so cold. We had clothes like this, just a jacket. When we got to South Dakota, we were received and our sponsor took us to where we were supposed to be and helped us. But things did not work out for us there but it is ok. We were not there for a long time. It was too cold. None of us could speak the language; none of us could speak the language. And one problem we had was that my brother—because by that time he became 14 years old—they had to put him in high school. In South Dakota, and I think that is all the Midwest, children who go to high school have to be taken by their parent to school. So I am the parent and must take my brother there in order for my brother to do anything. So that did not really happen because…
You had to work!
Not only that, but I don’t have a car.
So there weren’t school buses?
No there weren’t school buses. And again I had to be the one to provide food for him at school. There were no lunches in school.
Was it a tiny town?
It was Sioux Falls, the capital city of South Dakota, but its like Nashville. Its still small. But I think they have the same policies in Minnesota. I told my sponsor that I don’t think this works for me. I think I need to find another place to go. But the conversation between me and my sponsor was difficult too because we needed someone else to do the translation. A friend here, who happened to be in Nashville, told me that while it was too cold in South Dakota, it was 70 degrees in Nashville and people walked with T-Shirts like somewhere in Kenya. I was like, “Are you telling me the truth?” And he was like, “Yeah, and while you are taking your brother to school by car, kids are picked up at their apartment by public transportation. While you are worrying about what your brother will eat at school, they have free foods for kids here. While you are looking for a job and can’t find a job there, there are jobs here that don’t even require you to speak the language.” That was the reason, I said, Well I have to leave here and go there. He also told me that the people there are very friendly. They are very, very welcoming. There are a lot of churches here. And church people are very, very happy to have other people who have heart and have concern and have passion for the lives of other people. That’s how we view church people.
I told the [Sponsor], “Let me get a ticket so my brother and I can leave.” He told me, “No you cannot leave.” So I told my friend in Nashville to send me a ticket for the bus.
So this was a refugee program?
The guy that I spoke with was another Sudanese and we left together. When we came we didn’t really know where we were going to be. We had to get permission from the sponsor and we could share information through the sponsors.
After we got here things were not really as I expected but they were also not really so bad. I got a job and we were living in East Nashville. I found a job in Opryland, and there was no way for me to catch a bus from East Nashville to Opryland, so I caught a bus from East Nashville to Downtown and then from Downtown to Murfreesboro Road and then take the Opryland bus to Opryland. At night I take the bus back to Murfreesboro Road, but there was no bus to take me to East Nashville, so I had to walk. So I did that for more than 3 months. After that, my friend and I bought a car. Even though we didn’t know how to drive, we knew how to take it a little bit down the road and park it on Murfreesboro Road. We didn’t get a drivers license. We were just driving. And then we attended the classes and got a license.
Even though I didn’t have a HS diploma, I had a feeling that the one or two jobs I had would not be enough for me. I think there was a reason I came to the United States .I did not feel comfortable just working two jobs and supporting myself and my brother. I found myself saying, “Maybe there is something bigger than this.” The only thing bigger that I could see was to learn how to read English. I didn’t want to give my brother my papers to read for me. I had to learn how to read and I had to learn how to write. So I started taking English as a Second Language. I tried for two days a week. It was not enough, so I did three days a week. Three days was not enough, so I did four days a week. Four days a week was not enough, so I did five days. Five days a week was not enough, so I did six days a week. Six days was not enough, so I did seven days a week. I did two hours a day for seven days a week.
English is difficult. It is a challenging language. I knew other languages but English was so different. I knew how to write a little bit in my language, so what I did was . . .(he explains teaching himself with books). Finally I just did good with a high school diploma, so I decided to go to Tennessee State University with a major in Computer Science and a minor in math. I got a dual degree in 3.5 years. So I graduated with that and people were shocked, just shocked. They just knew me yesterday and then they see me today as a very different guy. From there I decided, “Well I’ve got a job. I had become a supervisor, but not even doing that was good. I found that doing the computer was not my passion. I found my passion was to do something for other people, and how to pay what I could have done if I had had that opportunity. So after that I went to Africa, and I got married in Africa. I went to the camp to marry a person that I knew.
Did you go to find a specific person?
The same person, but she was so young when I left her.
Had you kept in touch at all?
We did not keep in touch until a few years after I had left. She apparently had left the camp. We had had a talk before I left to say, “[If you] Find out that I die, get married. If you do not, wait for me.”
Oh wow, so you had to go back.
So I had to go back. Until I brought her here, she was not educated. She was just like me when I came and that was hard for her. But I knew about ABCD, but she did not know anything. That was the cost of having the Center [The Sudanese Center] because of her. I bought a chalk board, the one you see there. I bought that and I put it in a place in my apartment. So I could try to teach her ABCD. Then some ladies joined her. It started with my cousin’s wife. Some of the women came to my apartment. I thought about what else to do. I talked to this guy, I “Guy, we need to rent a place where the ladies can learn.” The problem at the community center was that those learning places had not been given any training for people on the lower levels. They start for people who have dropped out from high school. So they give them a book to read.
Yeah, Not Literacy. So for that it was a problem. We started by collecting $5, $10 a month. Then we got enough money to rent the place. Step one to step two. I think there is an article here.
What paper is this?
Nashville Today, February 26, 2009. So that was the formation of the center. From there the center has been to help people. I decided to go back to school to get my master because I knew how to work with machines, but how did I know how to work with people. I went back and got my master in public service in 2007. From nowhere to somewhere, that is me!
When you got here did you still feel like a refugee and at what point would you stop considering your self a refugee or would you ever stop?
I think I considered myself a refugee even when I first came to Nashville. I didn’t have the kind of support that I would have had if I were back home—especially if I were in my village. I felt in the cold like that. Someone else would have known that I had no car. Then again some of the cases that I’m dealing with now, I think sometimes there is a need for someone’s education that someone else also needs to know about that their ignorance and lack of knowledge made me realize that this is still a problem… (?) But again I feel that it could fade away I feel that I am very blessed that I can be here, that I can do anything for myself and other people. There is nowhere else in life that I can remember that I had such a big opportunity as here. Now I know what I can do to support someone else. But I would have that opportunity if I were not here in the United States. So I feel that I could not be a refugee because how in the world could I be a refugee when now I’m thinking of helping people instead of having people helping me. So I am very independent and I made my decisions that I think are best for me and my family and best for my people and I did not have that opportunity in the refugee camp. You can’t even be still calling yourself Sudanese. You can be born of the nation, or your grandparents can be born of the nation, but you don’t have this much opportunity. I have been enjoying here and now that my word and work so I don’t [always] feel that I am really a refugee, but sometimes I do still feel it.