Hello, and welcome to Side/Dishes.
Last week, A., from South Sudan, attended his first Citizenship Education class. He hails from Juba, capital of South Sudan since independence in 2011. In today’s class, A. offered a particularly lucid example of economic depression, which he put in the context of our discussion of the Great Depression: “like in Cuba, after 1993.” Possessing a superficial understanding of Cuban economic history, I could make sense of A.’s example, but how did this example come to call on his experience?
In 1983, during the second phase of the Sudanese civil war, the Cuban government invited several hundred promising young engineers, agronomists, lawyers and doctors to study for free in Cuba – while violence and famine gripped Sudan’s riverine bread basket.
For this individual, a real choice emerged: leave family behind and board a Soviet freighter bound for Isla de la Juventud – where the Castro government had operated a comprehensive agricultural education program for Angolan and Mozambican students since 1978: an exchange visitor program buoyed by Castro’s lofty foreign policy objectives – or face an uncertain future in Sudan, refugee camps in Ethiopia, or worse.
By 1991, as Cuba’s economy groaned under staggering external debt brought on by the loss of Soviet subsidies and a crash in sugar prices (Cuba’s “período especial”), financial support for A.’s program was scrapped. On the Cuban mainland, mass migration from the hardest-hit countryside forced Havana’s taxi operators to transform their orange Lada cabs into makeshift stretch limousines, absent transportation funding and imported Russian aftermarket parts.
The Sudanese students dispersed, A. among them, highly educated and willing to participate in the construction of their nation, but unable to return to Sudan for the foreseeable future.
23 years ago, A. applied for refugee status in the United States and made his way to Houston, Texas. He spent a decade working in different industries across the cattle towns and railheads of the Midwest: Dallas, followed by a brief stint in Sioux Falls, South Dakota working at a meat packing plant. A.’s path eventually brought him to Lincoln, Nebraska – an hour’s drive across the braided Platte River, west of Omaha, which boasts the country’s highest concentration of South Sudanese refugees (~10,000 in 2015.)
When he shared his story with me in February 2016, A. was a student once more. In January, he had enrolled in four hours of civic integration and citizenship education every week at Lincoln’s Center For People In Need, chipping his way through workbooks and flash cards for the 100-question civics exam while his U.S. naturalization application collected legal endorsements. A.’s story is one of 700 individual experiences of ‘Cuban-Juban’ exchange students, a unique diaspora forged and displaced by conflict, but resettling in broad, fertile savannas new and ancestral.
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[Featured image: Gatdet Thong (L) meets with other ‘Cuban Jubans’ wearing beaded bracelets with South Sudan’s new flag colors, Juba, August, 2012. (Hannah McNeish/VOA)]