History of Nuer in Sudan and the United States

United States Refugee Act of 1980

Many South Sudanese people came to the United States as Refugees in the 1990s and 2000s. The 1980 United States Refugee Act, defines a "refugee" as any person who is outside their country of nationality and who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

The vast majority of the Nuer currently living in the United States are refugees from a civil war that has been raging in Sudan since the country’s independence in 1955.1 This prolonged conflict between the southern Sudanese (such as the Nuer) and the government, led by the northern Sudanese, has resulted in more than two million deaths and four million displacements since the early 1980s.2 Tensions between the north and south are said to be rooted in a host of factors, including the distribution of resources, politics, economics, and cultural and religious differences.  The region’s most important resource, oil, is largely located on the border between the north and south, and is thus a significant source of contestation. Although the conflict is commonly discussed in terms of cultural and religious differences — the northern Sudanese are predominantly Arab Muslims, while the southern Sudanese are black Christians who culturally identify with sub-Saharan Africa3 — many scholars and Sudanese people are critical of this rather reductive depiction of the conflict. In fact, South Sudanese Muslims insist that to be southern and Muslim is not a contradiction in terms.4 Wal Reat, leader of the Sudanese congregation in Faribault, argues that although cultural and religious divisions exist between north and south, this is not truly the source of conflict.5

By the early 1990s, in the midst of the civil conflict in Sudan, as many as half a million Sudanese refugees were living in camps in neighboring Ethiopia or Kenya.6  As determined by the United States Refugee Act of 1980, a “refugee” is broadly defined as any person who is outside their country of nationality and who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.7  Persecution and forced migration can disturb refugees’ “ontological security,” defined as “a person’s understanding of their place within their worldview and with which they feel comfortable".8

“We very excited, yeah.  We very excited!  Now we are a country, you know, in the world." — Wal Reat

Map of Sudan and South Sudan

South Sudan became an independent country in 2011

The most turbulent phase of this civil conflict, which resulted in the displacement of many Nuer refugees who subsequently resettled in the United States, occurred in the early 1980s when the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army), the most important Southern rebel group, took control of major portions of southern Sudan.9 In 2005, after ongoing peace talks between the government and the SPLA, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, granting southern Sudan a six-year period of autonomy to be followed by a referendum to determine the final status of the conflict.10  This referendum, held in 2011, resulted in the creation of newly independent South Sudan with a vote of 98 percent in favor of secession. When South Sudan became an independent state on July 9, 2011, sixteen years after Wal arrived in the United States, he was overjoyed.  According to Wal, We very excited, yeah. We very excited! Now we are a country, you know, in the world.11

The experiences endured by the Nuer in Sudan and the hardships they faced in the refugee camps in neighboring countries have undoubtedly shaped and continue to inform the lives of refugees who have made it to the United States.12 Although only a small portion of Nuer refugees who wished to immigrate to the United States were granted permission, by 1994 a significant number were being resettled in this country.13 Throughout the 1990s, approximately 400 Nuer settled in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. While some were resettled in the Twin Cities by religious or government agencies, many moved there as secondary migrants after having initially been placed in another city.14 Though Minnesota seems an unlikely place for the Nuer to settle, many stayed in the area because of their connections with the Nuer community that had already been established.15 

 

    1. Jon D. Holtzman, Nuer Journeys, Nuer Lives: Sudanese Refugees in Minnesota (Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008), 7.

    2. Jon D. Holtzman, Nuer Journeys, Nuer Lives: Sudanese Refugees in Minnesota (Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008), 7.

    3. Jon D. Holtzman, Nuer Journeys, Nuer Lives: Sudanese Refugees in Minnesota (Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008), 8.

    4. Noah Salomon, “The politics of religious freedom: Freeing religion at the birth of South Sudan,” Social Science Research Council, 12 April 2012.

    5. Wal Reat, Personal Interview, April 29 2012.

    6. Jon D. Holtzman, Nuer Journeys, Nuer Lives: Sudanese Refugees in Minnesota (Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008), 9.

  1. “The Refugee Act,” Office of Refugee Resettlement, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, accessed 27 April 2012, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/policy/refact1.htm.

  2. Ruth L. Healey, “Asylum-Seekers and Refugees: A Structuration Theory Analysis of their Experiences in the UK,” Population, Space, and Place 12, no. 4 (2006), 261.

  3. Jon D. Holtzman, Nuer Journeys, Nuer Lives: Sudanese Refugees in Minnesota (Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008), 8.

  4. Marc Lacey, “Sudan and Southern Rebels Sign Deal Ending Civil War,” The New York Times, accessed Jan. 10 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/10/international/africa/10sudan.html?_r=1 (accessed 28 May 2012).

  5. Wal Reat, Personal Interview, April 29 2012.

  6. Dianna J. Shandy, Nuer-American Passages: Globalizing Sudanese Migration (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2007).

  7. Jon D. Holtzman, Nuer Journeys, Nuer Lives: Sudanese Refugees in Minnesota (Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008), 9.

  8. Jon D. Holtzman, Nuer Journeys, Nuer Lives: Sudanese Refugees in Minnesota (Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008), 9.

  9. Jon D. Holtzman, Nuer Journeys, Nuer Lives: Sudanese Refugees in Minnesota (Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008), 35.