Even amid household tumult, Martha Dawud Thiew appears serene and happy, tranquility hard-earned.
One of the few “Lost Girls of Sudan,” Thiew survived a perilous journey from a small village in Africa to an apartment in Houston. On Wednesday, she became a U.S. citizen.
“I’m happy about it. I feel good,” Thiew said shortly after the 30-minute ceremony.
The event symbolized the progress of the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, a group of 3,800 refugees who spent years in camps before being resettled in the U.S. Most were children when they were orphaned and left homeless by civil war. Three Lost Boys were also among the 2,453 people who became citizens at Wednesday’s ceremony.
Thiew, among the first of the group to enter the U.S. in December 1999, was one of only 89 girls brought to the U.S. as part of the resettlement.
Many girls were killed during the war or sold into slavery. Others were placed with foster families in refugee camps and then forgotten during resettlement efforts.
In the seven years since they arrived in the U.S., the refugees have gone from adolescence to adulthood, from early months straining to master a new language and a new world to lives as college students and fledgling professionals. Some have gotten married. Others are becoming citizens. Many are seeking ways to help those still in Sudan and the refugee camps of Kenya and Ethiopia.
Thiew’s story reflects those struggles and successes.
She is 31 now, the mother of four and the wife of Idris Negi Kyana, 33, also a refugee from the same Mabaan tribe. She works the night shift as a dishwasher in a hotel and attends a Presbyterian church. Her English, though halting, is impressive for someone who did not speak a word of it a few years ago.
Left after village attacked
Thiew fled her village of Liang in 1996, when northern Sudanese forces attacked and burned it to the ground. She and Kyana had time enough only to whisk their 1-year-old son from bed and to rush to safety in a nearby forest with other villagers.
Then, like the other Lost Boys and Girls, Thiew and her family began to walk across hundreds of miles of unforgiving terrain. Many withered from hunger and thirst, were devoured by lions or killed by enemy gunfire. The survivors straggled into refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.
Thiew remembers there was often just one cup of water to be shared by several people. “If you drink it all, some people are going to die,” she said.
The Ethiopian refugee camp where Thiew lived for three years, bearing two more sons, wasn’t much better. The family lived in a makeshift tent, crowded by other people from their village. They could eat only one meal a day, or there would be nothing for the next day.
Thiew still winces when she thinks of her children’s hunger. “If your baby is crying, then you will cry, too,” she said.
A new, better life
The couple was approved for refugee status in late 1999, a year after they applied. They came straight to Houston along with 476 other Lost Boys. They quickly grew to love their new home. And Thiew says she has never looked back.
Within two weeks, Kyana had found a job as a dishwasher and he now works as a maintenance man for their apartment complex. Thiew started working nine months after they arrived. Their fourth son was born here three years ago.
There are still reminders of their lives in Sudan — such as the sofa decorated with hand embroidered doilies that Thiew and her sister made — but now they are accustomed to their new lives in Houston. Her children still speak Arabic, but have added flawless English. One son is also learning Spanish.
“In my country, people are fighting. Too many people fighting,” Thiew says.