BENEDICTE DESRUS

Called Home

The Alberta-Juba connection

By Jocelyn Edwards

It’s a country the size of Texas, with at least 597 ethnic groups but only 50 km of paved road. It has some of the world’s worst health indicators, and at the country’s main referral hospital patients spill out into the courtyard, falling asleep against the walls of the buildings. And as the world’s newest nation—South Sudan—prepares to confront these challenges, many of its government ministries are housed in temporary, prefabricated buildings.

It’s for these reasons that many of the South Sudanese who emigrated to Alberta to escape a two-decade-long civil war against the majority Muslim north have started to return home. From the mid-1980s until a peace agreement was signed in 2005, some 12,000 people from mostly Christian and animist South Sudan sought refuge in Canada, with a disproportionately high number coming to live in Alberta.

But while many immigrants who settle in Canada only return home for short visits, South Sudanese are proving to be a special case. “It’s different here,” says William Lochi, a former chemist in Alberta’s oil industry. He left the comfort of a Calgary suburb for Juba, South Sudan’s largest city, where his house sometimes goes without power for up to a month. “This country needs a lot of human resources, so it makes sense to provide whatever experience you have,” he says. 

South Sudanese held a vote for self-determination in early 2010 and celebrated their independence in July of last year. The country has seen a flood of returnees ever since. While some of them are entrepreneurs, many have seen the enormous task facing the new government and are getting to work there, putting to use skills, knowledge and ideas acquired in Alberta.

Like many Sudanese who sought refuge in Canada, William Lochi was just a child when he fled his home country. At 12 years old, he walked for three days with 37 other children from his village in Eastern Equatoria to a refugee camp in Kenya. He was 18 when he left for Canada, leaving his mother and siblings behind in Kenya. He wouldn’t see them again for 10 years. 

The young man went first to Windsor, where he studied chemical engineering, chemistry and mining mathematics. Lochi worked for several years in pharmaceuticals in Ontario. When the recession hit in 2008, he moved west to work in the Alberta oil patch.

Long active in the Sudanese-Albertan community, in 2010 Lochi served as the manager of the referendum centre in Calgary, where expats from across Western Canada came to cast their votes. He was impressed by the enthusiasm he saw for separation. Like many in the community, he began to want to witness his homeland on the cusp of independence. “There was this building excitement—people voted over 98 per cent in favour of independence—so I thought I should visit.”

He wasn’t back in South Sudan long before he was enticed by an opportunity to serve in the new government. He visited with people involved in the local oil industry and then met with a committee of MPs responsible for the country’s vast petroleum reserves. He asked them how the oil was going to be used for the benefit of Sudan’s people.

To his surprise, the legislators didn’t have answers to all of his questions. Though the government of South Sudan is dependent on oil for 99 per cent of its revenue, it lacks expertise about the industry. Until independence, oil was governed from Khartoum, the capital of the north, and revenues generated from the royalties paid by foreign companies were shared 50/50 between the north and the south. “(The committee) was interested in my questions and said, ‘Maybe we should retain you to find out the answers to some of them,’” Lochi says.

Lochi now serves as a consultant to the Committee for Industry, Mining & Energy. As he rushes, almost bounding, through the halls of parliament and into the committee’s office, it’s obvious how much he loves serving the government of his new country. He had originally planned to return to Calgary after a couple of months, but he soon abandoned that idea. “I’m doing something fulfilling here; I’m contributing,” he explains.

Dr. Martha Martin Dar

Dr. Martha Martin Dar. ( Benedicte Desrus)

As he advises a government renegotiating the sharing of oil revenues between the north and the south and building a system of petroleum governance from the ground up, Lochi says there are ideas from oil management in Alberta that could be implemented in South Sudan. Though issuing royalty cheques to citizens directly—“Ralphbucks”—proved controversial in Alberta in 2006 (and was motivated by a unique set of circumstances), Lochi thinks South Sudan’s citizenry would benefit from a direct share in revenues and he’d like to see his government issue similar rebates. He also sees cautionary tales from Alberta’s oil patch. Environmental regulations are too vague in Alberta, he believes. “That’s why there is so much debate on the environment. That’s something to learn from.”

Despite the pernicious effect of petroleum on the economics and politics of African countries such as Nigeria and Angola, Lochi says he believes that, as in Alberta, the proceeds of the oil industry can be used for the benefit of citizens. Living in Canada “was an opportunity to see first-hand what democracy could bring to a country,” he says, adding that he believes that “if the oil is well managed, South Sudan could be a fully democratic country as well.”

A critical shortage of medical expertise was one of the reasons Dr. Martha Martin Dar decided in 2008 to leave Calgary; South Sudan’s eight million people are served by only 120 doctors. Sitting down for an interview in a restaurant on the banks of the Nile, Martin Dar lines up three cell phones on the edge of the table. A member of parliament and the head of the Committee on Health and HIV/AIDS, she’s a busy woman. 

Now six feet tall and wearing three-inch heels, Dar was just 11 years old when she left her country and family. She was one of over 600 South Sudanese children who were sent to Cuba for education in the hopes that once the civil war ended, they would come back to develop their nation. John Garang, the man considered to be the father of the movement for self-determination in South Sudan, told the children it was their responsibility to “take up the pencil” as the rest of the nation took up the gun in the struggle for independence.

After Dar finished secondary school and then went to medical school in Cuba, it was time to leave. Several countries offered to take the young people as refugees. Though few Sudanese immigrants lived in Canada at the time, Dar decided to move there with a group of about 200 South Sudanese. “We watched the news, we searched the Internet, we read about Canada: how nice it was, how beautiful it was, that Canadians were very nice people,” she says.

Dar went first to Toronto. Despite her medical credentials, the young woman couldn’t speak English and had trouble finding a job and paying the rent. She moved to Alberta, where there was more work and where her cousin lived. The two ended up in Brooks and joined a community of South Sudanese working at Lakeside Packers. Dar got a job in quality control. “We had to check the heart and liver to see if the animal was healthy by cutting into it,” she says.

South Sudan lacks expertise about the oil industry, Lochi believes revenues can be used for the benefit of citizens.

But the dead-end job was frustrating for the ambitious and educated young woman and when the chance came to enroll in an upgrading program sponsored by the University of Calgary and Samaritan’s Purse, Dar jumped at it. A dozen South Sudanese doctors joined the program, which was specially designed to prepare them for a return to their native country. “We were all looking for a chance to come back, because in Canada we were not practising our careers as doctors,” Dar says. “We were wasting our energy, we were wasting our education, we were losing our skill.”

The U of C program proved a rich experience. “There was so much equipment, you could learn anything there and experiment with anything,” she says. “In Canada everything was there when you go to the operating room; when you go here, you even lack a gown. You have to have your own gown to wear in the theatre.”

Today the MP sits in her office at the legislative assembly in Juba behind an enormous desk. Pictures of President Salva Kiir and John Garang look down from the wall and the office is decorated with Christmas garlands in recognition of independence. “It was my wedding day,” she says of the celebration. “We were all brides and grooms that day.”

Given that her country has such a shortage of skilled medical professionals, Dar feels that she’s making a bigger contribution in South Sudan than she could have in Alberta. “In Canada there are many doctors; here my work is appreciated more. In Africa, whatever I do, even if it’s a little bit, they appreciate it.”

Following a lifetime of observing politics in three different countries—Sudan, Cuba and Canada—Jok Mach brought fresh ideas to his homeland when he moved back in 2010. Mach served as a high school chemistry and biology teacher in Sudan before going to Cuba as one of the guardians that accompanied Dar’s group in 1987. He left Cuba in 1997 and went to Canada, settling in Edmonton. 

To make ends meet he worked in a variety of jobs, including as a porter in a warehouse. “I did so many funny things in Canada,” he says. “You can do anything to make money.” But Mach worked for the longest time as a social worker for the City of Edmonton, helping rehabilitate people with disabilities.

The now 65-year-old man lived for 13 years in Edmonton, buying a home and raising a family there. Five of his children and his wife still live in Alberta today. But in 2010 he decided his home country needed his help. Coming back to his homeland proved as much of an adjustment as leaving. Many of the people he had known had been killed in the war. “I stopped asking about the whereabouts of some people,” he says. “When you try and find where someone is, you find that person is dead.”

He also found his hometown of Bor devastated: “It was worse than we had left it. No roads, no schools, no hospitals. People were dependent on food given to them by the UN World Food Programme. It was terrible; I didn’t expect them to be living like that.” 

Mach’s frustration becomes evident as he slaps the table while speaking. He’s channelling that energy into efforts to help rebuild the country. He now works in the national headquarters of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, the country’s ruling party. As the deputy director of social welfare and services, he works in the office responsible for setting education and health policy in South Sudan.

The road to his office, pitted with potholes that turn into small lakes when it rains, seems to demonstrate just how far the new government has to go. It’s been a slow process, Mach says, but “we are hopeful that we will see progress.”

As keen a follower of Canadian politics as of the South Sudanese scene, Mach says he believes there’s much the architects of the new country can learn from Canada. Adopting a system like Canada’s, that encourages people to work and travel wherever they want, could help reduce tribalism in South Sudan, he believes. “A system like that could avert many of the difficulties we have here, because in the workplace you meet and get to know each other. These are the kinds of things the [Sudanese] Canadians need to come back and [teach] about.”

Tribalism is only one of the problems the government of the new nation will have to face as it strives toward development. Some 1,400 people died in violence in South Sudan during the six months prior to independence, making that period the most violent in the country since the end of the civil war. In February 2010, the new Minister of Cooperatives & Rural Development and MLA for Lainya was assassinated in his office. The country is highly militarized and two major rebellions by militias took place in the months leading up to independence. And simmering border disputes with Sudan, to the north, pose an ongoing existential threat.

These factors have led some international observers to warn that South Sudan could devolve into a failed state. But the Sudanese Albertans who have returned to their nation are optimistic that the country will overcome the odds. Their people have already proven wrong those who believed that the nation would be consumed by bloodshed before independence could be reached. The success of the referendum and independence “tell me that people are serious,” says William Lochi.

These returnees believe it’s their role to make sure the new nation succeeds. “We are all working very hard to bring people together,” says Mach. “We are masters of our own destiny.”

Freelance journalist Jocelyn Edwards was born in Africa but grew up in Calgary. She has written for the Toronto Star and Reuters.

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