Agwa leaves war-torn Sudan for safetyWORTHINGTON — Things are a little different these days for Okony Agwa. A native of Sudan, Agwa is currently studying at Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
By: Aaron Hagen, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Things are a little different these days for Okony Agwa.
A native of Sudan, Agwa is currently studying at Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
He’s studying agriculture, a familiar subject for him. But farming in the United States is quite a bit different than it was for him growing up in the African country.
“It’s very different (here),” Agwa said. “The farming here in the United States and the farming in Africa is very different. When we are farming over there, we use our hands. It’s a very, very hard job. Here, with my professor we went to a farm to help with soybeans with the combine.”
Growing up in Sudan, Agwa would work on the farm with his family.
“Most of my life was farming,” Agwa said. “Me and my brother and my dad, we have a farm. It’s a traditional farm, not a machine farm.
“We grow sorghum — most Sudanese grow sorghum — and corn.”
Most of what Agwa would grow was for the family’s consumption, very different than farming in the U.S. If Agwa did have extra corn, it would be sold, but there usually wasn’t an excess.
Studying agriculture at Minnesota West has been a learning experience.
“There was a speaker who came in and they ask everybody, ‘When you’re finished with school, what are you going to do?’” he said.
“They say, ‘I’m going to go back to the farm.’ All of the kids. Then they asked me. I say, ‘No, I came here to learn agriculture. I want to get a background in agriculture,’” he added.
Agwa went to school in Sudan, but wasn’t able to go further than high school.
“I think at that time, there were two colleges, so there was very big competition,” he said. “Even if you are qualified to go to the university, you cannot go.”
A few years removed from his days of going to school on a daily basis, Agwa is now back in the classroom.
“I forget a lot of things, but it’s OK,” he said. “Some books are OK, but some are hard for me because I’ve been out of school for 25 years.
“Math, I forgot about it. English, a little bit, is OK, because I do read. I read books, and I write about it. I read Internet news. English readings I read a lot, too, because I want to learn more words.”
When he’s not in the classroom or studying, he works at the Worthington Area YMCA through work study.
Agwa moved to Worthington in August 2010 and started attending college right away.
“I like the small city,” he said. “I like it very much right now. It’s very quiet. Everything is cheap, too. When you rent an apartment, it’s cheaper than Minneapolis. You don’t pump a lot of gas, too, because the city is very small. In Minneapolis, everything is going to cost you. When you go to pick up food, you’re going to need gas and it’s going to cost you money.”
A war-torn home
Fighting between north Sudan and Agwa’s home in south Sudan — which is now recognized as its own country — created a hostile situation for the natives.
“Sudan was a colony of the British, so many of them there speak English,” Agwa said. “When the British left, they used Arabic. But when the British left, they divided into two, south and north. North, the culture is Muslim. When you come to the south, where I came from, the culture is Christian.”
South Sudan seceded from the north and was recognized as a country in 2011.
With war between the two sides tearing apart his home country years ago, Agwa moved to a refugee camp in the bordering country of Kenya. From there, he was able to come to the United States.
“I ran away to a different country, to Kenya to a refugee camp,” he said. “That was a safe place under the United Nations. Inside Sudan, it’s not safe.”
The country struggles with the same issues today. Agwa still has family back at home.
“Yeah, I worry about them,” he said. “Because some parts of Africa, like Sudan, is not a safe place. There is fighting going on.”
He hopes there is change on the horizon.
“I think it’s going to be changed, but not right now,” Agwa said. “In the future, after five years or 10 years, they are going to be OK. The United States and European countries, they went over there and they want to help Sudanese. They are teaching them how to farm and built schools and churches. After 10 years from now, they might get better change. But not right now.”
Agwa was able to come to Minneapolis in the summer of 1995.
“When you are in east Africa, it’s not easy to come to the United States unless there is a problem in the country,” Agwa said. “The United Nations, when you’ve been in the refugee camp for a long time, they make requests to countries like the United States or European countries and Canada. They are going to say, ‘We have a refugee, they are looking for a job. If you want to take them in your country, then they will work.’ When you fill out an application, a United States lawyer is going to go over there in the refugee camp and interview you. You have to sign paper. They will deny you if you don’t say everything they want. If they approve, you are going to come easily.”
He had to go through medical tests, as well.
“They are going to take your blood,” Agwa said. “When I came at that time, in 1995, they are going to interview you and they are going to send you to the medical and take your blood and test your blood. If it’s positive, you cannot come here. As of right now, they brought people over who have HIV now and give them medicine.”
Agwa was able to come to the U.S., and found his way to Minnesota.
“In the state of Minnesota, there are a lot of Sudanese,” he said. “At that time, when the Sudanese, they started coming here in 1993. At that time, Minnesota was good for the family. People who have a family, they came here and they got assistance. If you have a kid, he can go to school and they will help you. Second, Minnesota in the Midwest, you’re going to get a job pretty easily.”
Agwa found work at Mystic Lake Casino, where he worked a couple of different jobs during an 11-year span.
But a delay in his return from a trip back home forced him to find another job.
“I went to Sudan in 2010 in June and I didn’t come back on time and they filled my position there at the casino,” Agwa said. “When I came back, I couldn’t find a job, and I decided to come back here to go to community college. I’m studying right now.”
He had studied some English while he was going through school, but still had to adjust to life in a new country — including a new climate, one that included snow.
“I worried about it,” he said. “The best thing is, at that time, I didn’t know how to drive a car. I would use the bus or somebody would drive me. It was a very big snow.”
Agwa is now an American citizen and is hoping to graduate with his degree in the next couple of years.
“I’ve been here for a long time and didn’t go to school on time,” he said. “Now, I want to go to school. Maybe when I get a degree I’ll find a job.”
A different culture
For Agwa, bringing some of his Sudanese culture to America has been important.
“We gather together, the Sudanese, and we cook the food we used to eat in Sudan,” he said, adding that he also uses language as a way to keep with his culture. “Here, I cook meat like I would cook in my country. Sometimes I’ll cook vegetables. They are cooked different.”
The sense of community is something Agwa misses from back home.
“The difference is, in my country, people sit together a lot because there are no jobs, unless people get a job with the government, but there are no factories,” he said. “You met with the people every day and sit together and talk. But here, in Minnesota, you’re going to meet your friends or some people you know during the weekend, Saturday or Sunday or Friday night. It’s different.”
Daily Globe Community Content Coordinator Aaron Hagen may be reached at 376-7323.