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Journey to Worthington: Second Sudanese Civil War survivor finds home in southwest Minnesota

WORTHINGTON -- The facts are fairly straightforward: Akech Akuei and her children left Sudan in 2001 and immigrated to the United States. She moved to Worthington shortly thereafter and became a United States citizen in 2006.

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Akech Akuei, who came to Worthington from Sudan, stands for a photo at West Learning Center. Jesse Trelstad/Daily Globe

WORTHINGTON - The facts are fairly straightforward: Akech Akuei and her children left Sudan in 2001 and immigrated to the United States. She moved to Worthington shortly thereafter and became a United States citizen in 2006.

The real story is a little more complicated.
“I came to the United States a widow,” Akech said. “I came for my three sons.”
Akech is a refugee of the Second Sudanese Civil War, which decimated the country from 1983 to 2005. The war is on record as having the highest civilian death toll since World War II, and it displaced a huge portion of the country’s population. The war officially ended with a peace treaty signed in 2005, six years before South Sudan would gain independence and form its own country.
“(During the) fighting, and the war for freedom, my husband died,” Akech said. “Somebody shot me, too.
“Only one leg right now,” she said, pointing to her thigh where the bullet passed through. “I (had to) go to the hospital in Ethiopia.”
How did she get from Sudan to Ethiopia?
“I walked,” she said. “Three days, I’m walking… on a cane, to Ethiopia.”
She had one son bring water while another carried food.
It was a difficult, slow and dangerous journey.
“(I prayed), ‘Oh God, help me,’” she said. “I’m very scared, very afraid every day.
“A little bit, a little bit - three days. I’m very tired after that.”
An Ethiopian hospital fitted Akech with a prosthetic leg, and the country harbored her and her family among other refugees until they could travel to the United States.
She and her children first flew to Seattle, where they stayed for two months before traveling to Worthington to be close to relatives.
“I came for family,” she said. “One man (has lived in the area) for a long time. … He’s family for me.”
“People love America. America loves people,” she added. “America welcomes Sudanese.”
Taking classes
In Worthington, Akech began the process of becoming an American citizen through classes at West Learning Center.
“I am a citizen right now,” she said proudly.
She took the oath in 2006. Two of her sons - all grown - have followed her footsteps and become citizens. One has decided to further his education and is now a college student at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.
She continues to take classes to improve her English. In the midst of the turmoil in Sudan, education wasn’t even a possibility, and Akech said she loves attending school here.
“I grew up in Sudan,” she said. “I’m not young. … There was no work (or) high school for me. I’m learning now.”
English is a difficult language to learn, and Akech takes it one day at a time - and “one, one, one, one!” she said, laughing. “English (is) very hard.”
“English is very good,” she added. “You’re going somewhere, you talk in English.”
She takes classes four days a week. The fifth she takes for herself, to run errands, wash laundry and cook, but the highlight is the time she spends with family.
“I’m a grandma,” she said, smiling.
Her grandson is 6 years old and was born in Worthington. His parents - Akech’s eldest son and his wife - live in Worthington, and Akech loves to spend time with him.
“They live very close by me,” she said. “It’s good.”
Akech doesn’t drive, and her son helps her with grocery shopping and various tasks.
“God brought me here,” she said.
She regularly attends a local church.
“I love church,” she said. “Somebody (is teaching) me to read the Bible in English.”
Akech said she enjoys her life in Worthington and feels privileged to be an American.
“In Sudan, no food… no clothes. People (were) very angry,” she said. “Right now, (in) America, there’s no fighting. (There’s a) lot of food, lot of clothes - it’s OK.
“Right now I’m very happy. I’m very lucky, too.” she added. “I’m OK, right now.
“Everything is OK.”

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