Volunteers in Lincoln help ease the way for South Sudanese in Massachusetts

By Heather Beasley Doyle

In May 2001, Lincoln resident Susan Winship organized a presentation introducing a group of South Sudanese refugees to fellow Massachusetts residents. The arrival of “the lost boys of Sudan,” as the 150 young men were known (five women were also part of the group) — thousands of young men who had fled their homeland on foot a decade and a half earlier during the country’s second civil war–had been widely covered in the media.

The stories had piqued Winship’s attention. A social worker taking a career break to raise her children, she didn’t know then that being in the packed auditorium that night would herald a new and enduring chapter in her life.

Winship soon became one volunteer in a network dedicated to helping the South Sudanese as they learned the ropes in Massachusetts. Nineteen years later, her empathy for their plight and passion for her work comes across clearly.

“At that time, it seemed incredible that there were these teenagers that were expected to survive in America,” she said.

Many of the lost boys were as young as 7 in 1987 when they were tending cattle and saw their villages burned by North Sudanese during Sudan’s second civil war (South Sudan became an independent nation in 2011, only to see its own civil war erupt). Many of them orphaned, about 12,000 boys set out on foot, and spent the next 13 years as nomads, wandering or living in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Nigeria. Many died along the way. Historians call the violence that drove the lost boys from their villages “the worst genocide ever,” Winship said.

Creating a nonprofit

Immediately after the presentation, Winship went with others from the event to a potluck at Codman Farm in Lincoln — and before long, three of the young men resettled at the farm, eventually graduating from Lincoln-Sudbury High School.

The arrangement hinted at how community efforts could help the commonwealth’s new residents. Winship points out that unlike other immigrant populations, the South Sudanese had few elders, thanks to the war, let alone a network of compatriots to act as intercultural interpreters.

“There was no one here to welcome them into a community,” Winship said.

Moreover, the South Sudanese came from villages where “there was no written language, there were no books.”

“Everything was different,” she said, from food and dining customs to the weather and use of electricity. “Try coming here when you don’t know any letters or numbers. There were so many crises.”

Winship and a cohort of dedicated volunteers continued on, soon becoming the South Sudanese Enrichment for Families. The group soon realized that if the refugees were going to stay in Massachusetts, SSEF, headquartered in Lincoln, should become an official nonprofit (they received 501c3 status in 2004) with an executive director. Winship was up for the role.

“I had no idea that this would last a lifetime,” she said. “I’m on the phone every day with five to six Sudanese.”

Handling life’s demands

Over its 19 years, SSEF has adapted with intention, keeping the needs of its target community at the forefront. Initially, South Sudanese in Massachusetts needed an education, often from the bottom up.

“When they first came [here], their motto was ‘education is your mother and father,’” Winship said.

SSEF worked to get refugees into local high schools and to provide college scholarships. They have dealt with employment and rent issues — and still do.

Today, the lost boys are men with wives and children of their own. The women, too, are Sudanese; many in the Boston-area community returned to their native country, married, then brought their wives back to the U.S. Their stateside families have new needs at the nexus of biculturalism, parenthood and building a life in the United States. SSEF brings the South Sudanese community together to celebrate their culture and to provide insights into American life, from health care to education.

Torn between two families

The families served by SSEF live lives at the intersection of two very different places — norms and needs. The lost boys and other refugees who arrived a generation ago are in contact with whatever family they still have in South Sudan.

“They’re constantly being barraged by phone calls from their families saying ‘help,’” Winship said. “And what can they do?”

At the same time, they’re raising their own children in the United States, trying to set them up for success on American terms.

“The kids are caught between Sudanese culture and American culture,” she added.

Faced with the choice of sending money to elders in Sudan or investing in their children’s education, the family in Africa wins out, Winship said.

Seeing this, SSEF has made sending South Sudanese children to preschool and summer camps a priority. Moreover, Winship and the organization’s 40 volunteers offer programming through the Bridges program, connect local South Sudanese to housing and services and offer a listening ear. Some of the cohorts that arrived in 2000 have thrived, Winship said, while others — some of whom have dealt with serious health issues — continue to struggle.

“I’ve worked with them now for 20 years and there are still a lot of issues,” she said.

It takes a village

The work has been rewarding, but also exhausting. Hearing so many stories of violence and upheaval led Winship to step away from SSEF for five years.

“I’ve learned so much about them, but there’s a lot of strife in the community and there’s a lot of trauma,” she said.

Winship looks to the town of Lincoln to support the Boston-area South Sudanese diaspora. Individuals have stepped up with loans and other forms of aid. Reaching out to residents has also proven fruitful; whether through the Lincoln Family Association or Lincoln Talk, the local community is eager to help.

“In a place like Lincoln, there are so many wonderful resources,” Winship said.

Between the many successes and the organization’s 20-year anniversary in 2020, there’s cause to celebrate. That celebration will take place on April 11, at Brandeis University. Winship said SSEF could use additional volunteer help to plan the event.

Winship remains enmeshed in the South Sudanese community, in part, because of the good it has shown her.

“The donors and the volunteers give me hope,” she said.

So do the people she first set out to help.

“You expect them to be angry and sour, but they’re not,” she said. “They’re so happy to be here.”

To learn more about SSEF, visit ssefboston.org.

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