Racheal Duang of Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice and her remarkable Refugee Journey
In the days following Kristallnacht (November 18, 1938) and up until World War II, some 10,000 Jewish children were transported from Nazi Europe to the relative safety of Great Britain in a program known as Kindertransport.
In the 1980s, as the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983 – 2005) raged, 619 students—60 of them girls—were plucked from the 80,000 South Sudanese refugees stranded in Ethiopian camps. Most of them, like Racheal Duang, were children of military officers in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) resistance.
They were sent to Cuba—alone—for their safety and education. Racheal was among them.
South Sudan gained independence in 2011; two years later, the South Sudanese Civil War began. Although a fragile peace agreement was reached in 2018, the resulting violence, famine, and disease have added to the ongoing refugee crisis.
The UNHCR estimates that 2.5 million South Sudanese refugees live in camps throughout the region, with another 2+ million displaced within the country’s borders.
Racheal lived in Cuba for five years. She returned to Sudan briefly, but then found her way back to Cuba. She hoped to be allowed to stay.
“Yo soy cubanera en mi corazón,” she says, and all these years later, her accent still carries distinct echoes of the island. “I loved it there,” she adds with a wistful smile. “I thought I would stay in Cuba forever.”
Instead, she arrived in Canada as a “lost child” refugee. Racheal stayed in Canada—“it was too cold,” she remembers, “and there was far too much snow”—for another five years. She then joined family members on the American—and slightly warmer—side of the border and eventually became a U.S. citizen.
As for her parents—both of whom miraculously survived the war—they were never able to leave to join her. They are still in South Sudan.
Racheal now lives in Iowa with her three U.S.-born daughters, and although she has lived in various places around the United States, she and her daughters concur that Iowa is the best.
“We love the community here,” says Racheal. “I love that my daughters are growing up, knowing that they have a home in Iowa.”
Today, Racheal is a DOJ Accredited Representative with Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice—our JFON site in Iowa. In an office resplendent with people of all different backgrounds—staff members speak a total of 10 different languages—Racheal stands out. She speaks seven.
“It is common in South Sudan, because of the diversity,” she explains. There are 64 languages spoken in this country of only 13 million people. “At home, we normally spoke five languages: Arabic, Nuer, Anyuak, Shilluk, and Dinka.
Racheal’s extraordinary language ability and her experience as a refugee have made her a powerful and empathetic advocate for Iowa MMJ’s clients.
“I see my reflection in them,” she says. “I’ve always been a nowhere child, and for most of my life, I didn’t know where my home was supposed to be.”
Racheal knows that to live in exile from your native land is never an easy thing. The struggles and difficulties don’t magically disappear once you reach your new home.
“You come from a refugee camp, and here you think you are in paradise,” Racheal explains. “But then there is so much else to cope with…the language, the culture, having to learn survival skills. They cannot afford lawyers. But at Iowa MMJ, we have excellent attorneys. We can help people when they feel vulnerable and voiceless.
“I love working with the people here,” Racheal continues earnestly, “and I feel a deep obligation to help my community. As a Black woman, I have been through a lot, but not many refugees have been as lucky as I am.
“Iowa is my home now,” she says. “And it is their home, too.”