Conflict & Justice

Why Sudanese-American Children Are Learning Their Parents' Language

By Annie Feidt

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In a small classroom in a Baptist church in Anchorage, Mading Bol asked for volunteers to read a short passage in Nuer, his native language from southern Sudan. Three kids up front leapt out of their chairs to get Bol's attention.
"Me! Oh, me!" they yelled.

But Bol called a quieter student sitting in the back. The student began to read aloud a short story about a man and a woman who milk a cow. The story painted a picture of a life the kids had never known. They were born in the United States, most of them in Omaha, Nebraska. Their parents were re-settled there in the 1990s after fleeing civil war in Sudan and enduring 10 to 15 years in the refugee camps in Africa.

Bol has seven children, all born in the U.S., and he said none of them is really comfortable with the Nuer language. He said his 12-year-old daughter Nyagoa used to speak Nuer, but when she started school here, she lost it.

"Now, I cannot communicate with her well in Nuer," Bol said. "She forces me to go and speak in English."

It is a common story among the Sudanese in Anchorage. So, last summer Bol and other leaders in the Sudanese community decided to start the Nuer language classes. Daniel Gatkuoth, another teacher, has six daughters, and he said they all have trouble communicating with his wife.

"My wife doesn't speak good English. How can the parent live with the children (if they don't understand them)?" Gatkuoth said.

There are now about 1,000 refugees from southern Sudan living in Anchorage. Gatkuoth arrived in the city in 2008. Like many Sudanese here, he left Nebraska when the economy went sour, hoping to find work in the oil fields on Alaska's North Slope. But the oil companies weren't hiring, so Gatkuoth found a good job with the Anchorage School District, as a language and cultural liaison.

Gatkuoth's real passion, however, is teaching Nuer three nights a week. On this night, there are about 30 students, divided among three classrooms. The oldest kids sit at long tables in a bright room at the front of the church, repeating Nuer phrases that their teacher calls out.

Thaech Wal, a fifth-grader, was born in New York, a few months after her family arrived in the U.S. Thaech said the classes are helping her communicate better with her mom.

"When I talk, I talk in Nuer and English mixed up; like if I were to say a word, or a sentence in Nuer, I would put a little bit of English in it."

The classes are also helping Thaech feel connected to the place her parents are from. She's writing a report on South Sudan for her elementary school class. She said she's seen videos from the country, but can't quite picture what it looks like. She does know one thing, though; it's hot in Sudan, and that's a big contrast to her home here in Alaska.

"I don't like snow because it's cold and freezing," Thaech said.

A lot of the kids – and adults – at the language class feel this way. But even with their complaints about the climate, none of the Sudanese families has any plans to go back to its newly independent homeland. They say it is still too unstable. Mading Bol said he would like to return some day with his seven children. In the meantime though, he says he's focused on building a strong Sudanese community in Anchorage.