He fled Sudan, Now He's Lost No More
On World Refugee Day, the plight of immigrants will take center stage along with calls for expanded admittance
Jacob Niahl bags groceries at Albertsons, handling fresh produce, milk jugs and wayward shopping carts with ease.
The recent graduate of Tacoma's Foss High School looks forward to college in the fall, spends hours in the library and watches reruns of "The Bill Cosby Show."
"Jacob is a 19-year-old with the mind of approximately a 30-year- old," said his foster mom, Andrea Reubel. "He's very driven, very focused, ... very independent, very private, very respectful, responsible and appreciative."
What he isn't anymore is lost.
As one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan, Niahl and tens of thousands of other refugees fled civil war in their home country in the late 1980s, walking barefoot across the sweltering desert to Ethiopia and some eventually to Kenya.
His story of escape from war and persecution is one of four that will be told tonight in the premiere of "Settling in Seattle: Refugee Youth in Film," a documentary that advocates for increased admittance of refugees to the United States.
The film will be shown at the University of Washington on World Refugee Day, followed by a panel discussion with the four Seattle-area young people featured: Niahl, Samir Etemi of Kosovo, Marwa Al-musawi of Iraq and Y Dam Bhu of Vietnam.
"Settling in Seattle" is co-sponsored by the International Rescue Committee, a non-sectarian agency whose Seattle regional office has helped resettle more than 16,000 refugees locally since 1976, and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The documentary has been distributed to those agencies' sites across the country.
The number of refugees admitted to the United States dropped by more than 100,000 in the past decade. Only 27,186 refugees were admitted in the last fiscal year, though the government had approved slots for more than 2 1/2 times that number, said Bob Johnson, Seattle regional director for the International Rescue Committee.
He attributed the shortfall to processing delays created mainly by post-9/11 security requirements.
About 14,300 refugees have been admitted to the United States in the current fiscal year. More than 20,000 others who have been approved for admission are "languishing in camps in Africa, Asia and the Middle East," according to the New York headquarters of the International Rescue Committee.
In a letter yesterday to President Bush, the agency's national board called for more resources to screen refugees, arguing that refugees should be given higher priority than regular immigrants.
The same point is made in "Settling in Seattle."
"When we were in Africa, we said that when we'd go to America, ... we'd get a good education and we'd learn better and we'd do a good life," Niahl says in the film, which is directed by Lisa Russell of New York. "And so I'm very proud to be here."
He does not talk much on camera about the horrors of his childhood. Reubel, though, has heard about how Niahl and her two other Sudanese foster children -- John Niahl, Jacob's 18-year-old cousin, and Jacob Dau, 19 -- endured famine, experienced the bombing and burning of their village and witnessed the deaths of other boys by gunfire and by alligators as they crossed rivers.
"I can go to bed at night and sleep," Jacob Niahl says in "Settling in Seattle," his soft voice hinting of sadness. "But when I was in Africa, ... I was just wondering, thinking that someone may come in and kill me. ... So I feel secure now."
In an interview this week, Niahl said that he was separated from his family when was about 6, walking first to Ethiopia, back to Sudan and finally to Kenya, where he spent nine years at Kakuma Refugee Camp.
Niahl arrived in the United States in April 2001. He will attend Saint Martin's College in Lacey on scholarships and plans to study political science and go on to graduate school.
After that, if "I believe I can go back to Sudan and make a difference, then I'll go back," Niahl said yesterday. He has created a foundation to help Sudanese refugee children get a better education in Kenya.
"I have no doubt that Jacob will use his education and his life for the betterment of humankind, here in the United States and Sudan and who knows where else," Laurie Ruiz, who teaches civics and government at Foss High, says in the film.
While the film gives most of the screen time to Niahl and his foster family, it also gives glimpses into the lives of Etemi, al-Musawi and Bhu.
Al-Musawi, a 14-year-old Muslim, left Iraq a decade ago and lives with her family north of Seattle.
"Most of my friends ask me if my parents make me wear my scarf and jacket," she says on film, sitting next to the stuffed animals on her bed. "It's something I want to do."
Bhu, 21, who uses a pseudonym for security reasons, came to the United States seven months ago and lives in South King County. He is a Montagnard, the indigenous people of the central highlands of Vietnam, who are persecuted by the Communist regime because of their ethnicity and Christian faith.
Many protesters of the government were forced to "dig their own graves," Bhu says on film, and his family still has hardships in Vietnam. He is studying English and works full-time at a Vietnamese restaurant.
Etemi, 21, escaped Kosovo four years ago when the Serbian regime threatened Kosovar Albanians. Despite a learning disability, he has persevered at Puyallup High School, studying with special education teacher Ashley Barker and helping other students.
In the film, he expresses frustration at the difficulty in learning English -- and at American students who skip class.
Preceding the showing of "Settling in Seattle" tonight will be "A Great Wonder," a documentary about two young men (Abraham Dut Jok Aguek and Santino Thiep Lual) -- and a young woman (Martha Arual Akech) -- from Sudan who now live in the greater Seattle area.
"A Great Wonder" tied for first place for best documentary in a vote by viewers at the recent Seattle International Film Festival.
The film, directed by Kim Shelton of Ashland, Ore., intersperses images of strife-torn Sudan with the story of the Lost Boys and their touching, sometimes rocky resettlement.
The film ends on a poignant note, with Aguek relating a dream of meeting his sister along a road in Sudan. "Nothing can compare to it," he says. "It's a good thing to be with a family."
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