By day, Rachel Obal is in America, but when she sleeps, death darkens her dreams. Nightmares carry her back to her native South Sudan, to the decades of war that tore her country apart and forever imprinted scenes of unimaginable brutality.
“It’s horrible,” she says of the recurrent memories. “Even though I try to forget them, they will never go.”
There is no way to erase the brutality she witnessed, but the trauma of an endless war did not destroy Rachel Obal — or, incredibly, her faith in humanity. Now a Jacksonville resident, she is known simply as “Mama Rachel,” a name she first earned in an Egyptian refugee camp where she cared for other women who’d fled Sudan. The name followed her when she moved to Northeast Florida, where she became a matriarch of the large local refugee community — in addition to her own nine children.
Obal has a regal bearing and a look that is put together, but not fussy (she doesn’t do her nails, she explains, because “God gives you hands to work”). In her role as an intensive case manager for Catholic Charities, she is a lifeline to new refugees, bewildered by an unfamiliar language and unimaginable technology. For years, part of her job was teaching new arrivals how to use a stove and how to flush a toilet — seemingly simple things can be disorienting to someone new to the country. Today, her work focuses specifically on those who face the most challenges adjusting to life in the United States. Social service agencies have just 90 days to help refugees assimilate to life in this country — often not enough time for those with medical or mental health issues that prevent them from finding work. Obal counsels these people, helps them navigate government bureaucracies and offers them hope in the form of her own life story. She knows, like they do, what it means to survive horror. And through her own experience as a refugee, she intimately understands the struggle of starting over with nothing.
Obal was born in Akobo, a farming village near the Sudanese border with Ethiopia. Her immigration papers indicate that her birthday is Jan. 1 (many refugees share the same, government-issued birthdate). Obal isn’t certain of the date, or even the year she was born, but she believes she’s either 60 or 62 years old. She says she had an idyllic early childhood, sleeping in a thatched hut, with fences to keep out wild animals (lions, hyenas and elephants) and nets to protect against mosquitoes. She passed her time hunting and fishing with her father, a farmer who grew corn, sorghum and beans. Her grandfather was considered a nobleman, and because they were a family of privilege, and because her father spoke Arabic along with their native dialect, when Presbyterian missionaries came to the village, her father became the first church elder.
It was the missionaries who built the schools in Akobo, which Obal says she was “so lucky” to attend. Traditionally, young girls weren’t permitted to get an education; they were raised to be good wives to fetch a decent dowry. The cows or money paid to the bride’s family at the time of the marriage formed the basis of the family’s wealth. But Obal’s father had spent several years in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum and understood the importance of education for both men and women. He insisted that his children — seven girls — all attend the missionary schools.
Peaceful village life was shattered by the start of the first Sudanese Civil War in 1955. The conflict erupted over tensions between the military in the largely Islamic North and rebels in the South (where Obal lived), who were mainly Christian. Rumors spread that government troops were on their way to Akobo, and though Obal was very young at the time, she remembers her mother hurriedly packing a few items before the family had to flee from the village to the forest for safety. They stayed in hiding for five days. When the shooting subsided, the family returned — but the idyll of Obal’s childhood was gone forever.
“When people came back home, people were not in peace, people were in fear,” Obal recalls. It would remain that way for decades. The first phase of civil war continued through 1972, and there were other waves of violence in Akobo, more shootings and death. “We can see the bullets like fire, like stars moving,” Obal says, “I didn’t know how we are alive.”
In 1964, the war escalated in the South, and the government ordered all foreign missionaries out of the country, effectively shutting down the schools. Obal and her classmates in the intermediate school joined demonstrations and took to the streets, chanting, “We need freedom for the South.” “We were not afraid because we want development for the South. We want equality, we want the North and South to be equal,” she recalls. Government troops fired tear gas at the protestors and, on one occasion, Obal was knocked unconscious and had to be briefly hospitalized. Many of her young friends — even the girls — joined the armed rebel movement, but Obal did not go. Instead, she supported the rebels financially, with money she earned mending handkerchiefs and tablecloths. It was not without risk. Security forces closely monitored village life, and when she was just 15 or 16 years old, Obal was reported for aiding the rebel movement. She was arrested and jailed — locked up overnight along with six men, also rebel supporters. The following morning, she watched as the men were tied down and brutally executed — each one run over by a bulldozer. Afterward, Obal says, the District Commissioner summoned her. “[He] said ‘You are a girl. If you were a man, you could die like those people, so stop assisting the rebels.’ ”
She ignored his warning. After she was released from jail, she continued to support the Southern Sudanese fighters. “All in all, I am going to die,” Obal reasoned at the time. “Even though I don’t support them, I will die. I support them, I will die. Those are my people and I must fight for our rights.”
When Obal was about 17, she entered into an arranged marriage with a Sudanese college student, Philip Obang Oyway, who was studying in Britain. They moved to Khartoum, and her husband became an ambassador. The family was quite wealthy with several homes Obal says were “like palaces,” as well as multiple farms. The couple’s nine children were born during this relatively stable time for the family. But the war in Sudan began again in 1983, and some years later, when the fundamentalist Islamic government in Khartoum imposed Sharia law, any Christian working in the government was expected to become a Muslim. “Otherwise, you would disappear,” Obal says. Her husband refused, and left the government to join the rebel movement. The Sudanese government confiscated all of their properties and Obal and her children ended up in a displacement center in the desert. There, they built a home, painstakingly creating each brick out of mud. Obal used all of their remaining money to hire lawyers to fight for her family’s possessions, and was left with nothing.
Still, Obal had one thing that most of the women in the camp did not — an education. She taught the women — many of them widows — how to read and write and how to raise money. She created an organization called Dwalo Cingu, which means “Let Us Join Hands Together,” and organized about 50 women to make and sell handicrafts. “It was a very good income,” says Obal. “It was a help to all of us.”
When the government decreed that the women could no longer sell their wares on the street, Obal contacted the foreign Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that had moved into the region to provide aid. ?She persuaded the NGOs to open a bazaar where the women could legally offer their crafts for sale.
The experience of being a refugee fundamentally changed her outlook on life. “It made me a new Rachel,” she says. “Before the war, I was like ‘Madam,’ I have people serving me … when things fell apart and I went with those who are suffering, I felt that I am among them and I should do something for it.”
But Obal’s activism brought fresh scrutiny from the country’s security forces. A sympathetic member of those forces warned her that she’d been blacklisted and urged her to leave the country for her own safety. She fled with her children to a refugee camp in Egypt, where they watched from afar as the situation in their country continued to deteriorate. After two of her oldest children left Egypt, and believing her husband to be dead, Obal applied for a resettlement program through World Relief. She was accepted to resettle in the United States, and began a new journey — this time as a single mother of seven dependent children.
The family arrived in Jacksonville in November 1999, and was placed in a two-bedroom apartment off Jammes Road on the Westside. Obal knew some English from her days in the missionary school, but it wasn’t enough to get a job immediately, or even to navigate the city’s transportation system. She found the bus system impossibly confusing and got lost three times. “The good thing is, I didn’t give up,” she says. “I hope in my heart that things would be better. I kept struggling, struggling.” She attended classes at what was then Florida Community College at Jacksonville, and went every Saturday to the library to read. And not long after arriving, she attended a Thanksgiving dinner at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Timuquana Road. There were about 40 refugees at the dinner, recalls parishioner Mary Chowenhill — a fourth of them Obal’s immediate family. After the meal, Obal asked permission for the group to sing a song of thanks.
“She’s pretty dominant no matter where she is,” says Chowenhill, “she’s just that kind of personality. They sang this absolutely beautiful song and it was very moving to me.” Chowenhill struck up a conversation with Obal and discovered that four of her children had been assigned to Robert E. Lee High School, where Chowenhill teaches government and economics. She became a mentor and tutor for the entire family. ?“They were excellent students,” she says. “I was kind of like a safety net. We just started ?a friendship.”
In 2000 and 2001, approximately 3,800 young orphaned men, known as “The Lost Boys of Sudan” were resettled in the United States, and 85 of them were assigned to Jacksonville. Obal had been volunteering with refugees through Lutheran Social Services, and with an influx of Lost Boys coming from her home country, LSS hired her as a case worker. When former Lost Boy Abraham Kuany stepped off the plane at Jacksonville International Airport in August 2001, Obal was one of the first to greet him.
“She start talking in Arabic,” Kuany recalls. “She told me that she is from South Sudan. It was really very helpful. We felt like we could ask anything we want. She was like a mother to us.”
More than a decade later, that relationship hasn’t changed. Obal is still involved in the lives of the Lost Boys and, Kuany says, “She always shows up whenever a need arises.”
In 2005, Obal learned that her husband, whom she believed had been killed in the war, was still alive. They made plans for him to come to the United States to see his family for the first time in almost 16 years. Ambassador Oyway had been involved in a peace agreement that was signed in Khartoum in June that year, and at that time, doctors discovered that he had a brain tumor. He died before he was able to see his family and, because of her refugee status, Obal was unable to get the paperwork she needed to attend his funeral in Sudan.
Obal is now a United States citizen. She owns her own home, a four-bedroom, two-bath house on the city’s Eastside, which was built through HabiJax, the Jacksonville affiliate of Habitat for Humanity. “I am living in my own house, that I made with my own sweat,” she laughs.
Obal is still working with refugees, now through Catholic Charities, and she considers the job her calling, a way to “pay it forward” after the assistance she received when she arrived in the country. Visitors in her Sudanese village, she explains, fell into one of two categories — your guests, or God’s guests (a person you do not know.) When God’s guests arrived, the village would sacrifice a large rooster or a ram to give the traveler a warm welcome and then invite him into their homes to sleep. “I found that also in America,” she continues, “although you don’t open your doors for us to sleep, you open your pockets.”
The director of Refugee Resettlement at Catholic Charities, Michelle Karolak, says Obal’s service to refugees goes beyond what is expected. “What I really appreciate about Mama Rachel is that this woman can do anything and will take on any challenge,” she says. “She’s constantly improving herself, and that should be a lesson for everyone — not just refugees.”
Obal’s 25-year-old daughter, Gloria Oyway, considers her mother her hero. “She never really let us see the hardship she was going through,” she says. Oyway recently graduated from the University of North Florida, and all eight of her siblings attended college, a fact that Oyway credits to her mother preaching the importance of education.
Several of Obal’s children say they plan to use their education and their earnings to support development in their native country. And the opportunities for change there are great. After a half-century of war, South Sudan gained its independence last summer, peacefully seceding from the North. It was a day of celebration for Sudanese refugees around the globe, and in Jacksonville. “That is hallelujah,” says Obal, “this is our dream. The dream of those who died and the dream of those who are still alive.”
There are massive challenges ahead for the nascent nation, which lacks basic infrastructure and has a largely uneducated citizenry. Obal, along with other members of her church, is working on a plan to develop schools in South Sudan. But she believes it is women who will be key to the country’s development — that it’s up to the women to build a better country through the new generation.
“I encourage the women to start development within their families,” Rachel Obal says. “To raise better children who can love and share, so when they grow up, they can forgive, they can be patient, and they can do something good for themselves and others.”
To listen to Karen Feagins’ original interview with Mama Rachel on 89.9 WJCT, and hear her read her poem about women and peace, go to http://bit.ly/yiIM5u