Profile Text: Paidamwoyo Hakutangwi
Most Americans can’t relate to a story like Stephen Chambang’s, but many Storm Lakers can. When he was a teenager, in 1983, his home country, Sudan, split between the North and South in a brutal civil war. This pushed his family to flee the only home he had known in South Sudan, first landing in a refugee camp at the age of fourteen.
Five years later, worn from the experience of living in a refugee camp, he moved to the United States and married Sarah Both, also from South Sudan. They landed in the Twin Cities area, where their first daughter was born, and later relocated to Storm Lake, where they now live with their four children. Like many residents, Chambang speaks multiple languages–five of them–including English, Nuer, and Arabic, which has helped him work as a translator for the Storm Lake Community School District and local businesses.
Chambang self-identifies as many things: as Nuer, the second largest cultural group in South Sudan, and as an African, an American, and a Storm Laker. Though he has lived in the United States for 25 years, he has never forgotten life in the refugee camps. The civil war “destroyed a lot of families from the South,” he said, “and people split away to Ethiopia and Kenya to be refugees. I’m a part of those people, so when I came…I remember that the life of the refugee camp…I never forgot. I decided to have something I will do with those people who are now refugees in East Africa: the young people, children, and women in the refugee-camp life.” There were seldom schools and activities, and suicide rates were high.
To address such dire situations, Chambang has made it his mission to improve the lives of displaced survivors and other victims of war through his nonprofit organization, East African Community Development. In 2009, his mother and sisters moved to Matar in South Sudan. With his modest financial support, “they have had up to 300 children and have 89 under their wing to feed and care for,” his organizational website states.
Chambang stands as a resilient example for those in migration, either as a result of civil unrest or economic collapse. He has used his global knowledge in languages to sustain his family here. “I work with law enforcement in the different times of translation or interpreting in the areas of health,” he said. “I work in different areas as a phone interpreter in different locations. People search for my name and call me. I’ve been helping many women here in the USA with difficulties understanding English. So, I help them interpret when they have a welfare need and Medicaid and with children and all the misunderstanding between people and welfare and the person seeking for health.”
In a town like Storm Lake, with astounding diversity, it’s no surprise that Chambang’s linguistic skills are in high demand. “I work with different companies,” he said. “We have two Tyson companies in Storm Lake, which has brought a lot of different ethnics to Storm Lake because most of the people are looking for work. They move from different areas and come here to Storm Lake because of the work they are looking for.”
Chambang is determined to ensure that younger and older generations preserve Sudanese culture. He passionately speaks of the dissonance between children born to native Sudanese parents and children born in the United States. He gave an example of his own family dynamics. His four children were all born in the US, and therefore English is their first language. However, sometimes there are challenges in understanding each other, given that English is a second language to him and to his wife. There are often misunderstandings. Other challenges are in his pronounced dialect, which his U.S.-born children sometimes have issues understanding.
He believes such issues can be resolved by building a community center in Storm Lake and also Des Moines, where there are substantial migrant communities. “We are one body,” he said, “so that’s why we raise this thing up that we can have a community center, so we can do our dancing, we can do our cultures, we can do our weddings and then we can do our graduation ceremonies. Those times will benefit the communities so that we will know the types of the different ethnics, what they do, their culture, their identity…The community center would provide a platform for both the younger and older generation, those born in the USA and those native to other countries, to work together in educating one another about different cultures, especially given that Storm Lake is a multicultural pot.”
There are many challenges associated with the merging of different cultures, of course. According to Chambang, “When I’m talking about a culture, I have to say that we cannot take 100% from the culture we are coming from, from Africa to bring it here.” So, what aspects of the Sudanese culture are currently alive in Storm Lake? Chambang suggested that Sudanese refugees perpetuate their identity by cooking food as they had in Sudan. They should continue to maintain the values of disciplining their children according to Sudanese norms. They should get married in the customary way. And, of course, they should speak in their dialect. These values are crucial to maintaining ties to their homeland.
Chambang also talked in detail about the challenges of assisting refugees, who have next to nothing. Financial resources remain a constant issue for the work he is carrying out in East Africa. Another challenge is that those communities needing assistance are often in remote, war-torn and inaccessible areas, hindering communication efforts. If anyone is up to the challenges of communicating with, and improving the lives of, refugees in East Africa, it is Stephen Chambang.