Somali and Sudanese refugees try not to live out their pasts on Kansas City's streets.

Out of Africa 

Somali and Sudanese refugees try not to live out their pasts on Kansas City's streets.

Black Jesus wraps a bony arm around another kid's neck in a reverse headlock. Black Jesus lifts him off the concrete once, twice, three times. All around them, two dozen Somali boys are waging their own battles, their arms flailing as they punch each other. One darts among them, taking pictures with his cell phone and laughing. His unwilling subjects chase him through the melee. Their taunts, spoken in a mix of Somali, Arabic and English, echo through the park, a Greek-theaterlike depression just outside one of the gates to Cliff Drive.

Black Jesus releases his quarry's neck and extends a hand. "Are you OK?" he asks. The boy rubs his Adam's apple and swallows. His expression shows pain, then anger -- before his fist narrowly misses the wispy beard on Black Jesus' chin. Two other kids step between them.

Before long, Black Jesus is after someone else. The others laugh as he chases a young, short, pudgy boy across the grass. Running out of park, the boy turns around and avoids Black Jesus' menacing arms to run in another direction. Elbows and knees flying, stringy beard and disheveled hair flapping, Black Jesus cannot close the gap. The laughter grows loud. "That fat boy can move," someone shouts over the guffaws.

Giving up, Black Jesus saunters, smiling, back to the forgotten basketball court. His prey collapses in the grass near the road. Someone collects the basketball, and a three-on-three game resumes. Black Jesus' team has yet to be beaten.

The fights play out nightly just off Olive Street a few blocks north of Independence Avenue. During games, the players throw up ugly but effective jump shots. Between games, the teens scrap; their roughhousing is brutal. Amazingly, no one bleeds.

The park doesn't have much of a basketball court, just a triangle of concrete with one hoop. Before it became the hangout for Kansas City's Somali teens, it probably was ignored by serious basketball players, who would rather play full-court games. Now it's theirs.

When darkness ends the game, the kids drift away in groups, piling into a Mustang convertible or a white Toyota as the sunlight fades behind the tall trees and houses of Kansas City's northeast. Black Jesus wanders into the wooded ravine across the road.

There are only four guys hanging around when Majak Riak pulls up in a black Honda. Unlike the teens in the park, Majak is Sudanese. He's a little taller, darker and about twice as broad as most of the Somali kids, muscular rather than sinewy. He walks across the grass to the court and talks briefly to the remaining players. He tells them he's still looking for the men who almost killed his father.

Majak walks back near the road and settles down in the grass. As his father was leaving a Sudanese party at the Della Lamb Community Services center the Saturday before, a bullet blew through his windshield and shattered the passenger-side window -- glass is still glistening in his father's right forearm. The gunman and three companions -- all of them Somali -- then stormed into the party, scattering children and scaring everyone.

Majak was out of town at the time, but he's spent most of the last eighteen hours trying to decipher the various versions of the story and looking for the men who had the gun. They were once his friends.

Majak lights a cigarette.

"These guys, somebody has got to get them really quickly," he says. "These guys are not a joke. They are serious. They are scared of nothing but God."

There is a lot at stake, Majak says. If no one punishes these men, the kids who play ball and wrestle and punch in the evening will think it's OK to walk into a peaceful party firing an AK-47. That it's OK to bring a little of Somalia to Kansas City.

Somalis started coming here in 1992. Their country, which follows the curve of Africa's arid east coast, was in turmoil. Longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre had been thrown out in January 1991, and the country was up for grabs, a prize for feuding tribes.

Mohamed Nur, who lives in Kansas City now, remembers the country before the war. "I remember when Somalia was a paradise," he says. "Now it is a Mad Max movie. Over there, there is no way out."

Nur's paradise imploded, drawing soldiers from the United States to help with a United Nations security detail and to escort food shipments into the starving country. Tribal leaders didn't appreciate the effort and waged guerrilla war on the uniformed Marines who fought back. In October 1993, eighteen U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis were killed in a Mogadishu street battle, the story of which became the basis for the book and movie Black Hawk Down. In the movie, hordes of armed and angry Somalis converge on two downed helicopters. But most of the country's people ran from the conflict rather than toward it.

They fled to Kenya and Ethiopia, where they waited in camps and appealed to refugee organizations for help. Hoping to qualify for relocation, they suffered a battery of bureaucratic tests. United Nations officials searched their backgrounds for serious crimes, doctors poked at them, and interviewers sought proof that they would be jailed or killed if they returned to Somalia.

If they cleared those hurdles, UN workers parceled them out to countries wealthy enough to absorb the newcomers. England, Australia and the Scandinavian countries took some. So did Canada and the United States. In America, they went to states with support systems and towns where there were jobs: Minneapolis, San Diego, Dallas, Phoenix. Smaller numbers went to places such as Columbus, Ohio, and to Kansas City.

Here, employees of the nonprofit Don Bosco Nationalities Center at Eighth Street and Paseo boarded the new arrivals in special rental housing. They signed up the immigrants for government support programs, taught them a little English and helped them to use the bus.

It was hard at first. The refugees hardly knew the language. Their new neighborhood wasn't the best, dominated by two large subsidized housing developments on either side of aging houses and small, 1960s-era apartment buildings. Somali women, their heads covered in scarves, shared Independence Avenue sidewalks with prostitutes. Somali boys had to compete with neighborhood toughs for time on the basketball courts.

But Kansas City's northeast has long been an entry point for immigrants. A century ago, a group of Methodist women set up Della Lamb Community Services to help impoverished new arrivals from Italy. Now the organization picks up where Don Bosco leaves off, providing English classes, sewing instruction, assistance with government forms and free lunches for students.

Classes at Della Lamb's center on the corner of Missouri and Woodland fill with Somali and Vietnamese women and old Vietnamese men. They smile, hug and exchange simple greetings -- How are you doing? I'm fine. How are you? Longer sentences flow out in nasal Vietnamese and rhythmic Somali.

The African men are somewhere else, working. Despite their lack of education and their weak English, they've found niches -- parking and washing rental cars at Hertz and Avis at the airport, moving boxes at the JCPenney warehouse, taking out trash and scrubbing bathroom floors in downtown office buildings, busing tables at casinos.

Some of the young men have followed the lead of the older ones, making enough money to buy cars and cell phones and to pay tuition for computer classes at community colleges. Others have drifted from job to job or hustle for spending money. "I call it the lost generation," Nur says.

Nur's fellow Somalis call him the chairman of their community. The annually elected position makes him the official spokesman for the 3,000 Somalis living in Kansas City. The 46-year-old ultimately feels responsible when there's roughhousing in the park -- or gunfire at Della Lamb.

Nur came to the United States in 1989 to go to college in San Antonio, Texas; he went on to graduate from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and now works for Della Lamb. He pushes his son and daughter to do well in school.

But he knows what others are dealing with. Violence is part of any Somali upbringing. He remembers losing a childhood fight and having his mother tell him to find the victor and beat him up. "They are taught you don't back away from anybody. You fight to win," Nur says of young Somali boys. "That is the culture. No compromise." A tribe's survival, he says, depends on the toughness of its people.

Three years ago, that culture defeated Nur's effort to give Somali teens somewhere to play ball besides their isolated park with its triangular court. Nur began opening the air-conditioned Della Lamb gym for pickup games two nights a week. Friday was reserved for older teens and young men, Saturday for the younger kids. Nur figured it would keep them off the streets and help them stay connected to each other and to the Somali community.

The games were popular -- perhaps too popular. Nur found it hard to keep order; he had to referee games as well as keep an eye on 25 boys who showed up to play and watch. There were fights. Then someone vandalized the bathroom, writing curse words on the walls. "That was it," Nur says. Recently, Della Lamb started opening the gym again on Friday nights, this time with more supervision.

Nur knows his charges are disillusioned. "For a young African boy growing up in Somalia, America is like Dallas," Nur says, referring to the 1970s TV melodrama depicting Texan wealth and excess. "That is America ... they expect the green is everywhere, the money is everywhere, and it's not."

That image is crushed by the reality of low-wage manual labor, which is all young immigrants can expect when they've come from a country where there hasn't been any school system in thirteen years. For some, minimum wage is enough money to live in peace.

Nur keeps a list of just a few kids -- five or ten -- who have been a problem for him since they arrived here seven years ago. He's answered his phone late at night and heard complaints that these young Somalis have slashed tires or broken someone's windows. Nur has tried confronting them, but they always claim innocence. He has tried approaching their parents, who demand proof.

Two years ago, Nur heard that the same kids were running with African-American gang members -- the presence of whom upset the tightly knit Somali community. Nur worried that the guests would bring a drug trade to his people. "It was scary, scary," he says.

Other young immigrants can't understand the troublemaking impulses. Mohamed Hussein works at Thrifty car rental and is studying computers at Park University. When he was a child in Somalia, he walked everywhere -- passing dead bodies along the road, seeing dozens of corpses some days. Hussein left Somalia when he was ten years old. Now 22, the memories are not something he wants to revisit.

"This is a country that has a law, and you've got to appreciate what they are doing for you," Hussein says. "They could have just said, 'You guys stay out there. You can't come to the United States.'"

Nur says he would have helped the young men get jobs or an education. But they didn't knock on his open door at Della Lamb. For Nur, it was natural to think that vandalism might evolve into crimes involving guns.

"[As children] they slept every night to gunfire," Nur says. "There's a gun everywhere in Somalia. Small kids have guns."

Majak arrived in 1998. He and other Sudanese immigrants were escaping their own hell. Sudan is the largest country in Africa, separated from Somalia by Ethiopia. Just south of Egypt, its northern end is desert, dominated by Islamic Arabs from the capital city of Khartoum; its southern reaches stretch into jungles where people practice more obscure African religions and Christianity. In between are dank swamps, fertile grasslands and violence. Sudan has endured the longest-running civil war in the world.

For fifty years, since the British colonial government withdrew from the country, its northern-based army has been trying to take control of the grasslands and force the southerners to adhere to Islamic law. The rebels in the south, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, have been fighting for equality and threatening secession.

Civilians have seen soldiers steal their livestock and crops, force their young men into military service and kidnap their children in a freakish resurrection of the country's slave-trading past.

Majak and his family were Christians living in the south. His father, Awan Ater, worked for Chevron, helping the company figure out property rights and negotiate with locals in its quest for oil. Chevron moved the family to Khartoum in 1983 and sent Ater to California to train for a year. By the time he returned, the company was pulling back its Sudanese operations; Chevron would leave the country altogether in 1990.

In 1991, infighting within Sudan's ruling party started a new round of violence. Along with many of their countrymen, the members of Ater's family were evicted from their homes and sent to a camp in the desert 25 miles outside of Khartoum. Help from the United Nations made the camp just livable, with water wells and rows of tents. But children attending the makeshift schools were forced to learn Arabic and study the Quran rather than the secular curriculum southerners favored.

The government frequently detained people it perceived to be its critics -- Ater was arrested twice. He remembers listening through his tent as soldiers beat and tortured his neighbors, hearing their screams: Leave me, please! Leave me, please! "It is something that will never go out of my mind," he says.

In addition to his own trouble with the army, Ater had another problem. His oldest son, Ater Riak, would soon be conscripted and sent to the south, to fight members of his own family.

Ater bribed government officials for a visa that would allow his son to travel to Egypt. Helped by Islamic friends, Ater followed. The rest of his ten children came later, renting an apartment in Cairo and applying for refugee status and a new start. Within five years they were cleared to move to the United States -- and they settled in Kansas City.

Ater found work with Don Bosco, helping new arrivals adjust. He entertains visitors at a tiny plastic table in the yard of his house on Minnie. His grade-school-age daughters deliver iced tea and sugar on trays and offer soft hands for visitors to shake.

Ater is the deputy chairman of Kansas City's 1,500-member Sudanese community, a post similar to the one Nur holds for the Somalis. His living room is decorated with pictures of his family and certificates from their achievements in school.

None of those accolades is for Majak. Ater's second son arrived in Kansas City a little too old for school. Instead, the young Sudanese man got an education from the Somalis he met in his neighborhood.

Business is booming at the corner of Lexington and Brooklyn. Two-story brick buildings face each other across Lexington, their windows displaying signs in English and Arabic.

Men wearing short-sleeved silk shirts and sandals linger outside the Somali restaurant Macmacaanka Banadir, sipping orange soda and ducking inside to check Al-Jazeera on a giant television. From a steam table, a lone employee serves goat, chicken, and a dish made with hamburger and onion.

Somali women in flowing scarves usher small children into Towfiq Halal and Safa Halal, the two small markets that sell specially slaughtered meat and other groceries.

Next to Safa, the Al-Sharif Store supplies carpets, blankets, silk flowers, shiny pots and pans, cassettes, cologne and prepaid phone cards for calling almost anywhere in the world, from Mexico City to Djibouti. Owner Sharif Siad says he has built a successful business and isn't afraid that his store will be broken into and looted like the one he ran in Mogadishu.

At the corner, immigrants from many African countries greet each other, now members of essentially the same community.

But Siad lost a little of his sense of peace when he heard about the July 12 gunfire at Della Lamb.

"It's not good news," he says simply.

No one kept exact count, but on that Saturday, several hundred Sudanese were gathered at Della Lamb's multipurpose center to honor the elderly Angelo Akok Mawien, who had taught from 1957 to 1990 in the Gogrial region of southern Sudan. He had recently arrived in Kansas City from Cairo.

"He was a very good teacher," says a man who identifies himself only as Ring, a Sudanese elder who helped organize the party.

The event was like a giant family reunion with visitors from South Dakota, Texas, Minnesota and Nebraska -- an all-ages gathering where the men wore slacks and ties and the older women put on brightly colored African tunics. Younger women wore fashionable skirts, and little girls giggled in their lacy dresses.

A bountiful potluck was set up underneath one basketball hoop, and people loaded their plates with fried chicken legs; a casserole of potatoes, liver and vegetables; puffy, flat bread known as kissra; and pudding. They found room to sit on the bleachers or at one of the long tables set up around an area kept clear for dancing.

A small podium had been set up beneath the other hoop, and speakers took turns praising their former teacher. Mawien himself said a few words about the importance of education. Then the dancing started. Groups of men and then groups of women stomped their way around a circle to the rhythmic accompaniment of drums and singing. By the end, couples were dancing to American pop music played by a DJ.

"People were happy," Ring says. "Suddenly that thing happened."

Some people heard the shots outside. Others reacted to the shouting that followed -- a flashback to violence halfway around the globe, a reminder of guns and screams and tents and blood.

"This is the first time we heard the sound of bullets since we left Sudan," Ring says.

Karen Doerr was standing in the hall just inside the entrance when four men came in, one holding an assault rifle.

"He was yelling in Somali," says Doerr, Della Lamb's English-language coordinator. "I just took the kids. We ran into one of the classrooms, and we shut the door."

Majak's older brother knew the men. He grabbed the muzzle of the gun and pushed it down, shouting, What's going on? What do you want?

There was more shouting, and the gun fell to the tile floor. Someone picked it up but dropped it again, and one of the men picked it up. Before police arrived, the four walked back out, got into a car and left.

Majak was in Columbus, Ohio, driving one of 25 school buses from the Midwest to the East Coast, where they would be shipped to Nigeria through an international aid program. Midway during the 35-hour trip to Baltimore, he stopped to call a friend.

Speaking in Dinka, his friend told him his father had been shot. "I was confused," Majak recalls. "I really thought he was dead."

Rather than explain, the friend told him to call his house. Majak was relieved when his father answered. His brother told him the names of the men involved.

Majak arrived home at 3 a.m. on a Thursday. He slept until 9 a.m., then started driving around, stopping to talk to anyone he knew and looking for the four who had terrorized the party.

He heard dozens of versions of the story. One Sudanese man painted the picture of a Columbine-style school shooting with people crowding the exits and a gunman firing at everyone he saw. Someone else told him the gun had been used in a murder in Minnesota.

He heard Somali variations as well. One Somali said the shooting had come after a group of unprovoked Sudanese men beat up a Somali who was having car trouble. Another said that Somalis from out of town had antagonized some Sudanese men at the party, but it was the Sudanese who turned violent by beating up an innocent Somali who passed by later -- hitting him with a bat before he stumbled to the nearby apartment of armed Somalis, who then took off across the street to Della Lamb, firing the gun to scare, not kill.

Some Somalis think the shooting was justified. The younger ones who hang out near the Somali stores think the Sudanese might have deserved it.

"From my point of view, it's right, because that's how it is," says a 22-year-old Somali who goes by the name Papa Luchi. "Somebody fuck with you, you don't sit around until they make the next move. We are human beings. Human nature was known to be very violent."

Majak says he found a Sudanese friend who had fought with the men on the sidewalk before they got the gun.

Like Majak's family, Aban Ohtow had been caught up in his country's civil war. Unwilling to participate, he fled to Ethiopia -- but the Ethiopian government had changed, and the camps there were closed. Ohtow found himself in Sudan again, walking for weeks before arriving at new camps in Kenya.

There, Ohtow volunteered to drive a truck for the United Nations. Through his connections he was offered refuge in the United States; now he works at a sheet-metal factory in Kansas City, Kansas.

Ohtow's third-floor apartment opens to a balcony that looks out on Della Lamb. That Saturday, he was watching people arrive for the party. Then he saw two cars pull up on the street. Out of the first climbed one of his friends, a Sudanese. From the second emerged five Somalis.

Like Nur and Majak, Ohtow knew the Somali men. They lived in an apartment downstairs. He'd seen girls go in and out of the apartment. He'd heard parties late at night. He'd noticed them carrying something wrapped in a blanket from their car.

They jumped his Sudanese friend, pummeling him from all sides. Ohtow ran down the stairs to help. Taller and stronger, he grabbed a bat from one of the Somalis and went to work with it. He says he clocked one Somali on the head, dropping him to the street.

Then one of the Somalis retreated into the apartment and came out with the AK-47. One police officer would later laugh at this detail, saying every gun gets identified as an AK-47 -- though he would also acknowledge that ten assault-rifle shell casings were found at the scene. But Ohtow is from Sudan. He has seen AK-47s.

He ran past Ater's car. The Sudanese leader was just leaving the party. Ohtow believes he, not Ater, was the target of the bullet.

The day after the shooting, Nur gathered some Somali elders and paid a visit to Ater. "The Somali community was horrified to learn that a Somali young man will take a gun and shoot at somebody," Nur says. "These are people who fled from guns."

They saw the car's broken windows and Ater's arm, dotted with cuts from the glass. They said they would help any way they could and apologized on behalf of the gunman.

"My idea was to intervene before Sudanese gangsters retaliated," Nur says. "There are a couple bad kids in any society. We have to work together."

Ater says he had to calm some of the young Sudanese men, including his son, Majak.

"God helped me. He didn't kill me, kill anybody. Let it go," Ater says. "I told them it was not intended. It is just something like an accident."

Majak wasn't convinced. He found friends and relatives of the party crashers and told them: Deliver the gunman, turn over the gun and apologize, and all would be forgiven. "The gun. Bring it, and we can throw it in the Missouri River," he told them.

He got no apology. Instead, he says, one day when he stopped at the Somali restaurant for a Coke, someone he recognized as one of the Della Lamb shooter's friends threw a firecracker at his feet as he walked by. Then another as he continued walking. Then a third. Majak stopped.

"What you going to do?" the man asked. "You're a bitch, Majak. You're a bitch."

That night, Majak says, he and three of his friends tracked down the man with the firecrackers, and the two fought in a park at 12th Street and Woodland. Majak says he beat up the other man, and there have been no firecrackers since.

Majak never heard from the shooter or the three other men who burst into the party. Another Somali man told him they had left town, taking their gun with them.

He figures maybe it's OK that the police didn't find the shooter, that they haven't really looked. The men with the gun had to leave the city.

"This will show them -- you do something like that, you've got to run away," Majak says. "They already know we know every single one of them."

Maybe that is enough. Kansas City is a good place.


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