How these Sudanese refugees in Calgary are stepping up to protect their youth

The Sudanese community in Calgary is struggling with a growing number of its young people winding up in jail or dying from avoidable causes, according to local leaders.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Stephen Deng, a Sudanese refugee and a counsellor at Wood’s Homes, a mental health centre for children, who also works with youth at the Young Offenders Centre. “The community can’t cope with it.” 

Neither the Calgary Police nor the province currently carry race-based data on homicides or opioid overdoses, but Deng says funerals for young people have become all too common in the Sudanese community. He knows of 15 deaths in 2020 due to gangs, gun violence, drugs, suicide and overdoses. Last October alone saw five such deaths in the community. 

“Everybody knows somebody who has died or passed away in Calgary because of either gang violence, drugs or an early death that could have been preventable,” said Maddie John, who came to Canada from Sudan as a refugee when she was nine years old. “It makes me feel like our community is cursed or something…. Why is it so close to home every single time? … It’s just overwhelming.”

Maddie John came to Canada as a refugee when she was nine years old. The single mom says she grew up and went to school with the people who have died in her community. (Ellis Choe)

Now, members of the Sudanese community are stepping up to try to address the root causes of the problem, as well as improve relations between them and the Calgary Police.

The Sudanese diaspora

According to the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, the city has the largest Sudanese diaspora in Canada with an estimated population of more than 17,000. Most are from South Sudan. 

Ever since Sudan’s second civil war began in 1983, leading to the birth of South Sudan in 2011, the African nations have faced ongoing conflict and political instability. During this time, nearly two million Sudanese have been killed, and countless others displaced, creating one of the largest refugee crises in the world. Since 2013 alone, more than two million South Sudanese have fled to neighbouring African countries for safety, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

Thousands from South Sudan went beyond Africa’s borders and settled in places like Calgary to seek a safer, better life. 

It’s a community that escaped violence and death only to face it again in Canada. 

“We have gone through so much,” said Akeir Mel Kuol, a family counsellor who also came to Canada as a refugee. “So many deaths, so many family separations, so many families breaking apart. It breaks my heart…. We’re very, very sad and some regret coming to Canada because they thought they were running away from poverty, running away from war and lack of education.”

Instead, they’ve encountered many of the same problems here.

Her husband’s brother was shot and killed last year because of gang violence. He was 22 years old.

Joseph Jal is Akeir Mel Kuol’s husband and the pastor of CrossPointe Miracle Centre Church. His brother died from a gunshot wound in January 2020. (Ellis Choe)

Poverty, racism and cultural barriers

Kuol says the tragedies stem from underlying factors such as poverty, cultural and language barriers and large, broken families. 

“We’re culturally encouraged to have a lot of children,” said Kuol. “Imagine if you have seven children, and let’s say the marriage broke apart. You’re now a single parent … you’re living in Calgary [subsidized] housing … seven children at home … the older ones want to survive. They want new things. They want money. They want to go out for lunch.

“But you can’t give them money….  What’s the next option? Some guys at school or in the community are dealing drugs, or they’re doing some interesting things to gain money.” 

Then to top it all off, there is trauma that was not dealt with from the war back home, said Kuol.

“We don’t receive counselling. Nobody talks to us about counselling.”

Akeir Mel Kuol, right, and her husband Joseph Jal. Both work together at their church and at Best Help Family Foundation, a grassroots organization Akeir founded to support fellow Sudanese refugees with counselling, accessing resources and delivering culturally-familiar food hampers. (Ellis Choe)

Racial profiling is also an issue in her community, she said. 

In one case a school principal accused a student of stealing a fur coat, said Kuol. The student denied the accusation, but was arrested at school anyway. Later, police discovered the student had purchased the item.

“So how do our young men trust that police would be on their side?” said Kuol. “How can we rewind the fact that you just embarrassed this kid in front of the entire school? How do we go back and explain to all the children that, ‘oh, we’re sorry. He was telling the truth.’ These kinds of stories come our way every time.” 

The Calgary Police Service (CPS) has faced many calls from racialized communities for systemic change, especially after the protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

Earlier this year, the CPS launched a new anti-racism action committee. Its mandate is to identify systemic barriers to accessing police programs and services. The committee hasn’t yet released its strategic plan, but Kuol says she has already noticed a change. 

“I do have hope that the relationship between the community and the police is getting better and will get better because now we’re working together,” said Kuol. “We’re asking questions. We’re getting to the bottom of the problem.”

Educating newcomers

Calgary Police Constable Abdi Hassan agrees the future looks more positive.  

“Because I come from an African background, I feel they are more trusting towards me, and they are excited [about] working with me as they feel like I would understand their community needs,” said Hassan, who works in the diversity unit, specifically with the Latin and African communities. 

He said more work could be done to educate newcomers about the legal system in Canada. The CPS has a workshop called You and the Law for newcomers, but Hassan says the messaging needs to be taken to the grassroots level in the community. 

Stephen Deng also wants to help improve relations between law enforcement and the local Sudanese diaspora. In 2015, he became the first Sudanese graduate of the Calgary Police Service Auxiliary Cadet program.

Stephen Deng was the first Sudanese graduate of the Calgary Police Service Auxiliary Cadet program. He wanted to help bridge the gap between his community and the police. (Ellis Choe)

“I want to set an example,” says Deng. “I want to bridge the gap. Some of them see the police as an enemy… But I wouldn’t blame them because they … come from a different cultural background…. I want to show them that [police] are the people that are there to help you out…. They are there to protect you.”

Refugees helping refugees

Despite the hardships in the community, Deng, Kuol and others like them are working hard to change their community’s narrative. 

“I am very passionate to help my fellow Sudanese because I have experienced the pain,” said Kuol. “I thought the same way they thought, I felt the same way they felt: scared to ask questions. I was scared to go talk to someone else.” 

Through her church, Kuol launched an organization called the Best Help Family Foundation to provide parenting seminars, link families to resources such as lawyers, deliver culturally-appropriate food hampers, and provide counselling services.

Maddie John says Kuol has helped her a lot as a single mother. 

“I believe there is hope because I was one of those people who could have ended up dead or in a situation where I overdosed on drugs or something,” said John, who is now a volunteer at the foundation and church. “But instead I had an encounter with amazing people who are in the church who want to serve the community, and through having that relationship, I was able to get out of that kind of situation.”

Kuol also wants to use her foundation to help young people achieve their goals, like she did.

“Nobody was cheering me on when I was in school,” she said. “Nobody was saying, ‘great job, you’re doing amazing, you will do great things.’ We don’t have that. Our parents never got that so they cannot give us what they don’t have. So our organization cheerleads for our young men and women telling them, ‘you are smart, you can do it. If I can do it, you can do it. You’re smart, you’re strong. Go get it.'” 

About the producer

Ellis Choe is an associate producer with The Homestretch on CBC Radio One in Calgary. 

This documentary was produced with Alison Cook and made through the Doc Mentorship Program.

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