A Lost Boy in Louisville: One Refugee’s Story

A Lost Boy in Louisville: One Refugee’s Story

In the Kakuma, Kenya refugee camp where Deng Manyoun spent most of the 1990s (Zoriah / Flickr / 2009)

As Deng Manyoun stumbled across a crosswalk in central Louisville, Kentucky on the afternoon of June 13, 2015, a Metro police car pulled up to the curb. A white police officer, Nathan Blanford, stepped out of the car and approached Manyoun, a thirty-five-year-old refugee from South Sudan and Louisville resident since 2008. The two men argued before Manyoun stormed away and retrieved a flagpole from a storefront nearby. He returned and swung the pole at Blanford, but missed, snapping it in two against a curbside mailbox. Blanford backed away and fired two shots at Manyoun, who fell to the ground. He was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

Protests against Manyoun’s shooting began as early as the next day. Local activists created a makeshift memorial outside the smoke shop where he had been killed. By the following week, the memorial displayed a collection of anonymous tributes to Manyoun’s life that stretched the length of the street corner. “Stay Strong My Black People Even As We Are Shot Down Like Dogs In The Street #BlackLivesMatter,” read one message; “Rip Brotha #YourLifeMattered,” read another.

For local activists, the killing of a black South Sudanese refugee by a white officer clearly mirrored the racial violence and police brutality that has shaped the lives of people of color in so many other American cities. The lethal force that endangered black people in Ferguson, Missouri and in Louisville, Kentucky were the same. For the protesters, Deng Manyoun was no different from Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, or Eric Garner—other black men killed by the police in recent years—even if he had wielded a flagpole against the officer. As one Louisville activist told a local TV station after the shooting: “De-escalation tactics are not used when it comes to people of color.”

For Manyoun’s community of South Sudanese refugees in Louisville, this sentiment is familiar. Refugees resettled in Louisville, as in most American cities, are expected to assimilate into a society in which racial discrimination is widespread, especially when it comes to interactions with the police. Most members of the South Sudanese community I interviewed recalled—often without even being asked—a troubling encounter with the local police, whether it was a skeptical glance by an officer on a street corner or a spurious traffic violation on a local highway.

Community leaders also noted the unwillingness of the Louisville police to investigate crimes against South Sudanese residents, a pattern of inaction that they viewed as emblematic of the distance between their community and local law enforcement. In 2004 police were allegedly slow to investigate the killing of James Kuch Mangui, a South Sudanese refugee gunned down in an apartment complex near the University of Louisville campus. “The guy [who shot Mangui] was never arrested,” said one South Sudanese community leader. “The community felt they were being treated as if they were separate.”

Despite these experiences, however, the South Sudanese community has been reluctant to participate in recent protests against Deng Manyoun’s killing organized by local Black Lives Matter chapters and activists in Louisville. When a BLM activist approached a community leader about joining forces, the leader refused. “Their issues were different from our issues,” he said. In some sense, the rest of Louisville seemed to agree—as they grappled with the racial implications of Manyoun’s death, there was little emphasis on the life he had lived as a refugee from war. Both refugees and activists seemed to view Manyoun’s story through the prism of their own concerns.

But Manyoun’s life in Louisville—and in Nashville before that—cannot alone be explained by the discrimination he confronted as a person of color. Rather, his story illustrates the ways in which local racial and social inequalities can exacerbate the already complex and often difficult process of refugee resettlement. In Manyoun’s case, his continuous encounters with adversity, his homelessness, his unemployment, and his alcoholism point to one of the shortcomings of refugee resettlement programs in the United States: the limited and short-term public support that these programs provide are inadequate for supporting refugees’ protracted transition from countries in conflict to the American cities in which they are resettled.

Resettlement programs claim to help refugees fulfill the most ambitious of American dreams: of “self-reliance and individual responsibility,” as the U.S. State Department has put it. With hard work and a bit of perseverance, the logic goes, a better life is possible for those fleeing some of the world’s gravest atrocities. But for too many, this rhetoric of self-reliance obscures the harsh consequences of limited public assistance and inadequate long-term social support offered by resettlement programs. They are simply not enough to achieve the self-sufficiency that resettlement programs advertize, nor, as in Manyoun’s case, even survive. In time, many tens of thousands of refugees who are resettled in the United States each year do “make it”: they become citizens, find gainful employment, and actively contribute to their local communities. We have much to learn from the stories of those who do not.

 

In 1986 seven-year-old Deng Manyoun left Marial Bai, the town in southern Sudan—now South Sudan—where he was raised. Civil war between the central Sudanese government in Khartoum, local paramilitary groups, and the fractious Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) had begun three years before. The violence hit civilians in the surrounding Bahr el Ghazal region hard. By the late 1980s, a manmade famine and targeted attacks by Khartoum-aligned militias in Bahr el Ghazal had driven thousands of Dinka civilians like Manyoun from their homes. Some settled in northern Sudan, while others, Manyoun included, traveled across the border to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. He left behind his parents, a twin brother, and four sisters.

After spending six years in a camp along the Ethiopian border, Manyoun made his way to Kakuma, Kenya in 1992, where a UN refugee camp had been established the year before. He was one of thousands of children who had fled violence and hunger accompanied by few or no family members. Those who arrived in Kenya were lucky; most of the 20,000 children who made the long initial trek from southern Sudan to Ethiopia—and later, to Kakuma—did not survive.

The situation of these children drew global attention to the broader crisis in southern Sudan, especially that of American Christians who had long been involved in aiding refugees throughout the region. Aid workers and journalists began to refer to the children, most of whom were male, as the Lost Boys of Sudan, a reference to Peter Pan. By the mid-1990s, churches across the United States were organizing fundraising appeals and advocating increased U.S. government and UN assistance to these and other Sudanese refugees, especially to fellow Christians like Manyoun. The attention bore fruit: in 1999, the U.S. State Department, in coordination with UNHCR, began transporting the Lost Boys (and select Lost Girls) from Kakuma to the United States. According to UNHCR estimates, by 2001 about 3,400 South Sudanese refugees had been resettled in more than three dozen American cities.

Manyoun arrived in Nashville, Tennessee in 2001 with approximately 150 other Lost Boys. When he arrived, he likely received a copy of Welcome to the United States, a workbook developed by the State Department to help guide resettled refugees through their early months in the country. The first edition of the workbook outlined the general expectations that both the U.S. government and society at large have for resettled refugee communities: “One lesson that you will learn quickly is that most Americans value self-reliance and individual responsibility. You will be expected to go to work as soon as you can find a job and begin to support yourself and your family.”

From the start, Manyoun’s life in the United States could not have been further from these expectations. In Nashville, he struggled to hold down a job. He accumulated a series of minor and major criminal charges, including two DUI convictions in the span of just three months. Courts also found him guilty on six other criminal charges between 2002 and 2005, including traffic-related offenses and two counts of sexual battery, for which he was sentenced to a year in jail. In 2005, another DUI conviction led to his driver’s license being revoked, leaving him with few forms of documentation to support his search for employment.

Manyoun moved to Louisville in 2008, where a cousin of his promised him a fresh start. He did not fare much better there, despite offers of assistance from the thousand-plus members of the city’s South Sudanese community; in fact, his situation worsened. Manyoun had not suffered from depression as a child, according to a friend in Louisville, but it now shaped much of his experience in the new city. Months before Manyoun’s death, a counselor at a state psychiatric hospital would tell a South Sudanese community leader that Manyoun’s “situation [in Louisville] had put a depression on his life.” Although those who knew him well say his personality was mild-mannered, he was violent when he drank, and over the span of seven years in the city, was arrested sixteen times, mostly for disorderly conduct.

His despair deepened when his cousin, his host in Louisville, moved away in early 2011. With little employment and his cousin’s support dwindling, the cost of Manyoun’s rent became untenable. Manyoun spent many days and nights of his final two years in homeless shelters in central Louisville. Refugee agencies all but lost track of Manyoun, who had neglected to transfer his case file from the Catholic Charities office in Nashville when he moved to Louisville.

By early 2015, it became clear that there was to be no permanent home for Manyoun in Louisville. Fourteen years after arriving in the United States, Manyoun had not applied for American citizenship. He could have applied in 2006, after five years of residence in the United States, though his multiple felony charges likely did irreparable harm to his case. He also continued to lack necessary identification for employment. A friend encouraged Manyoun to return to South Sudan, where his siblings still live, but he expressed reservations about the uncertainty of such a trip; he had, after all, lived in the United States for close to fifteen years. “I don’t know nobody” in South Sudan, Manyoun told his friend. Even so, he began to make arrangements to leave Kentucky for his birthplace. “Why did God take me from Africa to America?” he asked one acquaintance. “He doesn’t want to help me anymore.”

It was around that time that Manyoun began to push the limits of his faith. In mid-April, a leader of the South Sudanese community in Louisville received a call from a state psychiatric hospital, where police had brought Manyoun after an alleged suicide attempt. At the hospital, Manyoun insisted that he had not attempted to take his life, but rather that he had tested God’s will to save him.

 

Manyoun’s case, while extreme, raises many of the challenges that refugees confront when they resettle in the United States. Currently, the U.S. government accepts 70,000 of the world’s 14 million refugees, a number that the White House has proposed to increase to 100,000 by 2017. Sudan—after Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia—has long been one of the top countries of origin for refugees worldwide. There are currently approximately 43,000 Sudanese living in the United States, many of whom came as refugees fleeing the Sudanese Civil War that began in the early 1980s. The criteria for determining who qualifies as a refugee and what happens to them once they are admitted to the United States is determined by domestic U.S. refugee and resettlement policy, passed into law in 1980 and modeled on the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.

For refugees for whom neither voluntary repatriation to their home country nor integration into the country where they first applied for asylum is possible, resettlement in a different country typically becomes the only option. Resettlement is the process by which refugees travel from the country where they initially applied for asylum to a third country that has offered them a permanent home. Those governments that offer resettlement must provide refugees a path to all rights enjoyed by citizens, as well as basic legal and physical protections. Resettlement is a rare option for refugee assistance, and less than 1 percent of the more than 14 million refugees worldwide are resettled. According to the State Department, the U.S. refugee admissions program accepted more than half of all refugees resettled worldwide in 2014. It is one of a handful of Western countries to do so.

To determine eligibility for resettlement, the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security work with UNHCR to select and screen refugees. Once an individual has been accepted, a network of nine domestic agencies work with resettlement offices abroad to place refugees in specific communities in the United States. In recent years, more refugees have been resettled in Kentucky than in most other American states—in 2014, the state hosted approximately forty-one refugees for every 100,000 residents. Small cities like Louisville have become a preferred location for resettling refugees due to the lower cost of living for new arrivals and therefore, less pressure on public funds to support them. Louisville, which has absorbed successive waves of refugees since the end of the Vietnam War, has been central to the evolution of the state’s resettlement services.

As in Louisville, resettlement agencies often place refugees in areas where others from their home country have moved, or where local organizations can provide services like translation, both of which can ease the transition into American life. Although resettlement is one of the most “durable” of the options for refugee assistance that UNHCR promotes, the cultural, political, economic, and linguistic challenges of resettlement are many. Once refugees have been relocated to an American town or city, the central objective of resettlement programs is to help individuals overcome these barriers with as little public assistance as possible. For their first ninety days in the country, refugees receive funds for food, clothing, rent, and medical care—the basics they need to subsist while they and their families pursue full-time employment. Resettlement officials and volunteers also work to advance the job prospects of refugees through courses in English as a second language, driving, and professional skills like computer literacy. By the end of that period, refugees are expected to have found employment and to cover the necessities that the U.S. government funded when they first arrived.

For many refugees, the combination of temporary cash support, training in vocational skills, and assistance in finding employment is enough to get them on their feet. For others like Deng Manyoun, whose transition proves more challenging, this is not enough. Several South Sudanese refugees I interviewed recalled the uncertainty of full-time employment following the global financial crisis in 2008. Many also noted a glaring incongruity between their professional and academic backgrounds in southern Sudan and the employment they expected in the United States. One Sudanese-American man I interviewed, who was granted political asylum in Syria before moving to the United States in 2003, holds a degree in geology from the University of Juba. He arrived in the United States expecting to put his degree to work. But in Louisville, he was only able to find employment as a laborer in the warehouse of a global logistics firm, before rising in the ranks to a white-collar desk job several years later. For those who are able to find full-time employment, those who can speak English or learn it quickly are often able to advance more quickly than those who cannot. The employment challenges that refugees confront in Louisville mirror those they experience in the broader United States. The unemployment rate for refugees in 2013, the last year this data was available, was 14 percent, almost twice the annual unemployment rate for all Americans during the same year.

Despite these challenges, refugees are expected to find full-time employment as quickly as possible. While the resettlement program’s “self-sufficiency model” was an early emphasis of U.S. assistance, it has been further entrenched as a top resettlement priority as conservative fiscal reforms have eaten away at the United States’ postwar system of social welfare. The 1996 welfare reform bill, which transformed the social safety net from a civil right for all Americans to a privilege for those able to find employment, also established an expiration date for refugee entitlements. The bill shrunk the Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income eligibility window for resettled refugees from an indefinite period to seven years. Benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides cash aid to eligible families, last for five years under the terms of the welfare reform bill. When refugees’ welfare eligibility expires, as Manyoun’s did by 2008, unemployed refugees have access to few social programs beyond those offered by volunteers or charity organizations in their communities.

Even as they support a refugee’s initial months in the United States, federal funds provide little support for long-term care and social welfare beyond the first ninety days of a refugee’s resettlement. General resettlement funds increased by 50 percent between 2012 and 2014, but most of those expanded funds were earmarked to support the resettlement of unaccompanied minors from Central America who have gathered along the southern U.S. border in recent years. The sheer number of refugee arrivals from Central America and their direct impact on both the American public and on social services quickly garnered additional funds for their support. This response is consistent with the U.S. government’s prioritization of resettling refugees from countries where it has a vested geostrategic interest, such as Cuba, Haiti, Iraq, or Afghanistan.* As in the past, agencies not active in the resettlement of refugees from specially designated regions or countries have seen little of that funding increase since 2012.

In fact, funding for major programs that support the health and well-being of refugee communities, including trauma counseling for torture victims, has remained stagnant. The result is a substantial gap between the assistance provided by federal funds and the needs of both refugee agencies and the communities they serve. “The failure to provide sufficient resources and inadequate long-term planning by federal agencies, alongside stresses brought by local backlash against the resettlement system, has had a corrosive effect on the resettlement agency network,” stated a 2014 survey of the refugee resettlement program conducted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. A 2008 Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) study cited in the survey found that federal resettlement funds only covered 39 percent of the agency’s programs during that year. Like all federally funded resettlement agencies, LIRS relied on a combination of private funds and volunteer support to cover the shortfall.

The part-public, part-private nature of resettlement agencies’ work also leaves programs like mental health counseling, a secondary priority for many resettlement organizations, subject to the whims of charitable donations, rather than being sustained by a consistent supply of public funds. Charitable donations and volunteer support have allowed many agencies, like Louisville’s own Kentucky Refugee Ministries, to provide diverse services. But this is little substitute for the scale and scope of programs that public federal funding can facilitate.

While the United States leads its counterparts in the number of refugees it resettles each year, other countries offer more generous public resettlement assistance as part of a broader system of social support. As soon as refugees are resettled in Belgium, for example, they receive up to seven weeks of housing in a government reception center. As they transition from the reception center to individual housing, they also receive social support from Belgium’s municipal welfare centers for no less than twelve months, four times as long as the standard cash allowance is available for refugees in the United States. The existing Belgian safety net, combined with more generous and longer-term support ensure that those refugees who struggle to find a reliable source of income in the first months in their new home have a better chance of successful resettlement. The comparative results speak for themselves: in 2014, an annual index of migrant integration indicators ranked Belgium sixth out of thirty-eight countries in providing comprehensive political, social, economic, and cultural support to its foreign-born population, including refugees; the United States was ranked tenth.

As Manyoun’s case makes clear, the resettlement program’s overwhelming emphasis on economic self-sufficiency and yet, inadequate resources to achieve it, is both unrealistic and ignores the other kinds of support that could aid the transition to life in a new country. The preliminary employment assistance that refugees receive during their first ninety days only succeeds at the margins; in general, the livelihoods of refugees remain precarious many years after they arrive, as indicated by the persistently high levels of unemployment among resettled refugees. Beyond quick employment, U.S. public assistance often also falls short of the broader standards and objectives that UNHCR sets out for resettlement programs worldwide. These include measures of personal welfare, such as a refugee’s mental health and communal participation. Incorporating a more holistic definition of what successful resettlement entails would not only ensure better public assistance, but also be more in keeping with the humanitarian mission of accepting refugees and offering them a home in the first place.

 

In response to the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe this September, Secretary of State John Kerry announced plans to modestly increase the annual cap on refugee admissions to the United States from 70,000 in 2015 to 100,000 by 2017. Having accepted only about 1,500 Syrian refugees since the civil war began in their country in 2011, the administration also plans to devote 10,000 of its new admission slots to Syrians. Even this sevenfold increase in admissions assists only a fraction of the total Syrian refugee population of 4.3 million.

In the wake of the Islamic State’s attack in Paris in November, xenophobic vitriol from Republicans, governors, and legislators has threatened to upend the U.S. government’s timid shift in policy towards Syria. If the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe in September prompted a more generous resettlement policy by both Democratic and Republican officials, the fearmongering of those who wrongly view those fleeing their homes as synonymous with terrorists has had a chilling effect. The anti-refugee stigma and irrational Islamophobia espoused by high-ranking members of the Republican Party, combined with legislative attempts to burden the screening process with additional security requirements, threaten to dismantle the resettlement program and the assistance it provides.

For their part, advocates for additional refugee assistance have attempted to counter anti-refugee sentiment by arguing for the lasting contributions that refugee communities have made to American culture, society, and the economy. As economists Michael Clemens and Justin Sandefur wrote in Foreign Affairs in September 2015, for example, “[p]eople who flee crises are seeds, scattered by a storm . . . As each farmer pushes the seeds downhill onto someone else’s land, they pile up and become a burden. Alternatively, farmers can share the seeds and all reap a rich harvest.” These advocates highlight cases of newcomers who used government assistance, received support from local communities, and worked hard to create new, prosperous lives for themselves in the United States.

Resettlement programs echo this belief—they are currently designed to benefit only the ambitious and the entrepreneurial, those refugees who are able to overcome the traumas of their past and contribute to American society. But what of those like Deng Manyoun, who do not thrive but rather, struggle to get by? In moral terms, a refugee’s relative “contribution” to the American economy or culture should not make a difference; their resettlement is a matter of humanitarian obligation, rather than an expectation of a commercial quid pro quo. Manyoun’s life and death should challenge the rhetoric of our resettlement programs as well as our expectation that refugees should seamlessly integrate into their new American home in exchange for a safe haven.

Manyoun’s move to the United States may have brought him sanctuary from a life of war and impoverishment in southern Sudan. But the scant and temporary measures on which he subsisted were not enough to help him survive. The consequences of poverty were further compounded by the racism that people of color regularly confront in Louisville. Refugees from Syria that the United States has pledged to admit in greater numbers will no doubt encounter similar racism and xenophobia unless we confront the stigma that currently colors debates about their resettlement.

There is much the U.S. government can do to assist refugees fleeing from the world’s worst violence—starting with admitting its fair share. Regardless of the quality of our resettlement programs, the expansion of refugee admissions is a matter of unequivocal moral obligation. But that same moral obligation also requires that we think seriously about what happens after resettlement. Sustainable and robust resettlement assistance is every bit as crucial to the fulfillment of our moral duty of offering a true sanctuary for those fleeing war. Without it, the refuge we offer is little more than an empty promise.


Daniel Solomon is a writer based in Washington, D.C. His writing has appeared online in the New York Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. His last piece for Dissent was about the historian Tony Judt.

* Update (February 1): This article was modified to clarify that the U.S. government prioritizes resettlement of refugees from specific countries, not that refugees from these countries receive preferential treatment.