Sarah Gabriel was a happy child. She grew up in a large extended family of 10 children with everything she wanted, including a pet monkey, in South Sudan. The civil unrest in the country meant nothing to an eight year old until one day when everything changed forever.
“May 16, 1983, in the morning, I heard what I thought was thunder. I liked the rain because we children liked to play in the mud,” said Gabriel.
When she went to breakfast, her mother told the family that the country was in civil war. Gabriel didn’t know what that meant but she knew it must be bad because her mother was nervous and crying.
Before the day was out, the family was fleeing with what they could carry away from the “thunder,” guns of the fighting forces. The next day, they arrived at her mother’s Dinka village where life was very different from the comfortable town. They lived for two years in the village huts, not going to school as the children there had to work with the cattle and get water. When another tribe started to steal cattle and children, her mother decided to take the family to their father’s village.
“Through all that, we thought we would get to go home again, but we never did get to go home again,” said Gabriel. “We were in a jungle area there with many animals and once a python almost ate me.”
Her father was an official in the Sudanese People Liberation Movement, the political arm of the Sudanese People Liberation Army, the rebels fighting for more freedom in the country. The rebels had relations with Cuba and her father was sent to a diplomatic post in Cuba.
Gabriel’s uncle sent soldiers to take the family, running on foot most of the way, to a refugee camp in Ethiopia where they could get UN help.
“We found dead people along the way, we were shot at. We were terrified. It was going to be my 10th birthday on April 27 and my mother promised me we would celebrate it in Ethiopia. As we were talking about it, a bullet passed between our faces and killed a cow nearby,” Gabriel paused, remembering the horror.
Gabriel has written it all in her recently published book, My Resilience: A Dinka Girl’s True Story of Civil War in Sudan. The book includes chapters on growing up in Cuba and immigrating to Canada.
With their mother’s encouragement and love, the family survived life in the camp and attended English classes. Then the children were sent to a rebel training camp where there was a chance for them to be sent to Cuba for further education. They lived in residences together, taking care of themselves, cooking what little was given to them and going to school with Cuban teachers who taught them Spanish. One group of children escaped and was murdered outside the camp.
Rescue came when Gabriel’s father had the family, including their mother, taken away to a home where they would wait to go to Cuba.
“It was a mansion where the important people in the government stayed before. Suddenly I have a big room, hot water to bath, nice, clean clothes, and a maid to cook for us. When I turned 11 in 1986, my mother gave me the party she promised. My father sent a gift from Cuba, a dress with a tie in the back,” she said.
“The Cuban people I knew were happy and singing and dancing salsa and I thought that going to Cuba was not going to be bad at all.”
She flew to Cuba with some other children to meet her parents and other family members who had gone on ahead. The family reunion was short lived. Her parents decided that she and her siblings would go to a Cuban school for South Sudanese children where they thought they would be safe.
“They didn’t want us to lose our culture and forget that we were Sudanese. We had Sudanese teachers and Arabic classes. The country was beautiful and peaceful. What we didn’t like was we had to work in the grapefruit orchards around the school, but it was good. Fidel (Castro) did good for youth,” said Gabriel.
At that time, Cuba had schools for young people from around the world, educating them to go back to their own countries as communists. Students from different Sudanese tribes mingled, as they would never have done at home, and because they were too young to know they should not like each other, they became friends and learned each other’s languages, many staying in contact for years as adults.
“When communism fell in Europe in 1991, Cuba was cut off and things changed. There was little to eat. Some countries could provide for their students but Sudan couldn’t. Fidel decided to keep the children. He said, ‘We will share with our African brothers.’”
Gabriel spent 12 years in Cuba, seeing her parents, who later returned to Sudan, only a few times. She caught up on missed schooling and started university, studying accounting. Some students went back to their countries but many of those who went back to Sudan were killed in the on-going fighting. Gabriel did not know what had happened to her parents and family.
In 1998, the UN asked Canada to accept some of the Sudanese from Cuba as refugees.
“I decided to come to Canada to see if could search for my family in Africa,” she said.
Her introduction to Canada was cold in Toronto with no winter clothes, and colder in Ottawa, but at least she had been given winter clothes by then. After a month of English classes, she was on her own to find work and moved to Alberta where she worked as a meat cutter and trained to be a food inspector. She moved to Vernon in 2004 and accepted a job with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, where she still works.
“I find the people in Vernon very friendly and interested. They told me I should write a book. I thought that because each time I tell my story, I cry, maybe if I tell my story, I will get free from all that is hurting me inside. And maybe if I tell my story, it will change somebody’s life. I wrote it like I would tell it to anyone and people tell me it is easy to read and even has some humour in it,” she said. “I had help from a lot of people. Frank and Pam Hilliard helped me with the editing.”
Gabriel is currently writing a second book about what happened when she found her parents, how she was able to help them, and her visit back to Sudan.
“I have kept my values my parents taught me. I have my life and friends here,” she said.
Gabriel will be reading excerpts from My Resilience Aug. 29 from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Public Library. For more information call Vernon and District Immigrant Services at 250-542-4177. My Resilience is available by contacting Gabriel at firstname.lastname@example.org.