People of many colors live in Sudan and speak more than 300 languages. My father’s people were from Egypt and Turkey. My mother was from Ethiopia.
For 25 years, my father and his family owned a famous bakery in Ethiopia. He made baklava, kunafa and other Middle Eastern desserts for the Italian community there. My father was very smart, and he spoke seven languages. He had a can-do attitude, and he loved me.
By the time I was seven years old, I could crochet, sew and embroider. In elementary school, I received a basic education. Everyone studied the Koran, reading, math and several languages, including English. At home, we spoke Arabic, Amharic and English. Our family believed in Islam and practiced our faith.
In 1962, when I was nine years old, my father moved our family to the capital city of Sudan near the juncture of two rivers, the Blue Nile from Ethiopia and the White Nile from Kenya. My father baked in our house, and everybody helped. My mother became well known for making delicious sambusa and falafel, and I learned to do everything.
In a geography class in my country, we learned about America and other countries in the world. “Today, we’re going to visit a friend in Australia,” our teacher said. We got to know friends across the globe, like Harry from America, John from Australia and Gretchen from Switzerland. It was a very positive class, and I learned that we have a world family.
I was twelve years old when I married in 1964. In our culture, a daughter’s family chooses someone for her to marry, and she can’t say no. Islam says the young woman has a choice to marry, but in practice, she just is not asked.
After I married, I went with my husband’s family and lived in their house in the capital city near the Nile River. In my country, the married sons stay at home to help their parents, and the daughters leave home to be with their husbands. My first child was born when I was thirteen years old.
I couldn’t go to school again because I was married. I read a lot and bought story books like Robin Hood, history books, Egyptian books and mysteries by Agatha Christy. I gathered a small library of books in my house. (Nowadays, technology has taken the place of reading books. The young people just stay on the Internet or play video games. They don’t like to sit and read. Times are changing.)
My husband was a teacher in the elementary school. We had nine children born in Sudan, three sons and six daughters. After I married, I did what I had seen my family do. I sewed for my children, washed clothes by hand, fed the chickens and cooked food for my family. We went to market every day to buy fruits, vegetables and fresh breads. The farmers have small shops. They kill the cows or chickens in the morning, so the meat is very fresh.
We were not rich or very poor, and everybody worked hard. I didn’t have much freedom, but it was my life, my destiny. I taught my children to get a high education, finish school, be good and help one another in their marriages and neighborhoods.
In Sudan, there is a university, and I longed to go to school. Many times after I was married, my father told me he wanted me to be a doctor or something to have more than this. He was sad for me.
My children are very smart. My dream was for all of them to get a high education, but that didn’t happen. After my oldest daughter married, she couldn’t go to school. I had hoped she would become a doctor. Now, she is a mother with three children, still living in Sudan. Her oldest child is attending the university.
Things were going down in Sudan, and sometimes the government didn’t have money to pay teachers. There was not enough opportunity for education for our children, and my sons had trouble with the government. In my country, you can’t say no to the government either.
My oldest son fled to Ethiopia and then Egypt. My husband and I left Sudan and went to Egypt for a year with six of our children. We left two daughters and one son in Sudan. Then, someone sponsored my oldest son. He went to America as a refugee and settled in Salt Lake City.
Two years after my husband came to America, I came with our four daughters. We arrived here in 2003. We got housing in an apartment complex. Our life in a new country was okay for me, but it was difficult for my children. I saw possibilities, and it made me aware of many things.
My husband and I studied English and took a computer class one day a week. It helped me to speak the language. When the UNP school opened in 2005, I was the first student. When we graduated from a class, we got a certificate. The program is very good, and it even helps new mothers get to class by taking care of the children.
At the apartment complex, I became one of the leaders. We have people from more than 20 countries such as Burma, Turkey, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. We help people to learn English. We knock on doors and encourage them to come to class.
Every year at Hartland, we have a party where refugees cook their native foods. Five years ago, I brought baklava like my father made. After people tasted it, they said, “Please, Muna, will you bake for me?” That gave me the idea to start a catering business.
At the age of 64, I’m not young. My children are married and gone, and I have 22 grandchildren. If I just stay in the house and my mind has nothing to do, it will close. I apply for jobs, but I am not hired. So, I take business classes, and I save $65 a month to get a grant to start my business, the Blue Nile Community Kitchen.
After I came to America, I was more free, but this is not my country. I don’t have money to start a business, and I don’t have an education. Still, I try. We don’t have many problems here, and life is easier. I am helping my children and helping my community.
“Education is most important,” I tell them. “You have to study what to do in this country and learn the language of the country, so you can help yourself and get a job. After finishing school, then you can do what you want.”
Some refugees are afraid of the white people, but if you hide in yourself, that can’t help. You have to think how you can learn and grow. God made me and made them with two eyes and two feet. We are the same, one color or another. God made us all.
I am from Sudan, and I have found my place here in America. “Why did you come here?” is not a good question. Ask Columbus why he came here. It is my destiny. Once, my dream was to graduate with my children. Now, I hope my children can have a better life and get a high education, for that is the way to freedom.