As an oldest daughter, it’s hard for me to ignore a need for help.
Five years ago it was impossible to overlook “Tong.” He stood more than six feet tall. Lean muscle, covered in mahogany-colored skin. Now it is difficult to get him out of my mind.
He had walked up to my tutor’s desk and introduced himself. His official college status was freshman. He was enrolled in English Composition and Western Civilization and needed help with both. That’s how I came to know his story.
Tong was born in the African country of Sudan. He arrived in the United States and the Midwest where I was a college tutor by fleeing on foot when his country was torn apart by war.
Often by night, other times in daylight,he crossed field, deserts
and political boundaries. He managed to elude any and all military and make his way into Egypt. There he eventually met up with members of his tribe who had connections that helped him get to the United States.
One of his tribe, with whom Tong shared many physical similarities, had already achieved fame in the Midwest as a basketball player. His experiences made it possible for Tong to follow and enroll in college. Their people had no written language. So Tong had first been challenged in his new life with learning alphabet symbols and then words in order to take regular college courses. That happened in introductory English as Second Language (ESL) courses.
His next big challenges — understanding meaning of the vocabulary words in the context in which they appeared and also gaining skills to express himself in writing. All of which led to my desk.
In the middle of that first full college semester, Tong learned he needed to get critical information about his family’s health history. He had no written history about himself. It didn’t exist. The only person who would have the necessary info was his mother. Back home in Sudan, she was unreachable by phone. So Tong returned to the country he had left and found her. (I can scarcely imagine her feelings upon seeing him, knowing that he was alive, and then having him leave again.)
On his way back to the United States, visa in hand, he was stopped in the airport by members of the military who demanded to know why he was not fighting for his country. He later described the feeling of terror he felt when he was detained and interrogated. But he managed to stay cool enough to convince the soldiers who were attempting to conscript him that he should be permitted to leave. He made it back safely.
I continued to see Tong over the next several months. However at the start of the next school year, I learned that he was no longer enrolled. I do not know why. I do not know if he remained in the United States.
This past weekend I read that Sudan, which started out as one country, then divided into two (North and South), is once again roiled in a power struggle resulting in violent bloodshed, terror, widespread famine and fleeing refugees.
Today I learned that under the President’s new executive orders, Sudan is one of those countries from which travel is banned for the next ninety days. The new order is said not to exclude those holding valid visas.
I wonder where Tong is. I wonder if he went back to Sudan to be with his mother. I wonder if either is now a refugee. For me, the news stories have become personal.
In my role in the family as oldest daughter, it’s always been normal to try to help when a crisis occurs. Tong became one of my “family” five years ago. My challenge now seems as great as those he once faced trying to pass college courses. How to help in the midst of anything-but-normal circumstances. Tutor needed.