It’s hard to get Nasiva Ashera to tell you much about her past. First of all, the 20-year-old refugee from South Sudan can’t speak English. She learned Arabic in school, which helps her communicate with some of the Somali refugees who attend school with her through Rochester’s Refugees Helping Refugees program. But Ashera’s formal education ended after fourth grade, so she’s hardly fluent in that language, and she can’t read or write, even in her tribal tongue.
The language barrier is only part of what has isolated Ashera over the past three years. Ashera’s life exploded into chaos when South Sudan erupted in civil war in 2013—just two years after it had gained its independence from Sudan.
Since December of 2013, no one knows for certain how many thousands of South Sudanese have died at the hands of government forces or rebels in a conflict that split the country along tribal lines. Both sides have been accused of war crimes—rape, torture, burning and looting of villages, mass executions, starvation, recruitment of child soldiers. More than a million people have fled their homes, and about a quarter of those escaped the country, mostly on foot. Many found temporary shelter in Ethiopia, which now plays host to nearly 700,000 refugees.
Ashera made that journey with her family, shortly after the war broke out. She spent three years at a refugee camp near Bambasi, living on rations of beans, rice, flour and oil. Both her parents died at the camp. Ashera gave birth to her son there.
Six months ago, Ashera came to Rochester with her child. Not knowing how to navigate public transportation, she walks wherever she needs to go. She’s beginning to understand spoken English, but she can speak little of it herself. And the horrors of the civil war have left their mark on her. She began her interview for this story by saying, “I’m happy. I have no problems.” Hearing this, Ashera’s interpreter, a refugee from Somalia, turned to the interviewer and shook her head.
“She’s 20 years old and she has a kid of her own,” the interpreter said. “She doesn’t speak English. She has no one here. And she says she has no problems.” Only after being reassured several times that the American woman interviewing her had no ties to any government would Ashera relate portions of her story. “They kill people for no reason,” she said of the warring factions. “If they come for you, if they take your people, you have to lie about who you are.”
Ashera has aunts and uncles still living in Sudan, and an older sister remains in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Her parents had both done janitorial work at a hospital before the war. The family lived on a small farm, with three goats, some chickens and small crops of fruits and vegetables. Ashera loved to sing, dance and play the drums as a child, but she can speak of her parents for only a short time before breaking into tears.
Like many natives of South Sudan, she holds out hope that her country can heal its wounds and she can return one day, but she’s not certain that’s a realistic plan. For now, her dream is to learn English, get a job and make a home in the United States.