For a Sudanese refugee, voting means having a say in creating jobs

Abeir Deng, shown here with three of her children, says she has given up on Sudan, “but I did not give up on my family.”

Story and photos by Riley Johnson, Special to NewsNetNebraska

Abeir Deng doesn’t know which presidential candidate she will choose on Election Day, the first time she will vote since coming to the United States from Sudan in 2003.

Deng, 33, hasn’t had the time to study Democratic President Barack Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney. She’s been caring for her six children, picking them up from school and daycare and trying to get them to bed at Lincoln’s People’s City Mission.

During the day, she volunteers at the Center for People in Need and looks for any kind of job. She dreams of working in a nursing home.

A July 2012 Gallup poll said 92 percent of the 1,030 Americans surveyed said creating good jobs should be a top priority for the next president. Like those and millions of other Americans, Deng plans to give her vote to the candidate she believes is most likely to create jobs.

“For now, job is everything,” she said.

In 2000, Abeir Deng was living in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, with her husband, an architect.

One day a group of soldiers stopped her husband on the side of a road and demanded he join them in fighting. When he said he didn’t want to kill anyone, some of the men told Ibrahim they would kill his family.

That night, her husband didn’t come home, Deng said.

“I didn’t know where he go,” she said.

Later that night, soldiers came to Deng’s house. They threw Deng, then six months pregnant with her first child, to the floor and hit her in the back with a “big gun.” A member of her family took her to the hospital, but for three weeks Deng did not know where her husband was or whether he was alive.

After a few weeks, her husband’s brother told Deng he had filled out paperwork allowing Deng and her husband to flee to Cairo, Egypt, by train. Deng saw her husband for the first time since his disappearance at the train station. He had escaped with the help of a friend, one of the soldiers that had taken him hostage.

But escape for both Deng and her husband came with a cost. Soldiers killed the man who had helped her husband escape. They also killed Deng’s cousin and her older sister, she said. They beat up her mother and her sister, who was 6 or 7 at the time.

After living three years in Cairo, Deng and her husband came to the U.S. in 2003. They first moved to South Carolina, where Deng worked at Cintas, a work uniform provider. She worked there until she had her first child and needed childcare she couldn’t afford.

She and her husband then moved to Memphis, where Deng took a job at Technicolor packaging DVDs and operating mahinery. She liked the job, but in the four years she was there, layoffs came sporadically. She survived the layoffs, but other problems arose.

In Memphis, her husband started seeing reports on television of the mass killings occurring in Darfur, where clashes between the government and rebel troops led to death tolls greater than 200,000. The reports reminded him of his kidnapping, Deng says, and his moods began to swing from “very happy” to “very, very sad.” Eventually, Deng left him and moved with her children to Dallas. There she found another man, one who would become the father of her youngest child. But she couldn’t find a job.

She remembers telling a friend she would take any job.

Next, Deng moved her family to Des Moines and took a job at a company that processes lotion and beauty product orders. That job, too, wasn’t reliable. Deng and other employees were often sent home because of a lack of work.

She next found a laundry job at a nursing home in Granger, Iowa, about a 20-minute drive northwest of Des Moines.

Though she liked her job, her biweekly, $600 paychecks could hardly pay for her $600-a-month rent, $300 car payment and $250 furniture rental expense, she said. Sometimes she didn’t have enough money to fill her gas tank and had to rely on friends for rides to work.

Finally, on Aug. 14, Deng and her six children, ages 11, 9, 7, 4, 3, and 11 months, moved to Lincoln.

Standing in the warehouse at the Center for People in Need, Deng says once again that she’ll take any job. She just wants her family to be self-supporting. She receives welfare benefits from the state and federal governments, but she wants to provide for her family on her own.

A good job — right now, any job — will do, she says.

“If you got a job, you are the one player (in your life),” Deng said. “Right now, I feel like someone control me.”

But to Deng, now raising her three boys and three girls apart from her husband, a job means not only providing for her family but also a chance to help her support her 17-year-old sister, who still lives in Sudan, get a better education.

“I give up on my country, but I did not give up on my family,” Deng said.

Katherine Flattery, a refugee employment case manager with Catholic Social Services of Southern Nebraska in Lincoln, said a desire to send money home is common for refugees like Deng.

Abeir Deng believes that having a job makes her “the one player” in her own life.

Unlike Deng, though, many refugees try to send money home before they are able to live on their own without the help of social service agencies or government assistance, Flattery said.

“You need to take care of yourself here before you share with others,” she said.

Flattery said the best way to do that is to get a job.

As for who can create those jobs, Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the president plays less of a role than American voters think.

“We give a lot more credit to presidents for the state of the economy than they deserve,” Theiss-Morse said.

By and large, presidents don’t create a lot of jobs themselves unless through huge ventures such as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which added millions of workers to government payrolls.

Other than spending money on stimulus packages, which are government measures designed to help the economy grow, presidents can’t do much as far as job creation, she said. What’s more, they can’t do any of those things without the help of Congress, which passes the laws, she said.

State governors and legislators have more of an impact on local jobs than people give them credit for, Theiss-Morse said.

Still she believes it makes sense for people to credit the president as much as they do.

“Our psyche is such that we view the president as the center and symbol” of government, Theiss-Morse said.

Republican Mitt Romney says he would help create jobs by working, if elected president, to reduce corporate and individual tax rates, to repeal costly regulations and President Obama’s health care reform and to cut government spending.

The Democratic incumbent, Barack Obama, meanwhile touts the 459,000 jobs created since January 2010. If re-elected, he says he will cut tax breaks for businesses that send jobs overseas, create tax incentives for companies who bring jobs back, double exports and make middle-class tax cuts permanent.

Generally, Deng looks to the president to make her life and the lives of all Americans better. For her, she makes clear, that starts with jobs.

And a job to Deng means a better chance for her family and a better chance for her sister.

For her part, Deng said she will work hard to see those chances improve.

“I want to work,” she said, “even if I’m pregnant, I will work until my last day.”

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