When government soldiers from the north attacked Mun Nam Koak’s village in southern Sudan nearly 20 years ago, he fled on foot to safety in neighboring Ethiopia. With his infant son on his back, the 22-year-old Nam and his wife took only what they could carry on their three-day trek to the crowded refugee camps across the border.
Three years later, Koak’s young family arrived in Des Moines, Iowa, part of a growing population of Sudanese refugees who relocated to the Midwest in search of a better, safer life. He studied English and found a steady job at a nursing home.
Back in his homeland this July, a historic referendum established South Sudan as a separate nation after decades of brutal civil war with the north. Koak joined thousands of jubilant Sudanese in Iowa and across the country cheering this day of independence. But his elation was short-lived.
Late last month, his son, James Mun, 19, was gunned down in an empty lot on Omaha’s gritty north side, as he drank beer with a group of friends early one Saturday morning. Police have made no arrests in the case.
“I can never imagine that I would end up losing my son on the streets of the United States,” Koak said.
Mun’s murder is the grim consequence of a rising tide of youth and gang violence afflicting Sudanese refugees in the U.S., who have settled mainly in Nebraska, Iowa and other Midwest states. From weekend brawls to shootings and robberies, young Sudanese are victims and victimizers, ending up in hospital beds, behind bars–or dead.
Sudanese street gangs that began forming around 2003 are responsible for the most serious violence, according to Bruce Ferrell, a former gang unit detective with the Omaha Police Department.
“They’ve been involved in a murder attempt on a witness, drive-by shootings, robberies,” said Ferrell, who now leads the Midwest Gang Investigators Association, a non-profit group that studies gang trends in the region. “We’ve had a number of kids getting locked up.”
With no more than 350 members overall, most of them teenagers, the Sudanese gangs represent a small fraction of a massive nationwide gang problem, in which an estimated 1.4 million gang members commit nearly half of all violent crimes in most jurisdictions, according to law enforcement surveys. But their illegal acts earned them a brief mention for the first time in the FBI’s latest national gang threat assessment, released this October.
The agency described African Pride, which began in Omaha but has spread to Lincoln and other Midwest cities with Sudanese refugee populations, as the “most aggressive and dangerous” of the gangs. Other gangs include the South Sudan Soldiers, TripSet and 402, who take their name from the Nebraska area code.
One critical problem for the Sudanese community was a lack of preparation by the city’s public schools for the complex needs of refugee families, said Susan Mayberger, coordinator for migrant and refugee programming for Omaha Public Schools. The school district has taken steps to address the problem by adding programs that encourage parental involvement, she said.
“I am afraid that with the Sudanese community, with a lot of the parents, we weren’t supporting them to the same level that we are now,” Mayberger said.