Starting with no English, Sudanese students make good
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
INDEPENDENCE - Two years after literally running for their lives in their native Sudan, Sara and Korsuk Pitia in September 2001 faced a different kind of terror as they approached the doors of St. Mary High School to begin the school year.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Friends Brent Haskell, Sara Pitia, Tara Wendell and Korsuk Pitia share a moment at St. Mary High School in Independence.
Would they fail in their schoolwork? Would they make any friends? Would teachers in this new country be patient with them as they learned a new language? Would anybody care?
One year later, they have their answers.
Sara, 16, and Korsuk, 14, came to St. Mary with just a tiny bit of English learned from attending Catholic elementary schools years earlier in Sudan. But they couldn't speak or understand a word of it when their family arrived in Kansas City as Catholic refugees in February 2001.
Today, their grades are solid, and they have even found success outside the classroom in track and cross country. Korsuk is the school's top boy cross-country runner. Sara is one of the best in the state, finishing in the top 10 two years in a row at the state cross country championships.
And they have made friends at St. Mary - lots of them. Among them are Tara Wendell and Brent Haskell.
Tara said her friendship with Sara started simply.
"I just said, 'Hi" to her," said Tara, an 800-meter specialist in track. "We are in track together. We were like the fastest girls, and we'd run together every practice and just talk to each other."
Brent and Korsuk met on the school bus.
"He'd be just sitting there listening to music," Brent said. When he noticed that Korsuk liked American rap music, the two began trading compact discs. "We could sit on the bus and talk about music."
Both Sara and Korsuk, now able to speak English fluently after one year at St. Mary, said they are becoming settled in their new country after knowing only war in their homeland.
With Islamic fundamentalists firmly in charge of Sudan's government, a civil war broke out in 1983 pitting the predominantly Islamic north against the Christian and animist south. Their parents moved the family to a village near Khartoum, the capital, to escape the constant warfare and bombings in the south.
There, they found no refuge.
Sara and Korsuk recalled the day when government police raided their village, sending people into a panic.
"They would arrest people and kill people who were from the south," Korsuk said.
As people fled for their lives, their mother, pregnant with their youngest brother Christopher, could not keep up. She was arrested, but their father, a university professor, managed to secure her release within days. The family then fled to Egypt where they found asylum until the U.S. State Department allowed them to resettle in the United States.
Sara and Korsuk, the eldest of seven Pitia children, enrolled in a Kansas City public school for the remainder of the 2000-01 school year. Without the ability to understand English, they were lost.
"I would put my head down on my desk and sleep," Korsuk admitted.
Relatives who had fled Sudan earlier and settled in Kansas City found sponsors to help Sara and Korsuk attend St. Mary High School.
Still unable to speak English, they were failing all their courses except one. "I got an A in art," Sara said.
But with the support of the St. Mary faculty, their academic career turned around. They soon learned that any help they needed was there for the asking.
"If I need help, they are there to help me," Sara said. "They don't say no."
Literature teacher Marilyn McSpadden was typical of the extra mile the St. Mary faculty were willing to go. She enlisted her mother-in-law, Janie McSpadden, a retired teacher, to come to the school three days a week to help Sara and Korsuk learn English.
Tom Bates, history teacher and cross country and track coach, said St. Mary teachers knew they had to teach Sara and Korsuk differently from other students.
Instead of giving them written tests, Bates said, he and other teachers allow them to make oral reports.
"If I wanted to be mean, I'd have made them write it down on paper," he said. "But they have problems putting what they know on paper."
Sara and Korsuk said their success at St. Mary lets them know that a bright future is possible, not only for them, but for their younger brothers and sisters who will follow them to the Independence Catholic high school.
But even more important, said Korsuk's friend Brent, Sara and Korsuk have helped make St. Mary a better school.
"We're more diverse," Brent said. "Now we have people from Africa here."