Photograph by Steve Gibbs, Circa 71 Media
Emma Kubari, who arrived in San Diego when she was seven, says “The United States can give you a false sense of safety where you think, ‘I lived through a war; how much worse can it get?’ But you come here and it’s like an ongoing racial war.”
I grew up in the United States with a German-American father and a Mexican-American mother. Her name, Lupe, was a common feature of racial jokes at the time, but I could camouflage my Hispanic roots behind an Anglo last name, pale skin, and green eyes. Still, don’t take my mongrel word for anything. I am no more qualified to comment on the lives of immigrants than they are on mine. To better understand an immigrant’s point of view, I recently interviewed a Sudanese family, a Kenyan man, and a Mexican woman raised on both sides of the border.
Photograph by Steve Gibbs, Circa 71 Media
Civil war and civil disagreement
Please don’t accuse me of racial profiling, but in some ways, the Kubari family fits a Sudanese stereotype: tall, dark, attractive, and articulate. As with many parents and their children, there is a peaceful divide on various issues. Chief among them is discrimination.
I was introduced to the Kubaris through Karen Richards, who once assisted them and other Sudanese refugees — most notably, the Lost Boys of Sudan after their thousand-mile walk to freedom.
The father of the house is Sabit Kubari. He and his two daughters — Emma (21) and Kani (20) — spoke freely during our time together, while wife and mother Najua listened quietly, not believing her English adequate to voice her opinion openly. Perhaps her hand-crocheted American flag purses made a statement for her.
Sabit and Najua grew up in South Sudan, where he was a civil engineer before the family escaped a bloody civil war some 15 years ago. “I saw people killed and their houses burned,” Sabit said. “When the government became suspicious of South Sudanese intellectuals, they followed and targeted me. I was in Khartoum for my studies when I decided to flee the country, acting quickly because I could have lost my life. I found asylum in Egypt, and once there, sent for my wife and family, along with my wife’s brother. From Egypt, refugees were sent to the United States, Canada, or Australia.”
Sabit and Najua grew up in South Sudan where he was a civil engineer before the family escaped a bloody civil war some 15 years ago. “I saw people killed and their houses burned,” Sabit said.
Photograph by Steve Gibbs, Circa 71 Media
The Kubaris landed in San Diego, where they continued working and raising a family of three girls and one boy. Emma, who recently graduated from UC Santa Barbara, was seven, while Kani, an incoming junior at UCLA, was five when the family touched down on American soil. Keji (27), a graduate from Point Loma Nazarene College, was away at work, and Yohannis (29) was absent, serving in the U.S. Army. Pre-covid, Sabit worked double shifts at a nursing home. According to him, “If I ever encountered racism there or anywhere else in this country, I was too busy to notice. We were focused on creating a better life for our children.
“Coming to this country wasn’t a big culture shock for us because we knew a lot about the United States before we arrived. Like many Sudanese, we love to read. I had been an electrical engineer in Sudan, and when I came here I got a job as the housekeeping supervisor for Barona Casino. That lasted three years, until I became a certified nursing assistant and eventually a licensed vocational nurse. Working at healthcare facilities you are exposed to a lot of sick people, and I contracted Covid there. I was in bed for 20 days with a fever, and my wife got it from me.”
Covid closed Kani’s school, and after she returned home, she worked to nurse her mother and father back to health.
The Sudanese civil war began in 1955 and ended with a peace agreement in 1972. When violence ignited again in 1983, it burned until 2002. “The African culture of South Sudan is different than the rest of Sudan,” Sabit explained. “South Sudanese are mostly African Christians, while in the north, the majority are Arab Muslims. Individually, I never felt a great deal of difference between Muslims and Christians, but when they tried to force their customs on us, we resisted.”
According to Emma, “There is no separation of Church and State in Sudan. Religion plays a huge role in everything. Children are supposed to stay with their families until they are married. You get married first, and then you date. Parents control everything, from the way you dress to how you behave socially.”
Kani added, “Even most of the parties are centered around religion in Sudan, but over the years, we’ve influenced our parents toward more progressive thought.”
Responding to a question about protesters and rioters, Sabit replied, “It was not good what that cop did [to George Floyd,] and I hope they will do better protecting the citizens. In South Sudan, law enforcement can only shoot someone below the knee. If the person is shot in the back, it’s considered murder, because they are trying to escape. As blacks, we have the right to live as any other Americans. Everybody’s supposed to be free here, not intimidated by any means. I support a peaceful protest, but not the destruction of property. They have to voice their concerns in a way that people will sympathize with their cause.”
Emma and Kani disagree with their father on at least one point. According to Kani, “I believe rioting may be justified at times. If things don’t work, you have to try another tactic. Sometimes it goes a little too far and moves away from the cause of the problem. But the news only draws attention to whatever bad is happening. They don’t show black people trying to stop looting. You get a very biased story point, so the truth of what’s happening is not well covered. There are far more peaceful protests than violent ones, but peaceful protests don’t get much hype. That’s dividing us.”
While Sabit claims not to have noticed racism applied to himself in the US, both Emma and Kani say they have encountered it. According to Emma, “I used to work at a Fun Zone in Santee, and I would have a lot of racial encounters there, to the point where I would sometimes be sent to the back by my boss. If I worked the night shift, I would have to have one of my co-workers walk me out to my car. The United States can give you a false sense of safety, where you think, ‘I lived through a war; how much worse can it get?’ But you come here and it’s like an ongoing racial war. Our society is more into action movies and gore, so peaceful community events get far less media attention. But discrimination has become normalized to the point where you never realize the economic and class differences until you don’t get hired because of race.”
Concerning the national conversation about defunding the police, Emma said, “Defunding the police doesn’t mean abolishing the police, but creating a specialized force trained to deal with criminals on a much higher level. Many encounters don’t require a person to show up with a gun. That can escalate the problem and cause a lot of fear. Many politicians run on that fear, and there’s a lot of fear in this country right now.”
Two sides of the border
Isela Moncada is a business owner currently living in Oceanside. Growing up on both sides of the Mexico/US border has given her a unique perspective on racism in this country. According to her, “My parents both immigrated from Mexico to the US before I was born. I grew up in California and Mexico, but never experienced racism here. Somebody may have looked at me sideways or mentioned my accent, but that’s not racism. Being the oldest of six children, I had to take care of a lot of things at home. I had no time to do anything that would take me away from helping out the family. Whatever the reason, I never experienced racism when I was growing up.
Isela Moncada: “To me, the key to making things better is communication. It’s ironic that we have so many ways to communicate now, but that we don’t communicate with each other as well as we used to.”
Photograph by Steve Gibbs, Circa 71 Media
“My mother only went as far as third grade, and her mother said that before she could step out of the house, she needed to make two stacks of tortillas. They were made by hand while kneeling, and then thrown into a wood fire. She barely knew how to read, and I realized early on that the way out of that sort of life was through education.
“I did my elementary school education in Calexico before my parents moved the family to Mexicali so we would learn to speak and read Spanish better. Public education in Mexico is only free to sixth grade, and from there, your parents have to pay for it. One of the good things about that is that people take school seriously in Mexico. My years in Mexicali made me appreciate free education and a lot of other things we take for granted here.
“The impression many people in Mexico get of the US is mainly from the movies and the news, where the goodness of our country is usually not portrayed. People who have not traveled here think everyone here is rich, and don’t realize how hard people work to get ahead. Some people come to this country without knowing the language, and they get by living in places where English isn’t spoken at all. If you live that way, the only method you have of knowing anything about the US is through watching Spanish-speaking channels. I’ve watched those channels and they are anti-everything U.S. When the caravans were coming here, everything they said was twisted to make this country appear racist.
“When I was at school in Cal Poly, I met [Chicano activists] from La Raza and MEChA. The Aztec dances they were doing say, ‘This is our land; it was taken away from us.’ I’ve gone to the MEChA meetings and heard them blame the pilgrims for taking what used to be Indian lands. There’s this brainwashing that says you have to hate the white man for stealing the land. It unites people toward revolution.
“To me, the key to making things better is communication. It’s ironic that we have so many ways to communicate now, but that we don’t communicate with each other as well as we used to. We have to get better at that. Communication will fix things, but we have to learn to do it the way we used to before social media.
“How can anyone integrate into society if we aren’t even speaking the same language? Most of the racism I see comes from those who came to this country and never took the time to learn English. I don’t think that’s this country’s fault.”
From Kenya with love
Kenya-born Edward Karithi and I walk into a bar. I am white and he is black. When a white woman of college-age walks in wearing a “Black Lives Matter” mask, Karithi glances at her, then at me, and chuckles at the slogan of an organization of which he is apparently no fan.
Edward is a 46-year-old computer programmer and father of five. His day starts at 6 am. and ends at 10 pm. He knows about hard work and recognizes racism when he sees it. He claims to have encountered systemic racism, not in the U.S., but his home country, Kenya. According to him, “There are public offices a white person cannot hold there, no matter how long their families have lived in the country. That’s institutional racism. Here in the United States, I think there are vested political interests that don’t want racism to go away. But I’ve never been denied a job because of color. Where I work, the people couldn’t care less [about race.] Now, if you come in there with a chip on your shoulder, you’re going to have a problem.
Edward Karithi claims to have encountered systemic racism, not in the US, but his home country, Kenya. According to him, “There are public offices a white person cannot hold there, no matter how long their families have lived in the country. That’s institutional racism.”
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
“Institutional racism does not exist in this country. There is not a single person who can cite for me a federal, local, or state law, or any company that has a policy discriminating against people based on their sex, skin color, or religion. Now, are there racists? Of course! I know pure racists who are black and hate someone simply for the color of their skin.
“But this is an Anglo culture, and not based on my native culture. If I wanted to live like an African, I would have stayed in Africa. I need to adapt to the culture here. You cannot go to France and expect the French to behave like Americans. If you came to Kenya and burned a Kenyan flag, you would be in jail for so long you wouldn’t know what year it was.
“I went to Kenya about three years ago to do some business. I had forgotten my visa and I walked back through the exit to get it. Nobody cared, but when a Somali guy tried to do the same thing, there were like five cops on top of him, punching him and cuffing him. The fact that someone looks different from me in Kenya means he is treated completely differently.”
Karithi chuckles. “The only problem I’ve had here with the police in my 21 years here is that they give me speeding tickets.
“I arrived in the U.S. at age 23 for school and I started looking for work. Five years later, I got a green card and then my citizenship. It’s very easy to do; find out what the laws are, and follow them. The doors are not closed.
“In Kenya, I lived better than I live here. I grew up with house help and drivers who were mostly other Kenyans, to take us wherever we wanted. The two things that attracted me to the U.S. at the time were the folly of youth and the idea that I would have become a really bad person if I had stayed in Kenya. The law is not as strong there as it is here, and you can get away with a lot. I tend to cut corners if I can, and I realized my life was not on the right path there. I could have made a shitload of money, but also would have become extremely corrupt.
“The United States is unique because it’s a melting pot. America’s real problem is not race, but politics; the politics of division. To tell you the truth, we don’t have serious problems here. We don’t have starvation or roads you can’t drive on. Even the worst hospitals here are like five-star hotels. Some Africans will call me an Uncle Tom for talking like this, but I don’t care. Most Africans I know disagree with me, but one black friend of mine who is a director of a major medical company in the United States doesn’t buy the bullshit at all. He said, ‘If you don’t do your job, the white dude or the black dude is going to fire you.’
“My kids’ mom is Polish, and our family doesn’t identify with the African-American thing. There’s a problem when black men are six percent of the population, and commit 52 percent of the murders in the United States. If I made you the police chief of this city and gave you the mandate to reduce crime, are you going to put the cops in the church or where the crime is? People bring emotion and irrational temperaments to some very serious problems. If you pick up a stone and break someone’s window, you can’t blame anyone else for it. Just as when you do something good, you did it, and it was not because you’re black or white. I think another major problem in our society is a lack of fathers or good role models.”
“It says it in the preamble of our constitution that all men are created equal. But right now, the reality is that you [as a white man] are a second-class citizen and I’m not. Have you ever had slaves? Why should you suffer the consequences of those who came before you? People come to this country as immigrants and are received well and now they think this country is unfair to them? How?
“President Bush had a difficult presidency by any measure: two wars, Katrina, economic crisis. When he left office and was asked about the worst day of his presidency, he said it was when Kanye West called him a racist. If someone called me a racist I wouldn’t take it seriously, but for you to be called a racist in America is the worst thing that can happen. Does it make someone’s day to destroy another person’s livelihood? That does not change their heart; they remain a racist. Loving one another is the answer to so many of our problems. True unity cannot be found outside of Christ.
“There’s a tension that exists here between black and white people. That’s an American thing, I think, but the United States is not the only place where people lack unity. In places like Rwanda, different tribes hate each other. That venom doesn’t help anyone. In the 1800s black people did not think white people were human and vice versa. It’s not the same anymore. People have interacted and it helped them realize we are all human beings. You change through personal encounters.
“People should be free to speak their minds. How does anything change unless you let everyone, including the racist, speak? I will always speak my mind. I’m not willing to lose my freedom over income. That’s too high a price.”