OMAHA, Neb. -- 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.
Sudanese community leaders in Nebraska do not deny the gangs' existence, but describe their members as misguided youths, not hardened criminals. With help from city and state agencies, Sudanese groups are working to identify at-risk young people and steer them away from crime.
"I will agree that there are Sudanese gangs in Omaha," said Malakal Goak, a Sudanese refugee and director of Caring People Sudan, an Omaha-based non-profit group that provides health and educational services to the refugee community. "But even though there are gangs, we still have a very strong culture that can redirect them to come back to a normal life of the community."
The emergence of the gangs follows a familiar pattern. Driven by poverty, social dislocation and other factors, street gangs have arisen from virtually every immigrant and refugee population to arrive in the U.S. for well over a century, according to Mike Carlie, a retired professor of criminology at the University of Southern Missouri and author of a book on street gangs.
"It's called the immigrant tradition," Carlie said. "It's something that communities should know about before they ever begin to take on a population like this."
FROM AFRICA TO OMAHA
For over 50 years, Sudan -- a political invention of British colonizers in East Africa, covering an area nearly three times the size of Western Europe -- was wracked by civil war between the ethnically Arab and Muslim north and the black, Christian and animist south.
A 2005 peace settlement, brokered in part by the U.S., finally halted the conflict between north and south, which had claimed more than 2 million lives. By that time, millions of Sudanese had fled the south to live in sprawling camps in neighboring Ethiopia, Chad and Kenya.
The United Nations ultimately resettled nearly 31,000 refugees from these camps in the U.S. with the help of religious groups such as the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
In the 1990s, Omaha emerged as an unlikely hub for the Sudanese, both for primary resettlement from camps in Africa, and for secondary resettlement, as refugees placed in other cities migrated there in search of jobs, cheap housing and a sense of community.
Many Sudanese arrived in the U.S. with next to nothing. "You would see a family of six with not one bag," Goak said.
The federal government, through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, provides newly arrived refugees with 90 days of intensive assistance, including housing, food, clothing and employment.
Lutheran Family Services acted as a contractor for the federal program for Sudanese arriving in Omaha. Neither state or federal agencies track the number of Sudanese on a city-by-city basis, but Amy Richardson, vice president of refugee resettlement services for the agency, estimated the population in Omaha was now between 10,000 to 15,000.
Richardson said her agency had successfully placed almost 90 percent of Sudanese arrivals in Omaha in a job during the three months of the federal assistance program, but she acknowledged that her agency did not keep close tabs on the welfare or employment status of individual refugees after that period.
"After that 90 days and beyond, we kind of don't have access to knowing how long they kept that job, or what trajectory they were on after that," she said.
Yet based on her interactions with individual Sudanese, she said it appeared that the community was doing well. "I think that Omaha has done a very good job of assimilating these folks," she said.
Some Sudanese in Omaha have clearly thrived, opening shops, restaurants and other small businesses, buying homes, mastering English and attaining college degrees. The high school graduation rate of Sudanese youth has also improved, reaching roughly 50 percent this year, community leaders said. Several Sudanese students have recently earned prestigious college scholarships.
But those successes are at risk of being overshadowed by violence and criminality among the younger generation of refugees.
Chuol Yiel, 35, a Sudanese refugee, arrived in the U.S. alone and penniless in 1995, and settled in Omaha in 1999. Today he works nights at a postal company while he finishes an undergraduate degree in psychology at a local university.
"Among the young people, there are some that have gone to college and even graduated," Yiel said. "There are a few that are doing very well."
But many more youth, he said, were turning to gangs and delinquency.
"The youngsters, a big number of them are not doing as good as we expected them to do in the society. They are getting involved in these negative experiences," he said. "These are the ones who could be the future."
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.
The lack of parental engagement led many young Sudanese people to drop out and drift into trouble, she said. For those that did end up in gangs, some parents either could not, or would not, understand or acknowledge their childrenâ's involvement.
"I would say we lost some of those kids," she said.
'IT'S ROUGH OUT HERE'
Dak More is tired of the violence.
More, 25, was born in a small farming village in southern Sudan. As a young boy he fled with his mother and siblings across the border into Ethiopia after his father was shot and killed by government soldiers from the north.
Many other relatives stayed and died, including a 12-year-old brother killed while fighting in the rebel army. At age 10, he and his mother left Kakuma, a sprawling refuge camp in eastern Kenya, for San Diego, after the U.S. State Department granted them refugee status. In his early teens, the family relocated to Omaha, where he completed high school.
He lives in Southside Terrace, a public housing project, sharing a cramped two-bedroom apartment with his mother, Nyatut, 64, and his three young children. Since graduating high school, he has worked at a series of meat-packing plants in the area. The conditions are hard but the pay is decent, he said.
On a Friday night in December, police cars rolled through the neighborhood, quiet and cold under a blanket of freshly fallen snow. More stood on the stoop of his apartment, wearing a bright yellow L.A. Lakers jersey under a heavy winter coat and a wool cap. He pointed out a group of young Sudanese walking up the street wearing black jackets, red shirts and bandanas: members of the M.O.B. gang.
"It's rough out here, man," More said. "Every Friday there is a shooting."
Growing up in Omaha was difficult from the very start, he said. As a teenager, he and other young Sudanese in the housing project were attacked and harassed by African-American youth, local members of the Crips and Bloods. His left arm still aches from the time he was beaten with a baseball bat during a fight. "They think the Sudanese sold them to America for slaves," he said.
To protect themselves, More said, the Sudanese formed their own gangs. Soon, they were committing crimes, mostly petty robberies, and brawling at parties on weekends. At 18, More briefly joined a gang and got in a few fights, but quit after a year. Friends and cousins have been shot and sent to prison, he said.
Recently, More wearied of the growing violence and began looking for ways to help bring the community's young people under control. For six months this year, he worked as a translator and a source of information for the Omaha police department, providing details about delinquent teenagers and brewing trouble among the city's Sudanese gangs.
This June, he helped disrupt a plot by a group of teenage gang members to kill a witness to a violent robbery by translating recordings of jailhouse conversations.
Shortly thereafter, the police department ended his temporary position. According to Lt. Darci Tierney, a police department spokeswoman, city law enforcement currently has no paid liaison with the Sudanese community.
Lack of resources for law enforcement is a problem for the entire city, said Ben Gray, a city councilman who represents north Omaha and sits on the board of the Omaha Housing Authority. "Our police department is stretched about as far as it can be."
With police resources strained, the violence continues, both among the Sudanese and the community at large. A surge of shootings and homicides this November and December put the city on track for its highest homicide rate in several years, forcing city officials to speak out about the problem. "The number of shootings we've seen in the past few weeks is unacceptable," Omaha mayor Jim Settle said in a press conference on Dec. 13.
City officials point to efforts to spur job creation in disadvantaged neighborhoods and provide resources and activities for at-risk youth as part of a concerted push to increase public safety. "There's a huge community effort going on right now to reduce the violence," Tierney said.
But Malakal Goak, the Sudanese non-profit director, said that desperately needed funds for sports and after-school programs had been requested from both state and city agencies, to no avail.
"We consider coming to the U.S. as a blessing," Goak said. But, he added, "the resources for our young people are not there."
Compounding the gang problem is the lack of jobs for young people and their parents caused by the economic slowdown, he said.
"It's very uncertain living here," he said. "In the past it used to be much better, but not anymore."
A RECIPE FOR TROUBLE
To some Omaha leaders, the troubles now afflicting the Sudanese refugee community could have been anticipated.
Gray, the city councilman, called their resettlement in the city during the 1990s and early 2000s well-meaning but poorly thought out.
"We didn't think through what we were going to do after they got here," Gray said. "We didn't think about what were the services they were going to need and how we were going to provide them."
As more than 10,000 refugees flooded into inner-city neighborhoods and housing projects already struggling with poverty and high crime, services were cut, not bolstered. The result was inadequate policing and a lack of public resources for a community with extraordinary needs, he said.
"You've got a recipe for some serious difficulty when you bring in that number of people," he said.
The levels of poverty and violence in the primarily African-American neighborhoods in Omaha where many Sudanese settled are among the highest in the country, census and law enforcement data shows.
Unemployment among Omaha's almost 55,000 African-Americans averaged nearly 23 percent in 2010, well above the national average for African-Americans of 17 percent, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey. In some individual census tracts in North Omaha, the unemployment rate reaches as high as 35 percent or more, Gray said. Poverty rates in the city's African-American community are also among the very worst in the country.
Persistent poverty has created fertile ground for violent street gangs, which arrived in the 1980s from Los Angeles and other major metropolitan areas and established control over the city's drug trade. Drug-fueled gang violence peaked in the mid-1990s in Omaha, as it did in most other U.S. cities. But the gangs and the violence have only ebbed somewhat, not abated.
According to a 2010 study of national homicide data, Nebraska had the third-highest state homicide rate for African-Americans in the country in 2008, due almost entirely to violence in Omaha's inner-city neighborhoods.
Omaha's homicide rate dipped by more than 30 percent in 2009, and city officials credited the decline to a series of youth-oriented jobs and recreation programs in violence-wracked areas. But homicides have steadily crept back up since then, and by the end of the 2011 they were approaching the past decade's highs.
Violence spiked in November, with a string of shootings and homicides clustered on Omaha's north side. In one weekend, there were seven shootings, two fatal.
One of those killed was James Mun, 19, whose murder was recorded briefly in a story about the wave of shootings in the Omaha World-Herald. The reporter did not note his Sudanese heritage.
BACK TO AFRICA
James Mun's death might have been averted but for a missed flight.
In July, Mun Nam Koak, his father, bought a plane ticket to take him from Omaha to East Africa, a region he had not seen since he escaped the civil war between northern and southern Sudan as an infant. He would have arrived just days before South Sudan officially achieved independence, becoming the world's newest nation.
The goal of the trip was to get his son out of the U.S., where he had dropped out of community college and was drifting into trouble with the law, Koak said.
"I absolutely wanted to get him out of the country," he said. "I was worried about his friends. They were involved in the drinking, not going to school. I don't like that."
"It's not the way we live life in Africa," he said.
Mun never made the trip. The night before his flight, he was arrested while out drinking with friends in north Omaha. He spent the night in jail and missed his plane.
Mun told his father that he wanted to spend a couple of months in Omaha, to work and save some money. Then, in November, his father bought him another plane ticket to South Sudan. It also went unused.
Early in the morning of Saturday, Nov. 19, Mun was shot in the head in an empty lot near a north Omaha freeway overpass. His friends drove him to a nearby hospital, where he died the next day. Police have made no arrests.
Koak said he had heard that his son's killers were Sudanese. But he denied that his son was involved in gang activities.
"He was not gang. He was not bad person. He was not criminal," he said. "My son did not do anything to anybody."
But others who knew his son, including his cousin Gatweth Root, said Mun was affiliated with the South Sudan Soldiers, and pointed to gang references in postings and photos by and about him on Facebook. Root said the murder may have been motivated by a dispute over a girl with a member of the African Pride gang, and if police do not solve the case, there will likely be a retaliatory attack.
"His dad might not know it, but he's gang," said Dak More. "His friends are going to pay it back."