Nyamal Tutdeal has an interminable energy to create good and motivate others. A former refugee from South Sudan and graduate of the LIRS World Refugee Day Academy, Nyamal works for the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska to help Native American youth retain their culture. In this interview with Juliet Sohns, LIRS Outreach Program Intern, Nyamal discusses how the Academy made an impact in her life and how her journey helps her mentor Native American youth.
Juliet Sohns (JS): You are one of the 49 graduates from the 2014 LIRS World Refugee Day Academy. What is your reflection of the Academy and how has the Academy helped your advocacy for refugee rights in your community?
Nyamal Tutdeal (NT): The Academy was a great opportunity to not only learn about the issues facing refugees and migrants in this country but also to learn what we can do as leaders in our communities. The training was well put together and the day spent on Capitol Hill lobbying was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Academy added tools to my advocacy toolbox. I learned different techniques of advocacy that will be a helpful addition to the techniques that I am currently using.
But for me, the Walk of Courage Gala was the most exciting part of it all. The theme, “Walk of Courage,” was fitting for all of us that attended the Academy because we all had our own walks of courage.
JS: As a Project Venture Coordinator for the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, you help Native American youth remember their culture. Do you find that the challenges Native American youth face in retaining their cultural identities similar to the challenges resettled refugees face upon arrival to the United States?
NT: I find it ironic that I am working with Indigenous youth and trying to help them be proud of their culture and heritage. The challenges Native American youth face in retaining their cultural identities are similar but yet different to the challenges resettled refugees face upon arrival to the United States. The biggest similarity I’ve observed between Native American and the refugee youth is the need to learn how to balance the two different worlds they are living in. I can use myself as an example since I came here at an early age. I felt like I was being pulled in two different directions: at home I was in “South Sudan/learning the Nuer [Nyamal’s ethnic group from Sudan] way of life” where I had to learn how to be a traditional young woman, learning everything about housework, cooking, cleaning and helping take care of my younger siblings. When I would step outside the house and go to school and the various sports events I played, I needed to be “American” and I did not understand what that meant.
There’re two quotes that have helped me find the balance I needed. I share them with the youth that I work with and the youth in my communities.
A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.
— Marcus Garvey
We all must know where we come from for us to know where we are going; it’s very hard for refugee children to learn about their past history because what most of us have known is history of war. But for us to succeed in this life we have to learn and keep our cultures and the “good traditions” that we have brought with us. The other quote is one that I heard from an Elder I talked to at a Powwow. She told me:
To walk in this world that the white man has created, the Native youth must wear their moccasin on one foot and a tennis shoe on the other to balance the two worlds they are living in.
JS: What advice do you have for recently resettled refugees who want to succeed in adjusting to life in the United States?
NT: My advice for recently resettled refugees is to learn as much as you can about this country and in the midst of learning about this country also keep your culture and heritage alive. Keep your language especially for the next generation so they can be a bridge for the two worlds they’ll be living in. Accept and ask for help from those with good intentions. Education is the key success by all means. Educate yourself formally and informally. Get involved with issues that are in your new community, the only way they’ll know about you and your family and the ordeal you’ve been through is from hearing it first hand from you; share your story.
JS: You are a member of this year’s Academy planning committee. How do you see your role and what suggestions do you have for future 2015 Academy participants to make the most of their experience?
NT: Being a part of the Academy planning committee is yet another opportunity for me to not only sharpen my leadership skills but to also help the 2015 future Academy participants. I would tell the 2015 Academy participants to come ready to learn and with an open mindset, because this Academy will truly make an impact not only in their professional lives as leaders in their communities but also in their personal lives as well. I am extremely excited about this year’s Academy.
Nyamal’s efforts to empower others does not stop at the Ponca Reservation. Nyamal recently started her own blog called A Continental Shift, to share information with “former refugees like myself that might have the same issues I’ve been dealing with, to let them know that they are not alone.”
Nyamal has not stopped there, either. She founded a project called Inspire a Girl, Empower a Woman: Voice of the Voiceless with Nyakuoth Wiel, a fellow Academy graudate, and Claudia Mbali Cohen. Nyamal says that the purpose of the project is to “empower girls and women in Africa…who are facing issues of gender inequality [and] to tell their own stories.” Their goal is to “raise awareness of issues around the world due to social status, gender, religious beliefs, politics and poverty” through “music, art, and the culture of Africa and the diaspora.” Nyamal is also a member of this year’s Planning Committee for the Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy.