Since 1980, more than 3 million people have relocate to the United States to escape war, persecution and natural disasters in their home country. Many of these people became refugees in a country where they didn't understand the culture, laws or language. One of them, Nyandeng Aleu, said she, and many other refugees, have one request.
Nyandeng spent most of her young life surviving starvation, bombings, giving birth alone in the jungle and living among wild animals, but now she wants one simple thing - a friend.
She experienced terrible circumstances, and was desperate for friends after arriving in the United States. Aleu now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. In an interview with FamilyShare, Aleu said all refugees desperately need friendship to feel welcome.
Aleu grew up in South Sudan where she attended an Arabic school in a grass-roofed hut, with no electricity.
When the second civil war started in 1983, Aleu's life changed forever. Her family had to flee their village with no food or water. They traveled night and day, living off the land and trying to survive.
"We thought everything would go back to normal, but things started to grow worse and worse and worse," Aleu said. "The life was really to survive."
During the first four years of war, Aleu lost her father, brother, sister and many other relatives due to bombings, starvation and wild animal attacks as they moved from place to place.
"I lived always believing I would be killed next," Aleu said.
All five of her children were born during the war. She gave birth to three of them completely alone in the middle of the jungle, with nothing but trees for shelter.
About 10 years ago, Aleu was able to escape her awful circumstances and move to Salt Lake City.
She, with her five children and one nephew, escaped with help from the International Rescue Committee.
But when she got to the United States, her worrying continued. She suffered severe culture shock and gave her all to adapt to her new lifestyle. Eventually, things began to shine brighter for Aleu and her family.
"Because you were losing hope for a long time, you just see an opportunity to overcome the initial challenges and think 'I can maybe survive,'" Aleu said. "How to start your new life was really hard, but you can compare from back when you were in the forest and jungle. Then you have to try your best to fit in and to learn the new culture."
What does this survival story have to do with you?
Can you imagine what it would be like to move to a country where you didn't know the language, the culture or anybody at all? Fear and anxiety would infuse every nerve of your body. But, if you had just one person to lean on and help you understand, wouldn't they make all the difference?
Aleu said if she could inspire Americans to do one thing for refugees, it would be to talk to them, teach them and become their friend.
She said she needed a friend to teach her about the law and the social and cultural norms for her and her children's safety.
"When the sunrises in the morning [in my country], you send the kids to play and you go to fetch food and firewood and water," she said. "When the sun sets, they come back and you cook for them. The community can watch your children. It's like a camp so anyone from the community can watch your kids."
Aleu didn't know that idea wasn't socially acceptable in the United States. A friend would have been able to tell her she couldn't leave her kids unattended all day, and would have been able to help her understand all social norms.
"We have to respect the law too, but we can't if we don't have someone to teach us what the law is," said Aleu.
"You need a friend to feel home," Aleu said. "You need a friend so you don't feel lonely and can feel welcome."
To those she left behind, Aleu encourages those still suffering in difficult situations to do everything they can to stay alive.
"If you have the ability to do something, do it," said Aleu.
And to those who have made it out of their horrible circumstances, she asks them to do their best to fit in.
There are many organizations collecting donations to rescue refugees like the organization that saved Aleu, which is the International Rescue Committee.
That same organization also offers fundraising and volunteering opportunities to help refugees.
Look for opportunities in your community to help refugees learn English, volunteer for programs that promote relief for refugees or donate hygiene products or any other needed supplies. You can help these wonderful people obtain the peace they have longed for and become the friend they need.
Photos by lifestyle and documentary photographer Kristi Burton. See her other work on her website.
Kristina Tieken is a staff writer for FamilyShare, public relations specialist with a love for the fine arts, food and exercise. She enjoys watching movies and spending time with her husband and family.