PORTLAND – Maine’s Sudanese refugees have traveled far since escaping civil war in their homeland over the past two decades.

But they are keeping a close connection to the culture and the families they left behind. And now that fighting has ended in the south, Maine’s Sudanese community is helping the region rebuild.

The 15th annual Feast for the Children, a community celebration and fundraiser, will be held Saturday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland. The dinner will feature traditional Sudanese food, music and dance. And if all goes as hoped, it will raise enough money to finish the construction of a school in rural southern Sudan.

“At least it’s something from our end here, to send some support to the local people,” said Robert Oryem, a community leader and one of the first refugees to settle in Portland, in the early 1990s. “The rest of our families are still there. We try to do everything we can.”

Oryem was one of the founders of ASERELA, the Action for Self Reliance Association. The Portland-based organization helps pass on traditional music, dance and language of southern Sudan to children growing up in the city and other Maine communities.

It also has supported community projects in Africa, including helping to build a school in the refugee camp in northern Uganda where many immigrants lived before they reached Maine.

Since a peace agreement in 2005 ended the war in the south, the group has raised $15,000 for a new permanent school in Sudan. The ASERELA Maine Primary School is in Kit, between Juba and the Uganda border.

The war and the underlying poverty have left the farming region with little or no infrastructure such as roads and schools. Many children there don’t go to school at all, or walk long distances to attend classes under a tree or a thatched roof, said Alfred Jacob, who graduated from Portland High School after leaving Sudan 15 years ago.

“People are very tired of war. People want to create a home,” said Jacob, a community organizer who went to Kit last summer to help start the construction project.

The school will have eight classrooms and two offices, as well as a water supply and toilets. Jacob expects nearly 1,000 students from kindergarten through seventh grade — 80 to 90 students per classroom — to attend the new school.

Classes will be taught in English because, although there are tribal dialects, English is one of the common languages in the region, he said.

Jacob expects some refugees who settled in Maine to spend time volunteering as teachers at the private school.

Volunteers and tradesmen are making the bricks and doing the construction, and money for the more expensive materials has been coming from Maine. “We bring things like cement in,” Jacob said.

Jacob and other organizers hope to raise another $15,000 to $20,000 to finish the school by summer, and to cover the cost of its staff and operation for an entire year.

“This dinner is where we raise most of the money,” Jacob said.

Organizers also hope to raise money through sales of a new CD of songs by the children of Portland’s Sudanese community.

“Sacred Songs from a Sacred Land” is a collection of traditional religious songs sung in the Acholi language by the ASERELA Maine Youth Choir.

Oryem and Jacob said workers in Sudan are ready to finish the school, but need more construction materials.

“If we have the money, it could be done within a month and open by June,” Jacob said. “The community has been very responsive to us. All of this work has been funded by the people of Maine.”

And support has come from beyond the refugee community, he said.

The annual Feast for the Children usually draws hundreds of people, including many who have never been to Sudan.

“I’m expecting Sudanese and Americans, or Mainers, to join hands together,” he said. 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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