It was barely two months ago when Angelo Okot and I sat together discussing the decade through which I had known him and his family. There was never any question that Angelo’s children would do well in school and go on to college. They were always looking for the next path to education and a degree. Their personalities are those of quiet leaders with integrity and determination.
Angelo was also a father who looked after the whole community. When I first came to Portland, Angelo and I discussed the lack of opportunity for new immigrants who had come with college training and had worked in careers before being forced out of their countries seeking safety for their families. He and I worked with Department of Human Services staff members, looking at strategies for giving those immigrants a path back into their fields. We spoke at a legislative hearing and worked with the DHS refugee and immigrant affairs committee, as volunteers. The hours and hours of volunteer work resulted in seeding an understanding of the needs of a multilingual city: interpreters for the medical field, academic programs to get former teachers certified for teaching in their new country, a program like the Institute for Practical Democracy as a pipeline for the next generation of leaders.
When the media writes of Angelo, they often used the term, “Sudanese community leader.” Angelo was a leader for the entire community. Where he went and what he did, in his spare time, of which there was little, was to the benefit of a city, a state struggling to catch up with becoming the global community that much of America already has become. If you are a leader and never met or communicated with Angelo, then you have missed communicating with a leader for this millennium in Maine.
During that last conversation with Angelo, we remembered the years of work we had shared as community volunteers, often behind the scenes. I complimented him on the accomplishments of his children and on his own continuous pursuit of degrees. I expressed my continuing sadness over the death of his son, James Angelo, just last September in a random shooting while James was on duty as a security guard at Mercy Hospital, and the dead-end of the police investigation. Unbelievably, we were talking during the mourning of another young death in the Sudanese community, that of David Okot, not even 30 years old. He was killed by police in a case still under investigation. Media stories portrayed David as an habitual criminal; but to others, he was a kid struggling to survive and grow up like so many others in America.
“David was a good kid,” Angelo said, remembering him as the David that so many hoped and prayed would grow into a life as the creative and funny kid they had known on his best days.
Lilly Angelo, Angelo’s daughter, who was working on her master’s degree in psychology in South Carolina when her brother James was killed, remembered David as a high school classmate who could make her laugh, and who sometimes spent time drawing during a class lecture.
When James was killed I remember talking with Angelo by telephone. He said, “You know, we came all this way from Sudan to keep these children safe, to give them a chance at a good life, and we get this. After the funeral and the mourning, we will sit down with some people and discuss, strategize what we need to give these children a better chance at growing up.”
Angelo looked tired as we talked of the difficulties African young people faced in finding a living wage job in Maine, even after college. Angelo himself was always working on his education, bur was not employed to his full capacity.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We get all this education and then, we still can’t get in. Maybe there is nothing here for us. I told my family I think I have to leave them for a while and go back to (southern) Sudan and run for office. I think they need me back there. Maybe I can make a place for them, so these children have a place to come back to and help build the country. I told my wife and children, I will leave for a while to accomplish this.”
I was a bit stunned. But for all the time that I knew Angelo, he never forgot his country and like others had a dream of it rebuilding now that it has peace. Last summer, Angelo and a group of Sudanese men and women spent a day in Bridgton at Affinity Arts with Stephen Oliver, an African-American designer and architect. They were envisioning the building of a secondary school that would be self-sustaining. The white board they worked on has never been erased since that day. The plans are for local materials, solar energy, computers, gardens, kitchens, residences, locally produced uniforms from locally produced fabrics, a garden for the elders to sit and observe everything and a progressive curriculum. Angelo’s group, ACUSA, worked on the funding, and they carried a CD of the plan to Sudan with them this past year. It was a long way from being realized, but building a path to it.
When I think of Angelo now, I think of the school planning group filling up the white board with plans to educate the next generation of leaders for southern Sudan. When they took a break it was through the green woods and walking the rocks in the shallows by the waterfall in Stevens Brook. I think of the people at the table during another planning session. Many of the faces I had known for a decade, and had known and worked with their children. There was also a University of Southern Maine freshman among her elders at the table. I had not met her, but it seemed she was a new leader in the making.
It is hard to let Angelo go. But he has a strong family and if Maine gets the privilege, it will find extraordinary leadership in the children he has left to us.
The author is a founder of the Institute for Practical Democracy, which works primarily with teens from new immigrant families to develop their knowledge and skills for leadership in a democratic society. She often worked with Angelo Okot, whose children Lily Angelo and the late James Angelo were members of the IPD in high school. Angelo Okot died in a car accident June 24 in Sudan.