Colorado woman uses theater to highlight troubles in South Sudan

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Photo: Helen Abyei
Helen Achol Abyei outside her Denver home.

The region was also in turmoil 12 years ago when Helen Abyei fled the land that is now South Sudan to come to Denver with four of her six children.

“It wasn’t good—it was war all over,” Abyei says. “War was going on and a lot of people had to run to different places.”

Abyei taught herself English and became involved with the South Sudanese community in Denver, where she started a children’s group called the The Children's Ark of the New Sudan. She quickly felt the need to not just tell the children about life back home but also to raise awareness of atrocities in her homeland in the general community.

To meet this mission, Abyei writes about how South Sudanese women help each other out of grief in her first play "Slaves No More."

When a woman loses her son, shortly after losing her husband, the neighborhood women gather round, shouting at the woman and scolding her. Abyei says the ritual might seem cruel to someone who doesn't have any sense of the culture.

“But to us, it is all out of love and care,” Abyei says. “It is like therapy, but we do it in our own native way and it works.”

Central to the play’s theme is the power of community in South Sudan—a teaching she hopes to pass on to the children.

“In our society, if you have a problem you are not allowed to carry that burden by yourself,” Abyei says. “Everybody intervenes, everyone intrudes.”

Each of Abyei’s plays focus on small social themes. She hopes the plays will challenge the way the South Sudanese think about their northern neighbors and how Americans think about the people of Sudan and South Sudan.

Ultimately she hopes the plays will bring together at-war communities and end the cycle of hatred.

“Even if we don't reconcile we have to forgive,” Abyei says. “For a better tomorrow and for kids to be living in a healthy environment, we need forgiveness.”

When Abyei first came to Denver, she arranged a potluck for both the northern and the southern Sudanese families, trying to unite them on American soil. She also encouraged friendships between all the children and educated them on the history and traditions of the different tribes.

“I don’t want to die and leave my grandchildren in a world of hatred,” Abyei says. “I am not going to change the whole world, but I am at least going to leave the community I live in really healthy.”