By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Dressed in a bright yellow suit with a black collar, 19-year-old Sudanese refugee Monica Jacob gently handles the four thin pieces of paper on the table in front of her. A bold headline is stamped across the top of each one: Ujumbe Wachame, Cha Msalaba Mwekundu -- Swahili for "Message from the Red Cross."
Monica's fingers -- her nails are painted bright pink -- work the letters over and over again, as if touching them might make them real. Because at the moment, they seem like nothing more than a wonderful hallucination.
The letters are authored by Monica's father, mother and three siblings. Monica hasn't seen any of them in more than a decade, and up until recent months she thought they were most likely dead.
"I feel very happy, happy like I would like to cry," says Monica, but she doesn't. She only smiles broadly, reading the letters over and over again as Red Cross caseworker Sandy Chen and friend Shirin Herman look on.
Monica fled to the United States two years ago with a brother and cousin as part of a wave of about 4,000 orphans from the war-torn African country. The group -- mostly young men -- became known collectively as the Lost Boys of Sudan. Monica is one of roughly 70 young female Sudanese refugees in the U.S. (and the only one in Houston).
After learning of the Red Cross tracking program -- which attempts to deliver letters to disaster areas, refugee camps and war-torn areas -- Monica sent a short note telling her family she was alive and in the United States. The letter, which traveled in the Red Cross's hands from Houston to Washington, D.C. to Geneva, finally made its way to the refugee camp in Kenya where Monica's family is living. The round-trip journey for the messages took eight months.
The letters, written in careful, tiny English print, start off addressing Monica with the family's nickname, Nyanabech.
Her father writes, "We hope Father Almighty God will pour blessings on you." Then he requests, "send us your photo if possible since they remind us of you when we look at them."
Monica's friend Herman, an employee of Houston Independent School District's refugee services program, says that when Monica first opened the letters she planned to give her some privacy.
"But when I saw her face I absolutely had to run and get the camera," she says, beginning to cry. "The expression on her face was full of joy that nothing material could bring."
Monica learned of the Red Cross tracking program through Herman, who is based out of Lee High School where Monica is a student. Herman often works with the Houston Area Red Cross to ease refugees' transition. (The job isn't easy -- more than 90 languages are represented among HISD's students).
"She's a war baby," Herman says of Monica. "She's never known stability. But education is so important to her." The quest to learn runs in the family -- Monica's 21-year-old brother Isaac could not be at the letters' unveiling because he had a final exam at Houston Community College.
Herman says Monica, a full-time student, also works about 35 hours a week as a room attendant at The Houstonian Hotel so she can pay her rent, expenses and be eligible for health insurance. She does her homework in the late hours of the night.
"She's exceptional," says Herman.
Monica has been displaced most of her life. The civil war in Sudan forced her family to spend years walking from their native country to Ethiopia, where Monica was born. Only a young girl when the family left Ethiopia, she was carried on a relative's shoulders as they crossed the treacherous Gilo River -- a crossing that claimed many lives.
But military attacks soon separated Monica from most of her family -- she estimates the last time she saw her parents and three other siblings was in 1991.
"I ask her when she feels the most sad, and she tells me it is when she sees a little girl with her mother," says Herman.
Monica eventually walked to the United Nations-run Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya with a brother and cousin. She spent nine years in the camp and eventually gave up her family for dead. The U.N. assumed she and her brother were orphans and sent them to Houston.
But a few months ago, shortly after she sent her Red Cross letter, the phone rang at 3:15 a.m. as Monica was folding laundry. It was her mother, who had finally arrived in the Kakuma camp, only to discover Monica and Isaac had already left. After learning where her daughter was, she journeyed to Nairobi to make the phone call.
"We cried, we both started to cry," says Monica. "She called me Nyanabech."
The phone connection went dead after three minutes, but Monica at least knew her family was alive.
The relatives' notes to Monica and Isaac urge them to educate themselves. In one letter, sister Mary tells her siblings their chance at an American education means, "You have reached the moon."
Herman says there is a chance that the rest of Monica's family will be able to move to Houston, but the process can be complicated and layered in red tape. Although Monica would love to have her family with her, she says she wants to become a nurse or a lawyer and return to Africa to help her homeland.
But until they are reunited again, Monica says she and her brother will relish the Red Cross letters, and write as many of them as they can.
"It has been a long, long way," says Monica softly. "But when I read these letters it is like we are facing each other."