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Ascension parishioner leads Dayton-area Sudanese community

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July 28, 2011

By Mary Caffrey Knapke

DAYTON DEANERY — South Sudan became the world’s newest country on July 9, an event marked with joyful celebrations by a generation that has been plagued by decades of civil war in that region. Even with hope on the horizon, recent fighting in the disputed regions of Abyei and South Kordofan points to the tensions surrounding issues such as the precise location of the new border. Hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians lack adequate shelter, food and water. The complicated political upheaval may seem a world away from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, but for Cirilo Modi, the scenes are all too familiar.


Cirilo Modi, Gary Crowell and Idris Elias pose at the U.S. Capitol during the January visit of the Sudanese community in Dayton. Crowell is a member of the community’s board of advisers; Elias serves as secretary for finance. The Sudanese members of the community were in Washington, D.C. to cast their votes for independence for South Sudan. (Courtesy photo)

Modi arrived in Dayton in December 2006, after many years of hardship related to civil war in his home country. Today, he’s an active member of Ascension Parish and lives in Kettering with his mother, as well as his wife, Bronica, and their seven children. He puts his tailoring skills to use in his job at Honeywell, where he sews uniforms for firefighters. As chairman of the Sudanese community in Dayton, he leads efforts to raise awareness and funds for a variety of issues.


“I hope the future will be good. That’s why I’m working hard,” he said.


Modi’s efforts to create a bright future began more than a decade ago, when he was working as an English teacher at a school run by the Comboni Missionaries in Sudan. When Modi opposed government orders that all elementary schools become Koranic schools, he was arrested and tortured for several days. After his release, he was instructed to report to a government office each week.


“If I failed, then they would get rid of me,” explained Modi, who was raised Catholic and also attended Jesuit schools. After adhering to the probation orders for nearly a year, Modi and his family were able to flee to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Six years later, they received approval to come to the United States. Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley helped the family settle in Dayton.


Modi said his Catholic faith and the strong Christian faith of the Sudanese community has allowed him to persevere through his many struggles. “As Christians, we are taught to live in peace,” Modi said. “Love one another. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies, even if sometimes it doesn’t work. The teaching has a positive impact on us as Christians. If you really want to be a real Christian, you have to follow it … even though we are humans and sometimes we are weak. We still keep those values.”


Modi initiated the establishment of Dayton’s Sudanese community association in July 2007 and was elected as chairman the following year. In that role, he helps facilitate the exchange of information regarding current events such as ongoing violence along disputed border regions in Sudan and South Sudan.


 “Whenever there’s a problem like that, I always call a meeting. We tell them about what is going on, and also we ask one another for information about what is happening. Some might have contacted their relatives back home. Then we share this information,” Modi explained. “One man lost about five relatives. Another lady lost a brother. We exchange the information and then everybody becomes aware of the situation.”


The Dayton community, which is comprised of about 200 members, is currently undertaking legislative action to provide clean water for refugees fleeing fighting in Sudan. “People are really suffering,” he said. “People can go without shelter and even food. But being without water is really a problem.”


One of the biggest projects undertaken by the community was voter mobilization ahead of the South Sudanese independence referendum in January 2011. Sudanese in the Dayton area traveled to Nashville and Washington, D.C. to cast their votes in the referendum, which passed with nearly 99 percent of the vote. Modi helped organize transportation, with fundraising and organizational help from the archdiocesan Catholic Social Action office, Comboni Missionaries, St. Leonard Faith Community and Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City.


Modi also helps resolve interpersonal disputes among friends and family members within the Sudanese community and helps organize events such as an independence celebration and soccer tournament. The organization is also seeking grants for small business development in janitorial, landscaping and snow plowing work, and in opening a hair salon and specialty grocery store. The group would also like to establish a community center where members could provide citizenship classes, computer literacy classes, job search assistance, language classes, translation and transportation services and after-school programming for all area refugees.


“Coming together is good. We can help one another when we come together,” Modi said. “The most important part is the creation of love and unity. We come together and advise one another how to live peacefully. I like that.”  

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