After 13 years in Salt Lake City, Simon Kuay is familiar with the homesick faces of Sudanese refugees who fled their homeland with nothing but memories. He's a "Lost Boy" himself, separated from his family at age 11 when his village was bombed by Sudan's Islamic government.
With several thousand Sudanese immigrants now building new lives in Utah, it occurred to Simon last year that his friends needed a gathering place somewhere to catch up on news from their homeland and feel as though they belonged to a family again.
So in August, the 33-year-old Columbia College business student opened K & K African Market on Redwood Road with his cousin, Both Kuang, hoping to give Lost Boys and others a small taste of what they left behind.
At Simon's market and deli, refugees can stock up on spices and lentils, wire money home to relatives and hear the latest headlines from Sudan or Ethiopia via satellite while dining on Sudanese delicacies such as rice with lamb sauce.
"Most of us don't care for Big Macs," Simon says with a smile, "but I have learned to appreciate Mexican food. Mostly, we like to cook the dishes we grew up with. It's a way to feel you are not so far away from Sudan."
On a recent Saturday, I joined Simon for a Free Lunch chat at the market while he and his older brother, James, prepared for the lunch rush. "James was like a father to me in the refugee camps," says Simon, recalling how his brother, then 16, led him across the desert to Ethiopia in 1987 when they became separated from their parents.
"We both had to grow up very quickly, but we were not alone," he says. "There were boys even younger than me without family. We took care of each other."
Simon was among the lucky boys who later learned his parents and four younger siblings had survived the bombings and fled to another part of Ethiopia. But he and James knew there was no future for them in Africa. With no money or education, their options were few. So they traveled to another refugee camp in Kenya and awaited permission to immigrate to the United States.
It took seven years, but Simon says the wait was worth it. Their Salt Lake City sponsors put them up in a small apartment and helped them to find jobs. Simon started out as a housekeeper at the Little America Hotel, then moved on to become a carpenter, a book binder, a factory worker and a deliveryman.
Even now, he works a second job as a cab driver between taking college business classes and running the market to earn extra money for his family in Africa.
"My mother does not want to move, so I dream of returning (to Africa) one day to build her a secure place to live," says Simon. "In our culture, though, money isn't as important as it is in America. Your farm, your cattle that's what is important. That's why it is easy to send money home. We don't need so much for ourselves."As the clock strikes noon, Simon's friends start arriving for another afternoon of leisurely dining and catching up. "I knew many of these people in the camps we have been friends for 20 years," he says. "We are not related, but it doesn't matter. We're all family now."
Have a story? Let's do lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also write me at the Deseret Morning News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.