12-10-2016  12:26 pm      •     

A tight-knit community of Sudanese refugees has rallied around four children orphaned by what police have called a murder-suicide. The community is determined to help the youth through their grief. The King County sheriff's office believes James-Soka Wani, 34, stabbed Jesika Poni Wani, 33, in the chest on Dec. 12, then drove his car across the centerline of Highway 18 east of Maple Valley, ramming into a truck and colliding with another vehicle. Three of their children — Betty Wani, 17, and her two youngest brothers, Rudu, 6, and Emmanuel, 19 months — are staying with Margaret Nalonga, one of Jesika Wani's cousins. The fourth child, 14-year-old Samuel Wani, is living with family friends. A court commissioner has ruled they can stay where they are for the next month, while custody issues are sorted out. Nalonga has started the process of becoming a licensed foster parent to the children. "I don't want these children to be scattered," said Nalonga, who works with disabled children and in an assisted-living facility for the elderly. The Wanis' violent deaths have jolted people in the Seattle area's Southern Sudan refugee community, forcing them to deal with a kind of grief most have tried to put behind them since fleeing the war-ravaged African nation. Many showed up at a court hearing last week to determine where the children will live. Betty Wani came to the United States just a year ago from the refugee camp in Uganda where she grew up. Her stepmother, Jesika Wani, immigrated about seven years ago. She worked at an inn in south King County, where most of roughly 300 Puget Sound-area Sudanese immigrants live. She was taking classes at Highline Community College to become a nurse. She told co-workers her husband had abused her, but some said they never suspected anything awry. "She was always smiling. You'd never know anything was wrong," said Mary Wiley, who hired Jesika almost a year ago. Her husband, who had been in the country about 11 years, worked as a technician at an electronics-manufacturing company. Betty said she found her stepmother dead the morning of Dec. 12 in a bedroom in the Convington home where they lived. Police later told her that her father had been killed in a car crash. Betty said they had argued the night before about whether to contact police to report her 14-year-old brother had been missing all day. Police told her he showed up at school the following day. News of the deaths moved quickly within the community of Southern Sudanese immigrants. They say they've grown accustomed to looking out for one another with uncles, cousins and grandparents helping to raise and educate kids who lost their parents in the war. "The African culture is one of people always taking care of the community and sticking together," said Harriet Dumba, an active member of the community. Southern Sudan is experiencing uneasy peace after more than two decades of civil war during which Arab Muslims in the north attacked, captured and sometimes enslaved Black tribespeople in the south. An estimated 2 million people died in the war and the famine it spawned. Another 4 million were displaced. A separate conflict continues to rage in the western region of Darfur. Most of the refugees here are Christians from the Dinka and Kuku tribes. They lead very separate lives from the mostly Muslim Northern Sudanese here. The Southern Sudanese established a community association three years ago to ease the adjustment to life in the United States. They say it's open to anyone. The Wanis were not members of the organization, and many said they kept mostly to themselves. The Wanis' deaths came six months after the slaying of another Sudanese refugee, Roda Bec, 16, an honors student who had enrolled at Western Washington University at age 15. Police say she was stabbed and killed by her boyfriend. Kero Riiny Giir, 27, also a refugee from Sudan, has been charged with first-degree murder. Police arrested him after investigators said he leaped from an overpass onto Washington 509 in an apparent suicide attempt. — The Associated Press

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