The first thing you notice about Kaltum is her quiet presence and lilting voice. When she turns to talk to you, her smile widens slowly, then gradually spreads to light up her whole face. A refugee from Sudan, Kaltum has experienced years of war, suffering, and displacement. She and her family traveled from one refugee camp to another, one country to another, until they made their way to Utah in 2013.
Sudan has struggled with ongoing turmoil since the country gained independence from its British-Egyptian rulers in 1956. Northern Sudan is primarily Muslim, but the southern portion of the country is a mixture of Christian and Animist believers. These religious differences have led to decades-long conflicts over Arab-Muslim rule in the country, including the First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972), the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), the secession of South Sudan in 2011, and the war in Darfur. Over 1.5 million people were killed during the two civil wars, and the continuing conflict/genocide in Darfur has displaced over three million people and killed more than 400,000.
Kaltum becomes very quiet when describing her past. She pauses for several minutes to gaze out the window, lost in her own thoughts, after talking about the two sisters who have waited for two years to leave their refugee camp in Egypt to come to the U.S. She speaks wistfully about her parents, who are living in a camp in Sudan. Her father is ill, and she wishes she could be there with him. She moves her head vigorously from side to side as she describes her early life in Khartoum as if the motion will shake out the horrible memories of those times.
But she brightens noticeably when she starts to talk about her catering business and her new food truck. Her full name, Um-Kaltum, means “Mother of Kaltum” or more specifically, “Mother of the One with Plump Cheeks.” She said that's why she calls her catering business “Mother of All,” because her cooking makes her the mother of all (she didn’t mention the plump cheeks part, but after looking at her delicious food, it’s easy to see how that could be the result!) She learned to love cooking as child by helping her mother in the kitchen, and she is eager to share her culinary traditions with the people of Utah. She flips through her phone for photos of her eye-popping, mouth-watering, Sudanese specialties: gima, a crispy potato dish of peas, beef, and Sudanese spices; sambusa, a triangular pastry filled with vegetables and spices; falafel, a deep-fried doughnut made of chickpea flour; and basbusa, a sweet, syrupy semolina cake.
What was it like growing up in Sudan?
I grew up in Soba Al Hilla, a neighborhood in Khartoum not far from the Blue Nile. Every day there was fighting, there was killing. (Shakes her head). Killing, killing, and more killing. We went to live in a camp to get away from the fighting. I got married, and my husband and I went to live in Hassan City. Still there was fighting, killing. We moved to Kalma camp on the outskirts of Nyala; it’s one of the biggest refugee camps in Sudan. We lived there for four years. Then my husband went to Libya to drive a truck because there was no money in Sudan.
What happened after your husband moved to Libya?
I stayed in Sudan with my son and daughter for three years. Then we moved to Libya to be with my husband. I had three more children in Libya, the last one was a girl named Masa. My husband owned a store in Libya. Then the fighting got crazy in Libya (this was during the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi) and we had no food, only fighting and killing. We left with our kids to go to Egypt. On the way, we were in a terrible car accident. Our car flipped four times. Me, my husband, my five kids, though, we were fine. We went to a camp on the border of Libya and Egypt called Salloum. We lived there for two years. We couldn’t go back to Sudan or Libya because the fighting was so awful. We knew the only place that was safe was the U.S. And the U.S. helped us. We came to Utah on April 18, 2013.
How do you like living in Utah?
Everybody has been too, too nice to me. In the first 10 months, the International Rescue Committee helped us. (The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is the resettlement agency that helps refugees when they first enter the country). The Women of the World (WoW) has helped me since then, so much, with so many things. They are so wonderful to me.
My husband worked very, very hard to learn English and find a job. Now he works making cakes and chocolates. My daughter went to high school, got good grades, and is going to college. My son is going to high school this year. I have two girls and a boy in elementary school right now. My children like it here. They have friends and feel accepted. It was sometimes crazy at first for my kids who were born in Libya, because they were very young then and remember the hard times.
Would you like to go back to Sudan some day?
Sudan is my home and my family is still there, so yes, I would like to return, but there is still too much fighting. I haven’t seen my family in Sudan in ten years. My parents and one sister are living in a camp there now. My father is sick, but there is no money to help him because he can’t work. I have two sisters in a camp in Egypt: one has three kids, and one is not married. They have been waiting in the camp to come to the U.S. for two years. Wait, wait, wait, but the answer is still no. I call my family, but it is not the same. I want my sisters to be able to come here to live and feel safe.
Tell us about your new business!
I studied cooking at the Spice Kitchen, worked in a restaurant, helped my husband, and worked in a wholesale business. But I wanted to open a small business. The IRC provided me with the loans I needed to start my business, and I bought a food truck in October 2016. I needed to fix the truck, though, and I needed to get a business license and paint my truck. WoW has helped me so much with getting my business going, helping me get my truck ready to go. I am so excited about it! I want to expand my catering business, and my food truck should be open for business in April. I plan to sell sandwiches, rice, gima, sambusa, and falafel from my truck. I cannot wait. I love owning my own business.The people here have been very kind to me. WoW has helped me so much. Abby is wonderful. Anything I need when I come here, she’s helped me with it. WoW has helped me too much, even helped me with my small kids. Abby helped me find the truck. I can’t thank Abby and WoW enough for everything.