It's hard to integrate your family into a new community even if you're not African refugees with traditional dress and thick accents in the heart of America's heartland. But in Bloomington the Duanys' otherness was embraced. Because of its international student population, Bloomington, alone among communities in southern Indiana, is remarkably diverse. The Duanys' neighbors and classmates were Turks and Koreans and Brazilians and Israelis and Pakistanis, each with their own tales of displacement and transition and hope. At school there were plenty of kids who spoke languages other than English at home and knew better than to look for their names on gift-shop key chains.
The Duanys, naturally outgoing and active in their church, didn't have much trouble finding a place in the community. But, as Julia puts it, "basketball is how I really got to meet Indiana." She figures that between AAU and high school hoops, she has sat through more than 1,000 games. "I hardly knew basketball existed until I came to Indiana," she says. "Now I catch myself yelling things like, 'How can that be a blocking foul when his feet were planted?'" Thanks largely to her three sons--and to players such as Jared Jeffries (now starting for the Washington Wizards) and Sean May ( North Carolina's bulky star forward)-- Bloomington North's basketball program became one of the most successful in Indiana, winning the state championship in 1997. While the girls' team wasn't quite as successful, Nyagon and Nok Duany were arguably the two best female players in the school's history.
If the Duanys didn't look like typical Indiana basketball products--those buzz-cut, square-jawed white kids from Hickory High--they didn't play like them either. Not with their preference for slashing and driving over pure jump shooting. But the old Hoosiers prototype was fading anyway. By the time the Duanys were in school, the face of Indiana basketball was more Shawn Kemp than Scott Skiles, more Zach Randolph than Larry Bird. The forces transforming Indiana--globalization, urbanization, immigration, a transient workforce, rampant commercialization--were manifest in the state's basketball culture as well. The Duanys were exponents of the paradigm shift.
As the five kids took their star turns on the basketball court over a decade, Julia and Wal were ambivalent. They were proud of the trophies and the praise, and they weren't complaining about the gratis college educations. They realized that basketball could be a vehicle to a better life for their children. But Wal, especially, bristled at the thought that his kids were contributing to a poisonous stereotype. "Too many people think that black boys, young black men, use their bodies and not their brains," he says.
The Duany Academic Policy was simple: schoolwork first, sports second. If anyone's grade point average dipped below 3.0, he or she was ineligible to play. As near as anyone can remember, only one Duany ran afoul of the rule. Kueth once brought home a C in English. "Of all subjects!" Julia said disgustedly. "English is how you communicate!" With the blessing of Tom McKinney, Bloomington North's stoic longtime coach, Wal and Julia yanked their middle son off the team until he got an A on his next paper. All five Duanys graduated with academic honors, and Nyagon was the valedictorian of her class.
If the Bloomington Convention & Visitors Bureau is looking for testimonials, it might contact the Duanys, who consider the town holy. "You know that African saying, It takes a village to raise a child?" asks Wal. " Bloomington helped raise our children. The teachers, the coaches, the ministers, the university professors, the friends we made--we will never forget how this community treated our children."
As the kids excelled, so did the parents. Wal received his doctorate in public policy from IU's Department of Political and Environmental Affairs in 1992 and now works for the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, an academic think tank at the university. Julia earned a Ph.D. in higher education from IU and is a research associate at the Workshop, specializing in gender studies and conflict resolution in developing countries.
For all the Duanys' success, individually and as a family, their narrative had always been tinged with sadness. They came to the U.S. with every intention of returning to their home in the south of Sudan once the situation there improved. As the years went by, the situation only grew worse. "The infrastructure, the culture, whole generations, they're being destroyed," says Wal, his voice trailing off. "The Muslims want Sharia, they want everyone to speak Arabic, they want to make Sudan an Islamic country. We believe in choice and democracy and self-determination. It's a bad situation."
Though largely ignored by the Western media, the Sudanese conflict between north and south continued to rage. While the Duanys couldn't follow the war in the local newspaper or on television, they heard plenty from relatives back home. The war, routinely described as genocidal, resulted in more than two million fatalities. The U.N. has called it the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
As the death toll mounted, as millions of southerners were forced into exile and as the ranks of the so-called Lost Boys--a generation of orphaned, displaced Sudanese children--swelled, the Duanys acted. In the mid-1990s Wal became chairman and commander-in-chief of the South Sudan Liberation Movement, one of the resistance groups fighting against the north. He spent eight months a year in Africa brokering agreements to unite the disparate southern factions. Sometimes when the fighting was particularly fierce in Sudan, he set up base in Kenya. After big basketball games Julia would e-mail the results to an office of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi, which would forward the information to Wal. "Sometimes I asked what was worse: [witnessing] all the fighting and destruction, or being away from my family?" he says. "But war is war. You make sacrifices, hoping they'll be worth it someday."