She was 18. She got herself up and went to school. She studied.
At the nursing home, she lifted people who could not walk. She put them to bed, she got them up.
Her feet got tired.
She worked nights, she worked weekends. She sent money to Africa. She made promises over the oceans. You are my brothers, I will bring you here with me.
She tried to be patient, but sometimes she lost faith in the world, and at night she cried for the boys left behind.
Liem, the little one she’d never met. Goanar, the middle boy whose name meant “good uncle.” Koat, the oldest, his right side stunted from a mysterious disease.
All of them so far away in the village in South Sudan where war never ended.
Their father was dead, their mother was dead, their little sister was dead. The big sister, swept away to a place called Lincoln, Nebraska, was all they had.
For years, she plotted ways to bring them here, searching the Internet, filing paperwork, calling politicians, flying to Africa.
People helped her and encouraged her, but no one thought she would succeed, not even the immigration expert who’d helped hundreds before her find a path.
But Nyanthiay Chot would not give up. She would save her brothers.
She would be their mother in America.
1990: NYANTHIAY AND HER RED SHOES IN SUDAN
She was small then, 4 years old, and she was happy in her father’s hometown, where there were cattle and sheep and chickens and a river filled with fish, and aunts and uncles and cousins and both of her parents.
And there were memories of small things — the candy her father brought to the hut, the first tilapia she pulled from the fire, the red shoes.
Nyanthiay had never worn shoes, but one day another girl passed their doorway, red sandals on her dusty feet.
She stared at the shoes and the girl. She started to cry.
“I wanted to take them from that girl.”
A few days later, her father appeared with a present. A pair of red sandals made of rubber. They felt like happiness.
2011: THE FIRST TRIP TO AFRICA
Nyanthiay is packing. Jeans and T-shirts from Gordmans and Timberland boots and Nike tennis shoes, socks and underwear. Things boys need.
“I’m guessing all the sizes,” she says. “I know they’re going to be taller than me.”
Nyanthiay is small, like her mother was. She’s wearing a Husker T-shirt and matching pajama pants.
She’s packing the New Testament in her purse. She’s packing malaria pills. She has a hiding place for her wallet.
It’s late 2011, and Nyanthiay and her boyfriend, Thach Muon, are getting ready to leave this apartment on 19th Street for three months in Africa.
They are both from the Nuer tribe, one of the two largest in Christian South Sudan. But they met here, through his sister.
Thach works at a cereal factory in Air Park, filling boxes with corn flakes and rice crisps.
He sees how sad his girlfriend is. All the time and tears devoted to bringing her brothers here.
The boys have been living with relatives in their mother’s village since she died in 2004. Last year, rebels came and put their hut on fire while they slept.
They’ve watched men die.
They’re not getting along with their aunt. She’s abusing them, they tell Nyanthiay when she calls.
Her little brother Liem dreams about Superman coming to save them.
Goanar tells his aunt: Our sister is coming to get us and you’ll never see us again!
Nyanthiay doesn’t want to let them down. She’s filed forms to bring them here, but the immigration service told her it takes 10 to 12 years for siblings to be reunited.
“I don’t have that long.”
For now, she plans to find the boys an apartment in Uganda, Sudan’s neighbor to the south. She has money for five months’ rent.
She hopes Koat can find good doctors there. The seizures started when he was small and the right side of his body is useless. He’s losing his memory, too. In Sudan, there is no medicine.
“I think when I see them I’ll just cry for a while.”
When Nyanthiay came to Lincoln, her mother was still alive.
By then, bullets had killed Nyanthiay’s father.
By then, a boiling pot of water had killed her little sister.
By then, her mother was selling firewood to feed her family in an Ethiopian refugee camp.
“My mom was not herself, she was sad and I think she was just exhausted. And now she had to be a single mom in a country where women don’t have rights, where there’s war.”
Where a woman could be raped going to gather wood, where someone could just walk into your hut and take what you have.
By then, happiness was gone for all of them.
So when an uncle got a chance to come to the U.S. and put Nyanthiay’s name on his family’s immigration form — as if she were his own daughter — her mother urged her to go.
“She said, ‘Let her go. She can go to school. She can be somebody better.’”
2005: IN AMERICA, LOSING AND FINDING HERSELF
I have a husband for you.
Nyanthiay looked at her uncle. For four years, she’d been in Lincoln living with him and his family.
She’d learned English, skipped one grade and then another. She was on her way to becoming a citizen. She wanted to be a doctor.
“He was arranging a marriage for me. I told him, ‘You know, I may be little, but my mind is big.’”
She wasn’t going to marry some old man she didn’t love. If he tried to force her, he would go to jail, she told him.
Nyanthiay was 15. Her mom had died the year before. Nyanthiay had known she was sick. When they talked on the phone, she couldn’t stop coughing, and she told her daughter about the blood that came up.
But Nyanthiay didn’t know how bad it was, until the end.
Now her brothers were alone, and she was about to lose the family that brought her to Lincoln.
Marry or go, her uncle told her.
Nyanthiay went. She moved in with a friend, and when that didn’t work out, with another friend.
She dragged herself to school, but she was angry and depressed.
“I was not sleeping at night, just awake crying and thinking about my life.”
Nyanthiay was close to a social worker at North Star who worked with refugee students. Diane Fern had helped her with school, with figuring out car insurance, with her quest to bring her brothers here.
Sometimes she felt like a mother to the girl as she navigated two cultures.
She referred Nyanthiay to a therapist. They met in an empty office at the school twice a week.
Your feelings are normal, Pam Oltman told her. Your reactions are because of the trauma you’ve lived through.
“I worked with her a lot on coping skills,” Pam says. “And grief.”
And she saw the girl change.
“She learned to cope and gain strength from her past. All of a sudden she started opening the door to trusting.”
Nyanthiay remembers when the door cracked open, too.
Pam told her to draw a map of the people she thought were threatening her and her brothers.
Nyanthiay started writing the names.
And in her mind she saw a country. A country like China, with a wall all the way around it.
“A thick wall with a locked door and me and my brothers inside the wall. Just me and my brothers.”
2013: THE BOYS ARRIVE IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS
After that first trip to Africa in 2011, Nyanthiay came back more determined to bring the boys home.
They were in Uganda now, but that wasn’t safe, either. If she had to wait 10 more years they’d be lost. She’d been researching another plan, but she needed help making it work.
She called Mike Johanns' office. A staff member gave her a list of names, people who could help with immigration. She picked one out: Max Graves.
Max had been a pastor before he decided to change his life midstream.
Now he was the executive director of the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance.
For 13 years he’d helped desperate people gain visas and green cards and citizenship. The phone rings 50 times a day at the bare-bones office in a North 70th Street strip mall where a faded sign still reads “Golf Central.”
Max and two staff members have helped people from 92 countries and handled all kinds of cases.
None quite like Nyanthiay’s.
“Sometimes I thought, ‘Why in the world did I take this case?’”
The day the determined young woman showed up at his desk, desperate to bring her brothers here, he gave her the standard answer. The I-130, petition for siblings, a 10-to-12-year wait.
What about adoption, she asked. Would that work?
He hadn’t thought of that.
But Nyanthiay had, for years. She knew about the I-600, “petition to classify orphan as an immediate relative.”
The boys were orphans, and Nyanthiay was an immediate relative.
She knew the rules: The orphans had to be younger than 18, the person petitioning for them had to be 24.
Nyanthiay was nearly 24.
To satisfy the immigration service they needed proof. Death certificates for their parents and birth certificates for the boys.
The boys were born in the refugee camp in Ethiopia. Nyanthiay’s father had died in Sudan. Her mother in an Ethiopian hospital. The boys would need passports and visas from Uganda.
They would need immunization records, and help with translation.
That meant dealing with bureaucracies in three countries, and one of them — Ethiopia — ran on its own calendar, seven years behind the United States.
“It was just a very complicated case,” Max said.
He cautioned her.
Nyanthiay didn’t back down.
“She just has a will of steel. She had a huge mountain to climb and nobody was going to stop her.”
Nyanthiay found lawyers in Uganda and death certificates in Sudan and Ethiopia, immunization records and birth certificates. She paid people to help her, and trusted that they would.
She worked two jobs, remembering how hard her own mother had worked gathering wood to sell so they could eat.
An Max worked hard, too. Consulting attorneys, logging 80 hours of legal research.
In the summer of 2013, a letter arrived: intent to deny. They sent more information. They ran out of time. They got an extension.
Nyanthiay spent $5,000 for a plane ticket when she got the call to appear at the Ugandan high court with 48 hours notice.
And she turned her car title over to the bank in early December when the boys visas were stamped approved, at last.
For months she had repeated the same words to Max: I'll have the boys home by Christmas ...
It's Dec. 22, 2013.
The young woman Max met 18 months ago is in his office talking about riding on a motorcycle through the mad streets of Uganda’s capital city, two hours late for an appointment at the U.S. Embassy.
She’s talking about the necklace thieves tried to pull from her neck, how she fought back.
She holds up the gold chain still around her neck.
The boys she fought for are here, too, her early Christmas presents.
Three brothers who just saw snow for the first time.
The sister who saved them is wearing red suede boots.
She is happy again.
And her new family is about to get bigger.
FEBRUARY 2014: A BABY FOR THREE BROTHERS
Nyanthiay and Thach sit in the waiting room of their midwife’s office.
The pregnancy hasn’t been easy. Nyanthiay was at the emergency room yesterday, vomiting, dehydrated. She's had to take a leave from her job at the Ambassador Nursing Home. She can't lift anymore. She can't be on her feet all day.
She had morning sickness all day when she flew to Africa in December to get her brothers. But it wasn’t going to stop her.
“I’m so happy she’s happy,” Thach says. “She laughs a lot now, not like before.”
The boys have started school. Koat, 17, and Goanar, 15, are at North Star.
Like a flashback, Nyanthiay says. But a good one.
Liem is a fifth-grader at Elliott. At night, they sit around the kitchen table working fractions and figuring out vocabulary words. Speaking in a mixed tongue of Nuer and English.
They’re adjusting, she says.
They hate the cold. They hate lettuce. When they saw her eating Froot Loops, they asked: Why are you eating beads?
On busy nights, they order Pizza Hut. Liem picks off the cheese. When there’s time, she cooks — dumplings fried in a pan and plopped into a broth with beef or lamb and spinach.
She is getting used to an apartment full of boys. They are looking for a bigger place, maybe someday a house.
Today is the first ultrasound. The lights are dim and the room is cool, and a woman is moving a wand over Nyanthiay’s belly.
She narrates a silent movie on the computer screen. Bone and liver and heart, spine and kidney and bladder, eyes and nose and umbilical cord.
Nyanthiay has questions.
Is it a big head?
“It’s a good-sized head.”
Are those the feet?
They look like big feet.
The feet look like they should, the technician tells them. Then she asks a question.
Do you want to know what you're having?
APRIL 2014: MOM BEHIND THE WHEEL
It rained hard overnight and the world smells green.
Nyanthiay pulls a cap over her braided hair, slips her feet into sandals, a pink hoodie covering her belly. It’s getting closer, and she’s tired.
She and Goanar grab plastic bags of garbage and carry them to the trash bin in back of a big apartment complex just off Superior Street.
They moved here last month, a bigger place with three bedrooms.
She scolds the boys for eating in the living room.
“I told them, ‘We have to keep it clean. That carpet has to be the same color when we leave here.’”
It’s just after 7, time for school. Koat crawls into the back of the car, cradling his right arm close to his body. He’s her singer, a deep bass.
Nyanthiay takes him to Madonna three times a week for therapy. He’s being fitted for braces, one for his leg, one for his hand.
Goanar is her easygoing boy, staying up too late talking to his friends on Facebook. He climbs in beside his brother, long legs folding into the small Camry. He’s forgotten his school ID — again.
“Koat has the memory problems, but you’re always forgetting!”
She drops them off in front of her old high school and they walk away in Pumas and blue jeans, swinging backpacks.
The woman who befriended Nyanthiay will greet them in the halls.
“I never imagined I would be here as a social worker with her brothers in the building,” says Diane Fern. “Look what persistence and drive can do for you.”
Nyanthiay heads home for Liem, and Elliott Elementary School, 15 minutes away. She watches him head to the door, wind whipping his shirt.
“He’s so skinny,” she says. “That boy sleeps more than he eats.”
He has a bike now, and next year he can pedal to Goodrich across the road, her old middle school.
It’s like the boys are walking her path now.
Nyanthiay listens to the radio as she drives, a Christian station. At First Presbyterian on Sunday, the preacher led a prayer for a good week, a week free from sin, a week of peace for the people of their country. Nyanthiay’s eyes closed while she listened to the words in her language.
She takes the boys to North Pointe Church, too, so they can learn from an English Bible.
“I’m a parent now, I figure I better get them close to a good church.”
She cares about their education, too. They have library cards. She’s enrolled all three in summer school. She wants them to go to college.
She wanted to go to college. She got a Learn to Dream scholarship, but she needed to work to bring the boys here, so they gave it to someone else.
She shrugs. She's just 25. Maybe she still can go.
She can see now, looking back, how young she'd been, how fast she had to grow up.
“But I felt like these are my shoes. Everybody’s got to wear their shoes.”
MAY 2014: HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY
She feels like a mother already, six weeks before her first baby is due.
She was ready that day in 2011, sitting in her old apartment, packing suitcases for her first trip to see her brothers in Africa, all her time and money invested in a dream.
“I think I can play mom,” she said then.
She knows she can never replace their mother — her mother. She misses her, and her father, and the little sister who begged Nyanthiay to take her to school as the burns from the boiling water peeled her skin away.
She doesn’t miss war.
Last week, her father’s village, the place she was so happy so long ago, was attacked. In the news are pictures of soldiers as young as her boys.
Her brothers have seen enough death, she says.
When she starts to feel the stress of caring for them, the stress of money, all the bills, she reminds herself of that.
"Being a parent is hard," she says. "I just need to suck it up."
The boys will be here for six months on June 15. She can legally adopt them then.
And the baby, her girl, is due two weeks later. A baby girl for three big brothers.
They have picked out a name. Emman. It means faith in their language.
It was Thach’s mom’s idea, she says, and they liked it.
“I had to have faith to bring the boys here. I couldn’t have done it without that.”
And the boys — who waited so long for their sister — had faith in her.