Ayen Okanue

Amir's mother


A Sudanese Arab who ran away from the war and searched for a better life in America.


Born as Ayen Al-Qadiri on June 12,1956 in Bor, South Sudan.

Ayen’s mother was Dinka and her father was Sudanese Arab. Her mother died during childbirth and her father died in the First Sudanese Civil War in 1960, so Ayen’s grandfather, Ali Al-Qadiri took custody over her and brought her to the city of Khartoum in Sudan, where he lived. She went to Khatoum American School, where she learned to speak English.

Although she was a woman in an Islamic state, she was curious and resourceful. Her uncle was a mechanic, and since she liked to spend time with him and her cousins, she learned a lot about cars. Her cousin Bilal, who is 7 years older than her, taught her how to drive when she was 13. She liked to sneak out with Bilal and his brothers for some reckless driving outside the city to her grandfather’s discontent, however she never got in any serious trouble. She was sent to the principal’s office on more than one occasion, for inappropriate jokes and other forms of misbehaviour. You could say, she saw life as one big adventure and to her any obstacle was a small challenge that could be fixed with some creative ingenuity.

When Ayen was 17, her grandfather was diagnosed with Leukemia. He was getting weaker by the day, so she had to take care of him. The experience made her more serious and responsible. Although her grandfather had always been strict with her, during the last months of his life he became much softer and more open. A week before his death he gave her a key and instructed her to go to his study and open a cabinet by his desk. In that cabinet Ayen found a wooden box. Her grandfather told her to open the box only after his death. Ayen joked that it was going to take a long time, so she’d better put it back where she’d found it. Her grandfather gave her a weak smile. They both knew it wasn’t true.

He died when Ayen was 19 at it was the first time she cried so much. Only after a couple of weeks did she actually open the box her grandfather had left it. Inside the box was a thick bunch of letters. They were addressed to her grandfather from a man named Omar. She started reading them and she realized they were love letters. Her grandfather was homosexual.

It was 1975 and the country was recovering from a civil war, so Ayen asked her uncle for some money and his blessing, and fled to the USA. She worked very hard to save up money for a university, however, due to her rebellious personality she had trouble staying employed for more than a couple of months. One of her jobs was a janitor in an insurance company. There she met a young accountant, who was recently hired and was very nice to the staff. His name was Robert Okanue. One day, when the elevator in the building was broken, they had a small conversation, which led to more conversations a marriage proposal in 1978.

The same year she got accepted into City University of New York and four years later she gave birth to Amir. The birth of a child didn’t discourage Ayen from studying, though, as she enrolled into the masters program and received her MA in pharmaceutics in 1986. Two years later, she got a lucrative job offer in Hartford, Connecticut, so the family decided to move there.

Although she was always very fond of Robert and considered him her best friend, she didn’t get along with his family, particularly his mother and sister. Linda (that was the name of Robert’s mother), in turn, absolutely despised Ayen. Not only did she hate the fact that Ayen was Muslim, she also hated Ayen’s arrogant behaviour. Linda’s hatred amused Ayen, so every time her mother-in-law criticised her, Ayen would throw a cold, sarcastic remark back at her. Robert’s sister Anika was angry at him for leaving Harlem. She called it an act of “betrayal” and mostly blamed Ayen for it (since it was Ayen who got that job in Hartford).

Not everyone in Robert’s family gave her a hard time, though. She got along very well with Anika’s husband, Don, who was a mechanic. They had a lot in common, so during family gatherings they would usually get away from the others to talk about cars.

Once, when Amir was 10, Don showed Ayen a picture of a car his friend was selling – a 1970 Dodge Challenger. Although it was old and rundown, she bought the car and worked on it on the weekends, until it was in shape. It was the car which she used to teach her son how to drive when he was 13.

She has always had a very good relationship with her son. Although she was fluent in English, she wanted him to know Arabic, so it was the language she spoke to him since a very young age. At first Robert was worried that speaking two languages would be too confusing for a child, but as Amir grew, he saw that the languages came to him naturally. Ayen also wanted Amir to read and write in Arabic, so she taught him that before he went to school, which was another topic of Linda’s discontent with her daughter-in-law.

Although she had a tendency to insult people whom she deemed stupid, Ayen was against violence (a view she shared with Robert), so she tried to raise her son on ideals of peace. She was Muslim, but she wasn’t an active practitioner, just like her husband (who was a Christian), so they both agreed not to involve their son in any religion, so he could make that choice himself when he got older. She still liked to read him stories from the Quran, at least the ones she thought were appropriate to children.

In 2001 Robert died in a car accident. Another loss for Ayen. She was devastated, but she saw that her son was taking it even worse. He failed his course and took a gap year, most of which he spent climbing the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, or in France with his friend Kate from high school, leaving her alone with her grief.

Right now she still lives in Hartford, works in the same pharmaceutical firm and drives around in her immortal Dodge.

Ayen is assertive, yet not too stubborn. She seems unemotional at first, but she is caring. Her sarcasm, however, can only be matched by her wit. On the other hand, she isn’t always sensitive to other people’s feelings, which is why she can sometimes say something hurtful unintentionally.

Ayen Okanue

Hartford Griautis Griautis