For some of the best legal minds in Washington state, a complicated Spokane divorce that spanned two continents and a bloody civil war came down to this: 15 cows.
The missing herd was part of several legal arguments before the Division III Court of Appeals as justices contemplated custody of two children. In the end their mother, who relocated to Spokane from Sudan, retained custody.
“This saga spans southern Sudan to Spokane, and features a civil war, refugees seeking to escape Africa and a failure of consideration because the war prevented payment of the remaining cows owed the bride’s father,” Judge Kevin Korsmo wrote in an opinion released last week. “Against this chaotic backdrop, the facts and law are often unclear and in some dispute.”
The twisted legal tale started in the southern Sudanese village of Aweil, where Tereza Awan, now 27, agreed to marry Jok Aleu in 1994. They had a daughter, Nebol, in 1996 and another, Achan, in 1998 while living in Awan’s home village.
But two things occurred while Awan was pregnant with the couple’s third child: Aleu – the young father – had yet to produce 15 of the 50 cows needed to complete the dowry to Awan’s father under Sudanese marriage custom.
Then civil war ravaged the couple’s small village.
“She fled on foot to escape raiders who attacked her village, killing her neighbors and setting fire to their homes,” said Gail Hammer, an assistant professor at Gonzaga University School of Law who supervised the students who represented Awan. “She was separated from her eldest child and her husband.”
Awan and little Achan walked more than a month to get to the next village while Awan’s eldest daughter escaped the fighting with her grandmother; the older child has remained in Sudan.
Awan got work as a housekeeper in yet another village and saved money to travel to Khartoum, where she gave birth to a son, Bol.
While living there, Awan met William Akon, who suggested they go to Egypt because it was too risky to remain in Khartoum. She provided money and Akon obtained the necessary documentation in which he listed Awan’s two children as his own.
The four refugees traveled to Cairo, where Awan worked to support them, according to court records.
During this time, Jok Aleu reconnected with Awan via telephone. She told the father of her children that she and Akon planned to try to make it to the United States, a plan he apparently supported. Akon then paid a bribe for the necessary paperwork and coached Awan to tell officials about how they were kidnapped in 1996 and enslaved for several years.
Awan and Akon went through a marriage ceremony to facilitate the move. Hammer, the law professor, said the ceremony did not include a dowry, her family was not notified, and that Awan viewed it simply as a way to escape to the United States.
Akon filed for asylum in the United States, listing Awan as his wife and Achan and Bol as his children. He also changed Achan and Bol’s last name to his own on the immigration documents. In 2004, the four refugees were relocated to Spokane to live with a relative of Jok Aleu, who remained in Sudan.
The couple landed jobs and shared expenses, but Awan alleged that Akon became violent with her and she asked him to leave in April 2005. Akon had very little contact with the children between then and 2007, according to Awan’s attorney.
In that year, Awan was arrested for undisclosed reasons; no charges were ever filed.
Akon filed for divorce and sought custody of the two children. Since she could not read English, Awan mistakenly thought legal papers served on her were from her landlord, so she did not go to court.
She moved her children to Nashville, Tenn., which also has a large Sudanese population; meanwhile, Akon won a judgment in October 2006, awarding him custody of Awan’s children. He traveled to Tennessee in May 2007 and had local authorities impose the judge’s order from Spokane.
“The court proceedings in Tennessee marked the first time the mother was aware that Mr. Akon had filed for a dissolution and claimed to be the legal father of her children,” attorneys for Awan wrote. “The children were removed from school and given to Mr. Akon, who returned to Spokane with them.”
Awan obtained legal help from Gonzaga’s University Legal Assistance, and several legal students began working to piece together what happened, Hammer said. Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno overturned the previous ruling and ordered the case to trial, which took place in 2008 before Superior Court Judge Harold Clarke.
After a three-week trial – in which Jok Aleu confirmed by phone that he married Awan in 1994 and still owed her father 15 cows – Clarke ruled that Awan’s version of events was more credible. He ruled that Akon had no parental rights and ordered the two children returned to their mother.
It’s the appeal of that action that judges ruled on this week.
Akon’s attorney, Emily Cordo, argued that Clarke erred in finding a valid marriage occurred between Jok Aleu and Tereza Awan because “Mr. Aleu still owed 15 cows to his father-in-law,” Judge Korsmo wrote.
But other evidence “suggested” that it was a valid marriage, he wrote in an opinion that was concurred with by appellate judges Teresa Kulik and Stephen Brown.
Despite the complicated legal mess created by the incomplete dowry and the couple’s escape from Sudan, Korsmo commended Akon “for his concern for the children and his willingness to become their father although under no biological obligation to do so.”
“However,” he wrote, “the trial court did not err in disestablishing paternity and returning the children to their mother.”