This past Saturday, hundreds of people from up and down the west coast gathered in San Francisco for a Sudan solidarity march called for by the Sudanese Association of Northern California.
For the past three months, Sudanese people in the Bay Area, have been glued to our phones and tablets following news from back home. Protesters have taken to the streets to call for an end to the 30-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir. The internet has been buzzing with videos of the protests and of the government’s brutal crackdown. Amnesty International estimates more than 45 dead, 180 injured, and thousands arrested so far. Sudanese immigrants in the United States have been organizing solidarity protests, including right here in the Bay Area. And, we’re noticing a new generation of Sudanese American youth are becoming politically engaged for the first time.
Late last month, about two dozen people gathered in Hayward, for a community forum at the office of the Sudanese Association of Northern California, about what’s going on back in Sudan. Usually, speakers and the people who attend these events are adults, and they’d usually be speaking Arabic. But today’s event is different.
Tonight, the adults are handing over the microphone to younger speakers. Maazin Ahmed is 17 years old and head of the Black Student Union in Berkeley. His mom is Sudanese, dad African American. "We should follow the example of protest in Berkeley history," he says. "The Black Panthers, civil rights, we can bring that energy to Sudan."
16-year-old Haifaa Abushaiba is also there, as she slips in and out of English and Arabic, speaking “Arabeezy,” a kind of teen speak. “Our generation is the generation that's gonna change Sudan. We're the generation that's gonna write the new constitution. We're the generation that is going to bring democracy to Sudan,” she says. And then she says, in Arabic, that she’s sure one day there will be a woman leading Sudan.
Haifaa is a senior in high school. Her parents drove 40 miles from Tracy to this event. For her, it was the videos that started showing up on social media in late December that sparked her activism.
Families worldwide, including mine, have been glued to Facebook and WhatsApp, following the uprising on their screens watching grainy videos of protesters marching and chanting. In many cases, they are being chased down by security trucks, hauled onto them, sometimes beaten, or worse, shot down. Haifaa says she was amazed that after all that people would still take to the streets the next day. She was so excited she started showing her school friends. It's in Arabic and her friends don’t understand what they are saying. “These are my people,” she tells them, “and I should be proud of them. They walk the streets and they ask for freedom and they fear nothing!”
This is a generation whose parents migrated to flee the al-Bashir regime. Now, their American homes are filled with patriotic music and excitement about the protests, but also disgust and anxiety over the brutality of the government. Their kids are watching, listening and learning. And, for teens like Haifaa, something else is happening. It’s changing the way they relate to Sudan, and how they identify in the US. She says before the revolution there was nothing to brag about or say about Sudan. “We just like claim other things, like, ‘oh I'm just black’ or ‘I'm just African-American,’ but throughout this revolution, a lot of us have been saying, ‘no we are Sudanese!’ … That sense of your people wanting freedom makes you prideful and I just never felt that much pride before.”
At this San Francisco City Hall solidarity protest last month called for by the Sudanese Association of Northern California, dozens of people waved flags and chanted in English and Arabic against the Sudanese government. Kids were decked out in flag colors, holding signs they painted themselves. The speakers were all adults until somebody passed the loudspeaker to Haifaa. She took them by surprise.
Her generation is witnessing its first popular uprising. They’ve heard stories about the Sudanese revolt against military rule in 1964 and 1985, but those are old nostalgic family stories. Today, these American-raised kids are on Instagram and Twitter following hashtags like #SudanRevolts and #SudanUprising and making protest art and music. They’re all in.
While there’s a lot of excitement about the uprising, it’s also resulted in another reality that hit some Sudanese families in the US hard.
In the home of sisters Alaa and Saga Hussein in Union City, their mom Fatima makes the evening tea. It’s only 7 o’clock, but they’re yawning because they’re jetlagged. They just flew back from Sudan three days ago. Their parents sent them to college there — a lot of Sudanese expats do that — and then the protests began. Saga says their mom started calling every day. “I would try to make my mom not nervous and not scared. I'm like, ‘oh mom, there's nothing you know…’ But then all of a sudden you hear tat-tat-tat-tat. So, the background noise wasn't helping me at all.”
Their college mates went on a solidarity strike. And to them, striking was important. “There's kids dying. You know, there's people dying, there's people that don't have, you know, money to eat, money to live,” Saga says. “There's so many problems in Sudan right now that makes it seem like we're ignorant if we were to just go to school and complete our education, because, you know, we’re known as ‘the rich students.’”
Their college made headlines when it was swarmed by government security agents chasing student strikers. They teargassed the classrooms and beat the students. It was all caught on camera by a weeping student and the video went viral.
That’s when Saga and Alaa’s parents had enough. Saga had just finished her second year when their parents started to plan their departure. Watching the video, Fatima says she couldn’t believe her eyes. Her daughters were safe but the college wasn’t. She says it was clear to her that the college could have stopped the attack, but didn’t. “I’m angry,” she says. “We sent our children to our country, our home, thinking they would be safe — to learn their culture and be with family. Sadly, they had to come back home.”
Back home to Union City where they’re now applying to go to school in Dubai. They're not the only ones. Many of their friends left, too, and Alaa says it was hard to leave. “I mean sometimes I say I really, really want to go back and protest and just be a part of it because at some point this is going to be our independence day. It's going to be our getting out of the regime and getting out from under the tyrant. This is gonna be a big day when it happens. So I do want to be a part of it, but at the same time when I go on social media and I see videos, I'm scared to go back.”
For one 18-year old, it’s not just about the videos anymore. It hit home. Shabaz, which is not his real name, is from the Peninsula. We’re protecting his identity because his mother, an American citizen, was caught up in a protest in Sudan last month. She was arrested and he fears media coverage might jeopardize her safety. I met up with him in a shop in San Bruno. When he first heard she was arrested he felt nervousness, excitement, anxiety, but also a lot of pride. “It’s hella inspirational,” he says.
It’s made him look deeper at his connection to Sudan and his family. “We grew up in America and there’s this disconnect between generations, culturally, and this generation gap and I think we’re bridging that through this revolution.”
Remember Haifaa Abushaiba who took the mic at the protest? She says, now she gets why her parents get emotional when they talk about Sudan. Or when they hear 80s protest songs like the one performed live by singer Amal Alnur at a concert Haifaa went to in Hayward with her family. For her, this uprising made her feel like she belongs somewhere. “It’s just this feeling of comfort,” she says. “I feel like no matter what, I have a Sudanese community that has my back.”