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Finding a Place for Egypt’s Sudanese

text by Dale McGeehon
photos by Todd Cross


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In a schoolroom in the Egyptian city of Alexandria multicolored table linens drape the walls and woven handbags fill the shelves.

About 100 southern Sudanese women have come to the school to make the items or discuss ways to market them. But day-to-day survival is probably the most important issue on their minds.

These women have no home, few friends, meager jobs at best and little money. Civil war has twice ravaged their native country since independence in 1956. The current civil war, which not only sets north against south, but also rival southern militias against one another, broke out in 1983. Tens of thousands of noncombatants have been deliberately killed or displaced from their homes and their country.

Despite these hardships, I was greeted with a song when I visited some of Alexandria’s Sudanese residents. While speaking with them, they presented me with a pen that was tightly wrapped in red, blue and yellow yarn. Somehow my name had been woven into the pattern.

I did not feel right accepting their gift. In my culture, if I visit someone I bring a gift to express my appreciation – not the other way around. Besides, I have everything I need. The Sudanese scramble for food and shelter, and they give me a present?

Africa’s largest country in area, with an estimated population of 25 million, Sudan is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse nations. Its nearly 600 ethnic groups and tribes speak more than 400 languages and dialects. The majority of the population in the north is Arab and Muslim, while in the south most people are black and tribal. Ten percent of those in the south are Christian. The remainder follow traditional tribal religions.

Sudan is ruled by a repressive Muslim regime. After independence, the country’s leaders sought to homogenize their nation by imposing Arab traditions and Islamic law. This led to civil war in the 60s. By 1972, the south, which wanted autonomy, succeeded in forming an autonomous government with the blessing of Sudan’s central government.

After the cessation of hostilities, there were efforts by Sudanese and Egyptian leaders to integrate the two countries. Throughout history, the destinies of Egypt and Sudan have been entwined. Not only do the two nations share the Nile River and a common border, but Sudan has been within Egypt’s sphere of influence since Pharaonic times.

In 1974, the Sudanese leader Ja’far an-Numayri signed an agreement with Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat to coordinate development projects and plan combined cultural and religious institutions.

This bond was further strengthened in 1982 when Numayri signed an integration charter with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The following year laws were approved allowing free passage of people and goods across the border, reinforcing the charter’s preamble, which recognized the historical and cultural unity of the Egyptian and Sudanese people.

Today the number of Egypt’s Southern Sudanese is estimated to be between 3,500 and 25,000 people. They may enter Egypt without entry visas. And technically they have the same rights: free education, medical care, guaranteed government jobs and low housing costs.

But the southern Sudanese have found that what is on paper may not necessarily translate into practice.

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Tags: Egypt Refugees Socioreligious programs Sudan