The Sudan Project: Being Sudanese American in Iowa

Elhadi Mohamed Adam (left) and his wife Yasmin Ali (right) with their children Mohammad (left) and Mayasim (right) at In
Elhadi Mohamed Adam (left) and his wife Yasmin Ali (right) with their children Mohammad (left) and Mayasim (right) at International Foods Mart in Des Moines, Iowa on April 1, 2011. Adam is the owner of International Foods Mart, and Ali works at the store.

“I am a Sudanese American.”

Those were the first words that Deng Tiir used to describe himself to me at the Sudanese Forum in Des Moines. The response was to the statement that I used to open each of the interviews: “Tell me about yourself.”

The Sudanese Americans that I spoke with in Des Moines and Iowa City made two facts clear:  each has a unique background and each lives between both Sudanese and American cultures.

Much has been written about collective groups of new arrivals from Sudan (such as the Lost Boys). However, very rarely has there existed such an intimate view of a broad variety of Sudanese who have lived in the U.S.  for several years and established themselves as Americans.

Sudan is the most diverse country in the Arab world. The largest country in Africa, it has significant populations of Christians, Muslims, and Animists. It also is home to Arabs, Africans, and hundreds of ethnic groups. Though no characteristic defines the Sudanese person, the most common trait is that thousands have found themselves displaced from their homes as refugees within Sudan, neighboring Egypt, or other locations such as Australia.

Sudanese Americans find themselves in Iowa for different reasons. Deng Wour and his family were relocated to Des Moines by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Hassan Elbadri Mohamed came to Iowa City seeking educational opportunities for himself and his family after living in Seattle. A high proportion of the people I interviewed were well educated in the Arab world yet worked ,or continue to work, in unskilled and labor-intensive jobs in the U.S. Many study to obtain advanced degrees before returning to Sudan to develop their homeland.

Sudanese women face especially daunting barriers in America. Regardless of cultural background, they are expected to work, care for children, learn English, and study – often contemporaneously.

This project is a photographic, audio, and narrative snapshot of 15 Sudanese Americans in Iowa. While in no way a definitive representation, it is an endeavor to illustrate not only the decades of tension that has existed between different ethnic groups in Sudan, but also the strong bonds that local Sudanese communities have formed in the United States regardless of ethnic background.

Their stories are the product of interviews in which I asked few questions and listened carefully. I typed my notes and compressed the text into tightened, first-person narratives. I briefly tape recorded a second short interview and used a similar tightening process to remove the “umms and ahhs” in audio samples. Photographs were taken quite organically. I asked each person where he or she would like to take a photo. On location, each was asked to do little more than relax and look at the camera.

During the interviews, which lasted anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours, people discussed their lives with a surprising amount of openness. Many thought initially that I looked like I could be Sudanese myself. I imagine that even though I was a complete stranger, my African heritage made them feel comfortable that I would better understand their experiences and accurately convey their ideas.

The most reticent interviewees tended to be women. Some asked their husbands for permission to speak with me. One refused to have her interview included in the project because she feared speaking out against the state-controlled Sudanese press and potentially endangering former colleagues. Nevertheless, most participants were enthusiastic to have their stories told. They hoped that their contributions to the project would help shed light on the situation in Sudan and on the realities facing Sudanese Americans in the United States.

For most, their displacement has helped them develop insightful observations on situations in the Arab world and beyond. Many have lived in Egypt, Libya, or elsewhere. Tiir spoke about Egyptians who lived in cemeteries and ate from garbage cans decades before the recent Egyptian revolution. Nasreldein Ibrahim worked in Libya and traveled back to Sudan through the desert after a no-fly zone was instituted over the entire country. Grace Nyoma saw bombs fly over her family home in Southern Sudan. Anwar Elnour spoke about friends and family being murdered in Darfur during continuing genocidal operations orchestrated and implemented by the Sudanese government.

The goal of this project is to show a face of the Sudanese diaspora, within and outside Sudan, and open a discussion that has yet to occur. While American foreign policy has shown rapt attention on the revolutions in the Middle East, it has paid little attention to Sudan and the tenuous situation the country faces.

Many of the people I spoke with had never been interviewed, but their first-person stories about both Sudan and the U.S. tell the situation far better than anyone else could. Their stories of the human condition provide us access into understanding what it means to be Sudanese, American, and a citizen of the world.

By Kalle Eko, Special to

About the author

Kalle Eko is a freelance writer for the Gazette and a master’s student in journalism at the University of Iowa. He received his bachelor’s from Princeton University in 2007.

His journalistic interests include photographing and writing about minority populations in the United States. This summer, he will join a Mexican soccer team in Chicago and undertake a study that will show how soccer is a prism through which to view the Mexican experience in America.View Kalle’s photo blog and website 

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