Sudanese migrant workers: news from the homeland

It’s a Saturday morning and Omar, Ahmed and Salah enjoy their weekend off by preparing food, drinking whisky and meeting and conversing with other Sudanese men who pass by for a cigarette and a delicious meal.
Lebanon Angie & Son
Angie, a Southern Sudanese refugee, stands with her son at the Souk el Tayeb in Saifi. June 2009. © Simba Russeau.

BEIRUT, July 23, 2009 (MENASSAT) – Omar, Ahmed and Salah are three migrant workers from Sudan residing and working in Monsourieh, east of the capital Beirut. Entering their tiny two-bedroom apartment, a large poster of Bob Marley greets you.

“We love reggae music. We were sitting on the steps and we say you pass with big dreads and that’s we followed you so that we could invite you to enjoy African food,” says Ahmed. “Today is for Africa!”

While Omar is in the kitchen preparing a meal, Ahmed turns the television on, starts playing Ethiopian music videos and eventually tunes into the local Sudanese station that they pick up via cable.

“Always we watch the Sudanese channel for the music, shows and to find out what’s happening in Sudan,” adds Ahmed.

Ahmed has been in Lebanon for over five years. He says he mainly worked as a farmer in Sudan and had dreams of going to university to study to be a psychologist because he likes meeting new people and understanding how their minds work. Due to dire economic and political instability and the urgency of caring for his family he traveled to Lebanon to provide them with a more stable life.

“Life is hard here because of the racism we face daily. Because the Lebanese know that we speak Arabic when they want to speak poorly of us they do it in French,” says Salah. “Being African and Muslim living in this area means that we are constantly being looked down upon.”

According to Ahmed, they are grateful to have access to local Sudanese news because it keeps them connected to their culture and updated on the political situation. But for other Sudanese this is not the case.

Located in the Horn of Africa, Sudan, one of Africa’s largest countries, faces various religious, ethnic, political and socio-economic divisions. Sudan has become the center of debate over Arab and Western media coverage and interest. At times the conflict is presented as an Arab vs. African, Muslim vs. Christian, and the local and international battle for oil. But all of this comes at the cost of reporting on the human toll.

Sudan’s 22-year war between the mainly Muslim north and the south ended in 2005, after the death of 1.5 million people. The bloody civil war is one of Africa’s longest standing conflicts that has caused nearly four million people to be internally displaced while another 400,000 were forced to flee the country.

Over 6,000 Sudanese refugees from Southern Sudan and Darfur are currently residing in Lebanon as a result of the civil war.

Pro-government media unreliable

Angie, a Southern Sudanese refugee, has been in Lebanon for over ten years. Her father who held one of the few high ranking positions in the Khartoum government refused a request that he denounce his Christian beliefs and end all political ties with opposition groups. As a result he was considered a rebel by the Sudanese government and the entire family was targeted and prevented from leaving the country.

“Our life was like living in a box,” says Angie. “Everything was under the control of the government, even our property.”

After her husband fled to Syria and then eventually to Lebanon, Angelina took her two kids and found a way to escape by bribing the Sudanese police. They finally made their way to Lebanon via Syria by paying traffickers who smuggle families or individuals trying to escape political persecution in Sudan.

“I wanted my children to live a free life,” she adds.

Upon entering Lebanon, Angie applied to the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and was accepted. But protection is just on paper. Lebanon is not a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, so Angie is still considered illegal in Lebanon.

Before the invasion of Iraq the UNHCR used to provide Angie with $300 every three months for rent and education but the influx of Iraqi refugees to Lebanon at the beginning of 2006 has overwhelmed the UNHCR’s budget and she was notified that they could no longer assist her monetarily. Now she survives by working as a freelance domestic worker and by gathering clients for her hair salon.

“We need health care, access to education and legal protection,” says Angelina. “The UNHCR status doesn’t protect refugees or allow us to work. So we are now a target on foreign land.”

For most Sudanese refugees like Angie, the media is not where they go to find out what is happening in their country, because according to them the coverage is in favor of the government and it’s very rare to see actual reporting from the South. So instead she relies on information from her husband and other family members that have returned to their home country.

“I don’t have to watch the news because I work everyday til all hours of the night,” says Angie. “The only time that I watched the news was during the war of 2006. Because it affected me locally and I wanted to know what was going on.”

Under the 2005 peace deal, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) formed a power-sharing government with President Omar al-Bashir's National Congress Party in Khartoum, prompting nearly one million internally displaced Southern Sudanese to repatriate. However, fresh clashes in May and December of last year caused an estimated 50,000 people to flee their homes, showing how fragile the situation is on the ground.

However, Angelina recently received word that things are getting better in Southern Sudan. She says her husband has a good paying job and is looking to return with her two kids and find employment.

“It’s been a long wait and I am ready to go back and work to rebuild our country,” she says.