The lonely life of a Darfuri refugee on the activist stump in the U.S.
Bu Assal Abu Assal, a Muslim novelist, speaks out against genocide in Sudan – which means he may never be able to return home.
Worcester and Cambridge, Mass.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the student body ranks among the busiest in the US, Bu Assal Abu Assal has managed to attract about a dozen students to hear him speak about the hardships he faced in his native Darfur and the ongoing genocide there. Now an exile for more than five years, he paces the room dressed in a pressed, white suit and polished shoes, recounting memories from his home.Skip to next paragraph
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When he finishes, about half the audience slips out before question-and-answer begins. After all, this is MIT where student workloads rarely waver. But the room resettles, and someone asks what actions Americans can take to stop the genocide in the western Darfur region of Sudan where pro-government Arabs have been killing non-Arabs since 2003.
"I am a person from that region and I see every single day my people are being killed," Dr. Abu Assal says. "I would like you to take every single possible action you can think of to help stop the genocide."
But he harbors no illusions about how far Americans – jaded by their own conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — are willing to go for his homeland. The emptied seats and the scores of others that have been vacant for the entire event serve as a reminder of the motivational challenges this refugee and his fellow Darfur activists face.
For Abu Assal, the road ahead leads uphill. Though he's filled auditoriums, many have been as empty as this one at MIT. In Sudan, he was a veterinarian as well as a promising novelist. But starting over in the US while his home is under siege has meant facing difficult truths.
So at this point, it's easy for him to provide his own reality checks. "I know it's way beyond your capability [to do everything possible to stop the genocide], because you have other things to do," he says matter-of-factly and without bitterness to the students. But, he adds, "please take the easiest [course of action] that you can think of" – such as writing to elected officials.
Getting this message out has probably cost Abu Assal any chance of ever returning home. During his three years in the US he's spoken at more than 100 similar events. Now a quick Google search would give Sudan's security service enough fodder to permanently bar him from entering Sudan. It will take a new government – or peace – for him to ever go home again, something he admits may not happen in his lifetime.
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Though clearly outspoken, Abu Assal was not a rebel from the Tiananmen Square stand-in-front-of-tanks mold. His activism was more on the intellectual level. He worked as a veterinarian based in Zalingei, a market town in western Darfur, and spent most days traveling an area the size of Massachusetts with a mobile animal clinic – a key service for rural farmers and nomads whose livelihood is livestock. At each stop, he also tutored high school students and taught adults to read, which he characterizes as subversive where the government limits educational resources.
Before violence exploded in Darfur in 2003, Abu Assal – himself a quarter Arab, and a Muslim – and his colleagues could see ethnic and tribal trouble brewing as people displaced by the 20-year civil war flooded into their region. Though he didn't imagine a genocide, the veterinarian knew Darfur wouldn't remain immune to the turmoil.
Abu Assal wouldn't emerge full-formed as an activist until the government arrested several people he used to talk politics with. Fearing arrest, or worse, he embarked with just the clothes on his back on a 26-day, 100-mile trek to Chad that ended just shy of the border when the military detained him. For four days, soldiers interrogated and beat him until releasing him as part of a government deal with tribal leaders.