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.
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.
With no money, he made his way to Khartoum where he had friends and family who could get him back on his feet. Ironically, even though he was in the heart of the regime that was targeting his home region, he felt safer there. "[Security forces] are more brutal in the distant and removed areas like Darfur than they are in Khartoum, maybe because of the presence of the embassies and international organizations," he says.
After writing fiction and poems for years without publishing anything, he began selling short stories to a local newspaper, earning critical acclaim among Sudanese literary circles as well as some cash.
His travels as a vet, combined with his personal experiences, provided inspiration for much of his work. For example, in his short story "Seven Against the Moon," he fictionalized details of the forced Army conscription of a teenager – an event that he witnessed.
Unfortunately, his writing also attracted government scrutiny, forcing Abu Assal into hiding until an international aid agency funded his move to Egypt. At first, "I wasn't thinking of going anywhere," he says. "I thought I would stay for a while there until things cooled down." Still, he applied for refugee status through the United Nations and began working with a local group that chronicled the experiences of victims of violence in Darfur. These tales fueled his first novel in a trilogy about a group of Sudanese friends whose lives are reshaped by the nation's unrest.
"Taking all those different testimonies of torture victims, I learned so much during this experience and I was more determined to not only continue with the writing part of my fight against injustice, but also to do some other things [to help people in Darfur]," he says.
So, when the UN offered Abu Assal resettlement in Massachusetts after two years in Cairo, he saw it as an opportunity to continue his activism without the danger and limitations he faced in Sudan and even Cairo.
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In Worcester, Mass., Abu Assal's home for almost three years now, he introduces himself to a classroom of African teens, refugees from conflicts across Africa. Though many have lived in the US long enough to adopt the culture, they're still behind in school. So Abu Assal and other members of the African Community Education Program spend Saturdays tutoring these kids.
As Abu Assal writes his name on the white board, a student asks, "Is there a different name we can call you, like Mr. A?"
"No. My name is Abu Assal."
Small challenges like this require continual adjustment. "Teachers [in Africa] are shown a lot of respect and appreciation. Something that, honestly speaking, I didn't see here, at least in Worcester ... some kids even called me names," he says. Yet with characteristic patience and some American slang, he adds, "they're just undergoing all these humongous changes and they're boys."
With his students, Abu Assal doesn't talk about Africa. He says it's up to their families to decide how connected children remain with their homelands.
For Abu Assal, whose parents and siblings remain in Sudan, staying connected is important, but difficult. In 2007, he learned that his sister had disappeared. "I think it has a lot to do with my activism and maybe her own activism," he says. "I don't know if she was engaged in any kind of activism, but she was a teacher and a teacher is always viewed by our government as a potential threat."
For solace, Abu Assal often looks to his own situation. "I have been very fortunate to be in this country when I think of the other people from Darfur and Sudan who face all extremely bad things from the little things to the killings," he says. "Those people are voiceless ... and I have this unique opportunity to be here, to do something."