|Azhar Ahmed and her son Kutti, who was born in 2018. Lucy Gellman File Photo.|
A young woman spray-painting FREEDOM on a wall, with doves above the letters. Old women playing hand drums while they march for justice. A doctor in a lab coat, with a red-white-and-green flag draped over her head. These are a few images from the Sudanese revolution of 2019.
These photos are closer to home than you may think. Several Sudanese refugees became American citizens this spring, five years after they resettled to Connecticut through Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven.
They had their naturalization ceremonies while their home country was in the midst of a promising revolution. As they were pledging allegiance to the United States, hundreds of activists were gathered across the Atlantic and most of Africa, in the Sudanese capital city of Khartoum.
They were demanding the removal of Omar al-Bashir, the dictator responsible for the genocide and gender-based violence that forced millions of Sudanese people to leave their homes. Over 70 percent of the protesters in Khartoum were women, according to the BBC.
A smartphone photo of a 22-year-old student activist named Alaa Salah has become an icon of the Sudanese revolution. She’s standing on a car leading chants, her hand raised to the sky, her white robe flowing down to the sneakers on her feet. She’s been nicknamed Sudan’s Lady Liberty.
I get to work with ladies liberty from Sudan, Congo, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, through my outreach job with IRIS. I call them Sisters of Resilience. There’s Amal, who told her story of fleeing Sudan at a U.S. Senate briefing on the travel ban. Azhar, who shared the stage with Rosa DeLauro at a rally after the Run for Refugees in 2017. Nour, who spoke at New Haven’s vigil after the New Zealand mosque attacks last year.
|A photo from The American Unicorn at Long Wharf Theatre last year. Lucy Gellman File Photo.|
There’s Gladys, who wows crowds all over the state when she tells her story—growing up as a Congolese refugee in Burundi to coming of age in New Haven to becoming a university student and a U.S. citizen. These women of color are strengthening our communities, in light of their struggles for justice in the countries they had to flee.
The Sudanese revolution saw a swell of hope and a crash of disaster. In April, a coup removed al-Bashir from his palace. The Sudanese people were finally free. People celebrated in the streets. But the army seized power. Protests rose again, with demands for immediate democracy. A sit-in became a growing protest camp, until a military crackdown on June 3.
Over a hundred died. Dozens were raped. Bodies were thrown in the Nile. Many who survived were dragged to detention centers.
I was listening to a radio broadcast on Sudanese youth who are trying to rekindle the revolution, when Azhar, a woman who grew up under al-Bashir’s brutal 30-year rule, stopped by my office. She introduced me to a newly arrived family from South Sudan.
They told me how excited they are to start summer school. Like most refugee children, they had trouble accessing education when their families were seeking asylum. They learned what they could at the African Hope Center in Cairo, where Azhar was a teacher.
|Lames in The American Unicorn at Long Wharf Theatre last year. Lucy Gellman File Photo.|
When Azhar, her husband Fouad, and their daughter Lames arrived to New Haven just over four years ago, they got scared the first night they heard fireworks. They thought it was a bomb attack.
This fourth of July, they’re not afraid. They’re celebrating. They invited me over for a cookout in their backyard in New Haven. Their neighbors are doing fireworks. By this time next year, they’ll likely be in the final stage of applying for U.S. citizenship. I can’t wait to pledge allegiance with them. Refugees help me believe that America could be a land of liberty again.
I’m appalled at the way our country is abusing undocumented people and those who seek asylum here. But today, I get to celebrate with refugees who are becoming U.S. citizens. They were asylum seekers who survived the violence of states that dehumanize their kind. They’re the lucky ones whose cases made it through the systems stacked against them.
For the first time in their lives, they can have full citizenship rights. I’m ashamed of all the injustice being done in the name of security for America. But I’m proud and excited to be an American with Azhar, Fouad, Lames, Gladys, and all the refugee citizens who are the leaven in the bread of the liberation work ahead.
On Tuesday, my friend Amal, whose name means “hope” in Arabic, sent me a red-white-and-blue invitation to a cookout celebration of her family becoming U.S. citizens. In true hyphen-American fashion, there will be halal lamb kebabs, hot dogs and veggie burgers. My favorite line in the invitation: “We encourage you to bring musical instruments.”
|One of the murals that participants in IRIS' Young Leaders program saw in a civil rights trip to the American South last summer. IRIS Photo.|
In one of the murals from the Sudanese revolution, a man stands in front of rising sun. In his right hand, he holds a “rababah,” a stringed instrument Azhar invokes in a poem she wrote about her homeland. People are still taking to the streets in Khartoum to demand democracy in Sudan. In video footage from a recent demonstration, you see bullets and people with make-shift instruments dispersing from a circle they were in.
I keep trying to find ways to ask the Sudanese refugees I know how they keep hope. They have so much to teach white Americans like me about the long walk to freedom. Jurkutch, a naturalized U.S. citizen from South Sudan, once told me their secret: “We sing too much.”
I got to sing a lot with refugee young women on a pilgrimage to U.S. civil-rights sites in the South last summer. On the long bus ride from New Haven to Atlanta, we sang freedom songs together. On the way from Birmingham to Montgomery, a Congolese teen taught us a song from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa called “Freedom is Coming.”
When I sing it with refugees, I believe it. Soon after they arrived to New Haven, Fouad, Azhar, and their daughter Lames went on trip to visit New York City. When they got back, I asked Lames, “What did you see?”
“So many cars and people,” she told me. “And the lady in the water.”
“What lady?” I asked.
“The lady in the water holding light.”
Ashley Makar is an outreach coordinator at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven. To learn more about IRIS, visit their website.