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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

South Sudanese and Sudanese students discuss experiences and ongoing issues in their countries

“There’s a lot of beauty [in] being Sudanese or South Sudanese.”
Photo courtesy of Achan Wol

“Our culture is beautiful. Our jewelry, our music, our language, like we have more to offer than just sports and modeling,” Achan Wol, a South Sudanese junior marketing major at the University of Massachusetts said.

Wol traveled to South Sudan for the first time this past December. Her mother saved thousands of dollars to make the trip happen. “She really [wanted] to go,” said Wol.

“It was just seeing a lot of family. Meeting so much family, just seeing the places around, seeing the Nile River, eating fresh foods, and just being integrated into the culture, which was just like what we needed so badly,” Wol said.

Wol’s trip was spiritual for her; however, it didn’t come without it’s struggles. “I was a sponge because I was just very silent a lot of the trip.”

“You’re meeting people that are similar in age, people that if we lived here, like we literally would have grown up together, but I couldn’t even communicate with them,” said Wol. “It was so frustrating.”

“You live in America and it’s like you’re an alien because people have never seen a Sudanese person either.” said Wol. “But then it’s like, you go to where you’re from, and you can’t connect to them either.”

Ahmed Elbashir, a Sudanese mechanical engineering student at UMass, said “Being Sudanese, it was hard for me to connect with other people because, like, I grew up in Sudan, and there’s not a lot of other Sudanese people here.”

Bedphiny Deng, a Sudanese senior biology student at UMass said: “I feel like it’s a minority within a minority. Obviously, it’s difficult. My parents don’t really know the [education] situation here, or just America in general. Especially with them being refugees.”

The current climate in South Sudan

South Sudan is the youngest nation in the world. It seceded from Sudan on July 9, 2011 after a referendum vote.

“The main cause of [the split] was racism [and] tribalism,” Elbashir stated.

“The north are more Arab and a lot more light skinned and the south are more dark skinned,” Elbashir said. “A lot of [Sudanese] are very uneducated, so that un-education from the northern part, made it seem that like racism is fine, and tribalism is fine, but all of that, [resulted in] going to war.”

“Although [South Sudan] is the youngest nation, it’s been a troubled nation for a good amount of time,” Deng said.

Wol’s mother and father are from Aweil in South Sudan, but fled to the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, like many others when war broke out in the late 20th century. They then fled to Egypt in the late 1990’s, and eventually made their way to the U.S.

South Sudan remained in “relative” peace until 2013, when infighting occurred between cabinet members, specifically President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar. President Kiir fired his vice president and his entire cabinet in July 2013, and by December 2013, fighting broke out between the presidential guard soldiers.

President Kiir and Machar reached a peace deal after threats of sanctions in August 2015, reinstating Machar as vice president. The fighting settled for less than six weeks, but returned in 2016 and forced Machar to flee South Sudan.

Even though another peace agreement was signed in 2018, armed conflict has continued. According to Concern Worldwide, there are 1.3 million internally displaced people, and more than 70 percent of the country’s population of 8.4 million require humanitarian assistance.

On Wol’s trip to South Sudan, she encountered a man who “was talking about just the day before there was a raid and they had come in and literally killed children and took women, like in 2024 that is insane,” she said.

“In South Sudan, on average, over 1,800 people are still arriving every day, increasing pressure on overstretched infrastructure and exacerbating the vast humanitarian needs,” the UN Refugee Agency warned. Most of the population entering South Sudan are refugees from Sudan, forced to flee because of the ongoing war.

“A lot of the people I know, they grew up in Khartoum, that’s their home. And even though they’re there in South Sudan, now, they had to flee, which is just frustrating,” Wol said.

The ongoing war in Sudan

Conflict in Sudan broke out on April 15, 2023, and has increased the need for humanitarian help and aid in the country. According to OCHA, there are a reported 24.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and protection services in Sudan, 14 million of whom are children.

“There’s a very bad humanitarian situation going on, where people are struggling to get food, struggling for basic needs every day, and it’s a huge amount of people,” Elbashir said.

The war was caused by two rival armed force group leaders struggling to gain resources and control over Sudan, resulting in the devastation of most of the country, specifically in the capital city of Khartoum.

It has been a year since the start of the war, and “right now in the North, everything is destroyed.” Wol said.

In March 2024, a “near total communication blackout” occurred on top of the network and internet shutdowns that occurred in February. It has “[posed] serious risks to the coordination of emergency assistance and humanitarian services to millions of people caught up in the conflict,” stated Amnesty International.

“I think it is kind of difficult to like help from this far away, especially considering how Sudan is kind of blocked off of the world right now.” Elbashir said. “There’s so many people that are still trapped within Sudan because the rebel groups basically took over the airports, even some people can’t even afford to fly out.” Elbashir said.

Elbashir noted that the ongoing war in Sudan “definitely takes a toll” on his mental health. Saying, “my family was there, and even I would have been there if I didn’t decide to come to college here.”

“I was there before everything happened, like everything that led up to today, essentially. I think seeing that contrast and just like, I don’t want to say survivor’s guilt, but that’s kind of what it is, because it’s like a situation I could have been in but I’m not,” Deng said.

“Just thinking about how I would have been turned to a soldier or something now, I was still there. It takes a toll on me. But I’m just grateful that I was able to leave that situation and my family safe,” said Elbashir.

The last time Elbashir was in Sudan was for a cousin’s wedding in 2022, saying “it was a good time. We were celebrating, we didn’t know what was about to happen. So, there was no anxiety. It was just like old vibes.”

“When I went, it was just vibes. It was good,” Deng said, who went at the end of 2022.

Deng continued saying “I think it’s also like, I’m seeing people that I’ve never seen before, or seeing people that have heard stories of like growing up, because being in America is very disconnecting, but it was, it was good. Like, I was ready to go back.”

Looking towards the future

“Just the hope that one day, I could go back to Sudan,” Elbashir said.

Elbashir wants to return to Sudan to help ensure its growth, saying “I think that’s what motivates me is just like, to be able to get as much knowledge as possible from here, and maybe, hopefully transfer that to Sudan in the future.”

Deng echoed that sentiment saying, “I think [one] thing that drives me is like building Sudan to what it should be, and like what everyone like, believes it to be, you know what I’m saying? Like this great nation.”

“I feel like people only see us for what is around us that’s wrong. Not really like the really beautiful aspects of the culture and the food and the people and the music and all that stuff.” Deng said.

“I would choose to be Sudanese any day,” said Deng.

Deng also she believes that the “Respect and care and hospitality, that is in the Sudanese nature translates to like how I make new friends and enter new spaces.”

“There’s a lot of beauty [in] being Sudanese or South Sudanese,” she said.

“The way I grew up, my mother taught me so much just because she’s Sudanese, like she knows a lot about life,” Wol said.

Wol has offered a space for donations that would go directly towards Sudan, under her YouTube video, which describes her trip to South Sudan, saying “If you are able to give, why not give? If you’re able to help, why not help?”

“I think political self education is really important, so you’re just aware of how things happen in the world,” said Deng, emphasizing that political self education is how one knows their place in the world. She hopes that it is used to “enforce certain things [as well as educate] others.”

“Just being aware, spreading awareness, donating, and also just knowing that Sudan is like a real place [with] real people that are actually going through this,” Elbashir said.

Photo courtesy of Achan Wol

Alexandra Hill can be reached at [email protected]

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    Owen RayApr 11, 2024 at 2:36 pm

    Great piece!