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Abeja Dispatch

December 4, 1999:
Each Face Has a Story

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Eager eyes glowed from the dark, anxious faces that surrounded me, brightening the dingy room despite peeling paint and florescent lights. I rushed in late for our meeting, and the translator, a student from the American University, hadn't shown up, either. The nine young men who waited for me, though, didn't seem to be bothered by the time. I was surprised. 'It's the middle of the day, in the middle of the week. How is it that these students don't have anything to do?' I wondered.

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students gather
Najat, the journalist who had helped me set up the interview, welcomed me and offered me tea. There in the office of Khartoum, a magazine for Sudanese living in Egypt, she introduced me to the young men who had gathered to meet me. They were all in their late teens or early twenties, hansom and healthy, and dressed casually but nicely. Some were dark black, others more Nubian or Arab in appearance, all alert and attentive. One young man sat, eyes unseeing, holding a cane.Najat had told me she was arranging for me to meet with Sudanese students who were living as refugees in Cairo. I wasn't expecting there to be so many, or for them to be so old. Since there was no way I was going to remember all their names, I handed them my notebook and asked them to write their names in "English" letters. Slowly and carefully, as if their very lives depended on it, they each printed their full names, sometimes with help from the others.

They were anxious to tell me their stories, eager to be heard. Najat and another journalist with limited English skills pinch hit for my interpreter, so our communication was a struggle. For the next hour and a half, we pantomimed, repeated, rephrased, and tried however we could to communicate. More young men kept showing up, sitting down, and waiting patiently, each to take his turn at trying at telling me bits of his story.Their stories were similar. They had all been university students in Khartoum, the capital of the Sudan, the country just south of Egypt. Most had been studying agriculture.

sudan map
The Sudan has seen civil war and famine for years, and there are an estimated 2 million Sudanese citizens living in Egypt. Most are from North and Central Sudan, and oppose the strict Islamic government that came to power in 1989. Others are from Southern Sudan, which is culturally different than the rest of the country, being mostly black and Christian or animist. Currently, civil war and famine continue to haunt this almost forgotten corner of the globe, as the Southern Sudanese struggle for independence. These young men had all crossed illegally into Egypt to escape the required military service--what they referred to as "the Company." They wouldn't go into detail as to how they got here. I'm not sure if it was to protect their secrets or just because they didn't understand the question! Mozamil, who has been in Egypt for two years now, showed me a huge scar on his knee that he got while being punished in "the Company." They told of songs and lectures, and other "brainwashing" techniques they were forced to endure before running away. They talked with love of their homeland, and anger at the government and their refugee status. They showed me their "Company" ID cards, which they saved as proof to the United Nations that they were, indeed, political refugees fleeing government oppression. They told me their stories with earnest, as if, somehow, I could help

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Each man carefully writing his name, explaining how hard it was for him here, eyes pleading to me.One man tells of going to jail here in Egypt for several months, because he was caught here illegally. "In Egypt," he said, and pantomimed being handcuffed and led to jail. "In Sudan," he said, and pantomimed the same. Then he shrugged and threw up his hands, speaking volumes about helplessness, about being stuck, about having no options. Magzoub, the youngest looking man in the room, watched, eyes wide with fear, like a cornered animal. He crossed from the Sudan two days ago. They cannot work here, because they do not have work papers. Like hundreds of thousands of others, these intelligent, healthy men sit idle, in Cairo, unable to get a decent job. They live all together in group houses, supported by the Sudanese community as a whole, who help feed them and give them a little money when they can. A Sudanese women's organization documents all of them, tries to help however they can. "I eat one time every day, when I can." One man explained, when I asked how they survived.

Vocabulary Box

pantomime - to tell a story using bodily or facil movements
refugee - a person who flees to a foreign country to escape danger or persecution
onslaught - something resembling an attack
animism - the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena, and the universe itself possess souls

Suddenly, I was hit with the other side of the coin. I pictured myself as I am every day here, walking in the streets of Cairo. I am followed by taxis, beeping their horns, wishing I would need a ride somewhere. Men constantly approach me, trying to sell me a trinket, or lead me to a hotel or travel agent for a little baksheesh and a little commission. I get tired, frustrated, angry. I want to be left alone, but sometimes the onslaught of young men, trying to get a pound from me, seems never-ending.Now here I sit, surrounded by desperate eyes. These are men who want to work, who want to study, who want to do something that feeds their soul, that uses their skills, that serves their community. But they feel they can't. Each one of those thousands of men, hustling tourists for a few measly pounds, now has a name and a face and a story behind him. I don't know why they had all come. It seems they think I, as an American, can somehow help them. With my magic citizenship that allows me to travel, easily, almost anywhere in the world, with my mighty US dollar and fair skin, I have power they will never know. Maybe, for once, they just want to be heard, to be understood, instead of just pushed by, unseen, as I hurry off to my next appointment.Their eyes grew sad as they talked about their family, whom many hadn't seen or contacted in years. "It is too dangerous to try," they explained.

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Najat the journalist
I look at my watch. Najat and my translator friend has scheduled this appointment for 2 hours before my parents were to arrive at the Cairo International Airport on the other side of town. I haven't seen them since I left on the Odyssey almost 11 months ago. Even though we e-mail all the time, and talk on the phone once in a while, it has been really hard for me to be away from them for so long. The interview was no where near over, I realized, but I really needed to go. The men were polite and understanding, but they each need to come up to me, individually, and give me some way to contact them. They each explained to me how they wanted to come to America, to work in America, and couldn't I help them. "What do I do? How can I come? Can you go to your embassy and explain to them?" Each man, with a valid and important point, stuck in a dead-end life that is not of their choosing. Each man, explaining to me how important it is that they escape this, and how they think I can help them get to America, where they can get a job and go to school and not live in fear of going to jail. Each man, not knowing, that I have heard their same story, with different names, and different cities, hundreds of times before. Not realizing that I am as helpless at getting them into my country as they are. And that, once they got there, it would probably not be much easier for them than it is here.I left, promising to contact Najat, to schedule another appointment with an interpreter, so that they could finish telling their stories. They promised to bring a list of names of everyone they knew, and they hoped that I could somehow get that list to Sudanese organizations in America. They threw their dreams at my feet, as if I, somehow, could help. They smiled, and shook my hand, and thanked me for coming. They maintained humor and community, and a hope that their situation might change, and more years won't be lost.I ran off, too late to take the bus. Mozamil helped me hail a taxi, explained my destination, smiled, and waved good-bye. The cost of that one ride is more money than he'll see all week, I'd imagine. Possibly all month. I sped off, into the sea of people, reminding myself that each face has a story.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


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