Ahmad is poised as a journalist from Kutum, a town that lies 120 kilm away from El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur in Sudan. His towering figure and wide shoulders sway slowly with each calculated step he takes around his home’s uneven floor, leaning on his aluminum cane for support. He is among the many Darfuris that have in recent years actively spoken out about persecution in their homeland:
I am forced to raise my voice because my family members are victims. There are real problems: rape, banishment, displacement, occupation of lands. Armed strangers occupy known areas in Kutum. We don’t know who they are. There’s no police to defend us.
Four years ago, Ahmad’s leg was injured during a Janjaweed (armed militia) raid on his village. He states that he continues to be targeted for his reporting on human rights abuses and for “collaborating” with foreign media. The Sudanese government has not shied away from or attempted to cover up its relations with the Janjaweed. On the contrary, despite various Save Darfur international campaigns over the years, relations between Khartoum and Janjaweed militias have advanced far enough for Janjaweed leaders to be granted a seat with the government delegation to the UN/African Union Peace Negotiations on the Darfur Crisis. Such alliances, Ahmad says, are one of the ways the government tries to “sow seeds of sedition to ultimately destabilize Darfur,” which is approximately the size of Spain.
In 2014, Ahmad fled Sudan with his family to Jordan to seek medical treatment, and has remained there ever since. There are around 3,200 Sudanese refugees in Jordan, caught up in a vicious cycle of poverty in East Amman’s slum neighborhoods. Statistics on the so-called “non-Syrian refugee populations” in Jordan are difficult to find, reports quantifying the socio-economic conditions of a forgotten minority refugee group like the Sudanese even more so.
According to aid groups, two out of three Syrian refugees living in Jordan’s urban neighborhoods are surviving on less than the absolute poverty line of sixty-eight Jordanian dinas (approximate ninety-six US dollas) per person per month. There is no doubt that the conditions of the Sudanese are just as dire, if not more so, given the lack of donor interest in this community.
Although migration may be the story of this era, the upheaval by African refugee groups to gain international attention has gone undetected and has overall been simply been ignored by mainstream media. The Sudanese diaspora has over the past years mobilized demonstrations in cities like Cairo, Amman, and Beirut, and all the way to Hannover and Amsterdam. In Amman, such activism took an extreme turn when it resulted in the forced deportation of more than 600 Sudanese refugees, including entire families, back to Khartoum. Some human rights groups like Human Rights Watch closely followed the deportation proceedings and publicly condemned it, but none could reverse these unlawful actions which separated families whom until today have heard nothing from their loved ones. Reports indicate that about 145 of the deportees fled renewed persecution for a second time to Cairo, where racism and violence are also rampant.
The lack of action to uphold the international principle of non-refoulment, and the deafening silence that accompanies such acts, has prompted some researchers to question the hierarchal structure within the humanitarian system. As a article published by the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) explains:
These people are paid little attention now, but not because they do not fit the legal definition of refugees. They are passed over because, in a world of protracted emergencies, finite and bifurcated funding mechanisms, and a politics of humanitarian priorities that amounts to selective valuation of human life, what matters is where refugees come from.
Aicha Elbasri, former spokesperson of the African Union/United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), takes an even stronger stance in pointing out the UN’s role in fueling the conflict, which has prioritized maintaining diplomatic ties with the Sudanese government over speaking the truth about these powers. Elbasri resigned eight months after taking up her post with the following words: “As an Arab-African Muslim, I refuse to remain silent while innocent civilians are being killed in my name. I chose to end my UN career to regain my freedom to speak out. I have only lost a job; countless Darfuris are still losing their lives.”
Earlier this year I had the chance to discuss the predicament of the Sudanese population in Jordan with a high-ranking UN official in Amman. He seemed genuinely concerned about their dire living conditions, but tied down by the shortage of funds and other constrains. Near the end of our discussion he concluded that the time might have come for the Sudanese to reassess the Jordanian option as a pathway for resettlement.
There used to be a time when persecuted Sudanese looked to Jordan, the kingdom of refugees, as their only hope to reach a place where their rights and prospects could be valued. That was before the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, the election of Donald Trump, and the VIP welcome extended to Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir in Amman earlier this year during the Arab League summit. What then is a viable option for those seeking safety?
Adam is a sharp-featured yet soft spoken man in his mid-thirties. He was attending university in Khartoum when he got news of an attack on his village in West Darfur, where he lost his father, sister and brother in the space of a single day. “I left the university and returned to Darfur in a state of shock. What I found was disastrous, the villages were completely destroyed,” he recounts. While searching for ways to keep the rest of his family safe, he came across the option of applying for asylum in Jordan and eventually qualifying for resettlement in a third country, where he could then either bring his family or at least support them financially. He worked for a man on a construction site in Khartoum for nine months, and in return received his help in obtaining a passport with a medical visa to Jordan.
Three and a half years after having arrived in Jordan, without any prospect of a resettlement resolution happening anytime soon, Adam says Jordan perhaps offered him protection but not refuge. To Adam, “protection” means staying alive but is devoid of the concept of security. Some years ago, the one-bedroom apartment he shared with four other Sudanese single men was broken into by Jordanian neighbors, put on fire and robbed. He told the story while flipping through his half-burnt Sudanese passport, which had ironically already failed to protect him from abuse and exploitation.
The Sudanese embassy in Jordan takes no responsibility for Sudanese refugees in the country. To the contrary, a number of men including a theater-script writer told me that they have been targeted and intimidated by embassy staff on several occasions.
Every day, Adam leaves his home in Jabal Amman at around 3:30 am and walks under the rays of old Amman’s streetlights towards the central vegetable market in Wihdat to look for work. There, together with hundreds other men, he earns fifty piasters for each load of vegetables he transports from the merchant’s kiosk to the customer’s truck or nearby shop. On the day I met him, he had transported fifteen between from 4:00 and 10:00 in the morning. He walked out with 17.5 Jordanian dinars (approximately 24 US dollars), three of which went to renting the wheelbarrow that is property of the Amman municipality. But he considered it a good day, first because he was not arrested by the wafideen (immigrant) police for working illegally, and second for actually being paid. Sometimes, he and other Sudanese said, they are not paid for their work. “You don’t have a voice even to complain to the police because you are working illegally. As written in the refugee certificate, the bearer does not have the right to work,” Adam helplessly explains.
When you listen to Sudanese refugees in Jordan, you realize that they have become accustomed to racism and ill-treatment, and that the lack of money or food isn’t their central concern. If we eat today, the reasoning goes, we don’t have to eat tomorrow, we won’t die of hunger. The real issue that keeps them up at night is the insecurity of family members they had to leave behind. In Adam’s words, “I sometimes get in a mental state where I am not able to sleep and am only thinking of them. I think of them more than I think of my future. I want to help them out.”
The numerous difficulties they confront notwithstanding, people like Ahmad and Adam continue to speak out, insisting to be heard. “Darfur is in need of a major social peace movement,” says Ahmad. “It needs all the intruders to leave and to let people live peacefully.”
Will their voice break into the echo chambers of closed-door international meetings? And if it does, will there be politicians in those rooms willing to make a difference? As Francis Deng, a politician and diplomat from South Sudan, once said: “What we are silent about is what divides us.”
Author’s Note: Some names in this article have been changed to protect identities.