Pleas from almost 300 Coloradans meeting with elected officials for the first time since a war began in April in their North African homeland of Sudan were clear:
Take a public stance against the war, they demanded of state senators and representatives. Push federal leaders to send humanitarian aid to the country immediately. Help people displaced from their homes in Sudan by speeding up the refugee resettlement process and extending temporary protected status for refugees who can apply for the designation until Oct. 19.
Seven Sudanese people who spoke at the meeting at the Summit Event Center in Aurora expressed disappointment about the ambivalence to the war in from officials worldwide. Others said they’re frustrated the world has turned a blind eye to the most recent conflict in their home country, this time mostly taking place in the capital city Khartoum, the neighboring city Omdurman and parts of Darfur. The feeling, some said, is similar to the detached sentiment they remember during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
It’s unclear who initiated the fighting that catapulted Sudan into violence on April 15, though the war is rooted in a conflict between the leader of the country’s regular army and a leader of a paramilitary group. Neither leader can agree on how Sudan should be governed, and many in Sudan say the conflict is a matter of two power-hungry generals grasping to retain the wealth and influence that came with their high-level government positions.
Nearly 1.4 million people have been displaced and 24.7 million people, or half of the population of Sudan, require urgent humanitarian assistance and protection, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
People attending the humanitarian relief dinner May 19 at the Summit center occasionally cried and used tissues to dry tears as Sudanese people shared personal stories about hearing gunshots and constant fighting in the background when they called to check on loved ones stuck there. Others spoke about feeling guilty and hopeless, as they seek college education and experience a higher quality of life in Colorado, while their family members are fighting for their lives in Sudan.
“As we gather here today, I cannot help but feel the weight of sadness in my heart. Our beloved Sudan is going through some of the most challenging times in its history,” said Aseel Sayed, a junior at Crescent View Academy, who spoke during the dinner.
“The past few years have been marked by political instability, economic turmoil and humanitarian crises that have left our people struggling to survive,” she said. “The situation in Sudan is dire. But through all this chaos daily, you will never hear any of them complain. And this is what being Sudanese means.”
About a week after the war began, President Joe Biden released a statement saying America’s commitment to the Sudanese people and the future they want is unending.
“And yet a month after, we have done nothing to show this commitment that our president has spoken of,” said Doaa Zarooq, a junior at Cherry Creek High School.
Colorado state Reps. Iman Jodeh, Eliza Hamrick, Ruby Dickson and Mandy Lindsay were at the forum, along with Jackson Burow, a constituent advocate from U.S. Rep. Jason Crow’s office, and Wael Khalifa, Denver County regional director for Sen. John Hickenlooper’s office.
Some of their offices can send congressional inquiries to federal agencies on behalf of Sudanese people who need assistance with immigration, they told attendees. During the discussion, the local leaders said they would continue to pressure federal leaders to do more to help people in Sudan, but at the state level, their power is somewhat limited.
The event, led by a few Sudanese community leaders, was not affiliated with any official organization and followed a much smaller meeting earlier in May with a representative from Sen. Michael Bennet’s office to talk about how the war is affecting families globally, including in Colorado, said Wafa Saeed, a co-organizer of the event.
Abubaker Masha Maleeh, a Colorado man, died in Sudan last month after he was caught in crossfire shortly after the war began.
The attack occurred while Maleeh, his wife and children were visiting family in Sudan in April, Saeed said. When the fighting broke out, he and his family decided to drive to a safer area, but when they arrived at a checkpoint, the Rapid Support Forces — one of the two groups fighting in the war — began shooting at Maleeh’s car and two other vehicles, said Khalid Masha Maleeh, Maleeh’s son.
Waking up to war
The fighting erupted in Sudan in mid-April between the Sudanese Armed Forces, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and a paramilitary group headed by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti, or Little Mohammed.
In mid-May, the U.N. said it needed a record $3 billion to deliver aid to people in Sudan.
The fighting between the groups has heightened humanitarian needs in Sudan, such as protection from fighting, medical support, food and water, sanitation, shelter and trauma care. Humanitarian leaders are also receiving reports of increased sexual violence while victims of the war have little access to help. Children are also especially vulnerable, according to the U.N. report.
“The city is wholly unprepared,” Betcy Jose, an associate professor in the political science department at the University of Colorado-Denver, said referring to Khartoum.
“People went to bed Friday night in a peaceful country and woke up to war, and despite the challenges, difficulty, heartache, violence and unpredictability, the people of Sudan have come together to help each other out, going on social media — sharing food, medical supplies and safe rides out of Sudan,” she said. “They’re coming together when the international community has left them and prioritized their (own) lives and evacuated themselves. They have left Sudanese people behind to face the violence and they have come together under extraordinary odds to survive the brutality that is happening right now.”
If the international community can begin to prioritize Sudanese people, put an end to the fighting and bring civilians back into the country, there’s hope that Sudan can stabilize and find peace and prosperity, she said.
The conflict in Sudan should be ringing more alarm bells, Saeed has said, yet the Aurora event was only one of only a few public forums she knew about statewide to bring awareness about the crisis and find ways to help people in her native country.
Sudanese people feel that Russia is taking its war to Africa and that it’s not a separate conflict, Saeed said. “This is instigated by Russia in order to make sure they gain the goods that Sudan has to offer.”
A CNN investigation found Russia has engaged in a scheme to rob Sudan of its gold to help fortify Russia against increasing Western sanctions and bolster its war effort in Ukraine.
The investigation also suggested Russia colluded with the Rapid Support Services — which has been accused of war crimes — to enable billions of dollars in gold to bypass Sudanese leaders and deprive the already financially struggling country of crucial state revenue.
In exchange, Russia has lent powerful military backing to the Rapid Support Forces, as it clashes with the country’s pro-democracy movement, according to the investigation.
“If this situation gets more out of control, it will be an opportunity for local haram to enter Sudan,” Saeed said. “This will be an opportunity for other terrorist groups to enter Sudan because there is no stabilization.”
Russia is also hoping to establish its first naval base in Africa, at Port Sudan on the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways where about 30% of the world’s container traffic passes each year.
“I feel it will cause a ripple effect of instability not only to Sudan but the Horn of Africa,” Saeed said. “That’s going to make other African countries more easily influenced by Russia.”
During a question and answer session at the Aurora event, Sudanese Coloradans repeatedly asked what local leaders could do to speed up humanitarian aid to their country.
Sens. Bennet and Hickenlooper co-signed a letter on May 5 to the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development urging the departments to offer all available support to resume aid operations, take steps to ensure humanitarian resources reflect the current security environment on the ground, leverage local organizations in Sudan to help offer services and continue efforts to get the international community to respond.
The politicians also requested regular updates from the U.S. State Department and USAID about the delivery of humanitarian aid in Sudan and briefings from the State Department on the evacuation of American citizens.
Burow from Crow’s office encouraged Sudanese Coloradans at the event to also do the same — continuously apply pressure and demand results from elected officials to hold them accountable.
The number of calls for change also need to be larger, Burow said. One or two people calling a congressional office to demand change won’t be as effective as 100 people calling that office to demand action, he said. “Advocating for legislation in (Washington) D.C. is difficult, but the more public pressure there is, the easier it is to get it done.”
Crow also released two news releases in April. One urged an immediate ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to reach the civilians stuck in the violence and encouraged American citizens trapped in Sudan to remain in close contact with U.S. officials working to provide assistance. The other calls for a ceasefire, protection for civilians and a call for peace negotiations.
“One thing we have heard time and time again tonight is, ‘How can we make sure that people that look like us are getting the same courtesy and help that people who don’t look like us get?” Rep. Jodeh said at the event. “The people in Ukraine are getting assistance from the United States that the people in Sudan should be getting.”
She told attendees to start creating a coalition of political leaders, humanitarian aid groups, human service organizations and others charged with responding to the war to work together and put pressure on the federal administration to ensure people in Sudan are treated as equally as others in regions fighting in wars.
Sudanese Coloradans must also share their personal stories with elected officials to humanize the war, give politicians pause and compel them to put pressure on relevant officials, who make decisions about what happens in Sudan, she said.
Americans want nothing more than to see democracy thrive around the world, Jodeh said. And so the U.S. government must defend countries seeking a democracy, such as Sudan, which has a huge constituency in America, she said. “Linking those things is how we have to prove to decision-makers that we are a democracy and that that’s what we believe in.”
Khalifa said he would be willing to help the coalition identify relevant nonprofits, private sector entities and politicians to help create a cohort or ecosystem of support.
“Most of you have my cellphone number,” he said. “We can communicate. I am here and I am available within the limitations of what I can actually do.”
Coloradans can send inquiries to their representatives if they have a family member in Sudan who needs assistance with immigration or with scheduling an appointment with an embassy.
“That inquiry isn’t as powerful as I’d like it to be, but it’s something a lot of people utilize through our office, and it gets them help to their family members,” Khalifa said at the event.
Hala Ashmaig, who moderated the event, gave pins with a Sudanese and American flag to panelists, and told the crowd it would not be the last time they gathered to discuss ways to create peace in Sudan.
Saeed said the event was “a step in the right direction.”
There are many reasons why Sudan isn’t featured much in U.S. news or Americans’ awareness of conflicts around the world, Jose, the CU Denver professor, said.
“Partially, there’s this sense that it’s really far away and that there aren’t many ties between the U.S. and African continent,” she said. “There’s an unfair perception that there are always conflicts in Africa and that another one isn’t going to be interesting or newsworthy or unusual because it’s just one among many. It’s a really inaccurate, racist notion of what’s happening in Africa, and there’s also this sense that things are just kind of hopeless there, which again, is inaccurate and has racist undertones.”
The Colorado Refugee Services Program, the state refugee office responsible for coordination and oversight of refugee resettlement services statewide, works with contractors in Colorado to provide case management, physical and mental health services, career services, youth programs and elder services to refugees.
Meg Sagaria-Barritt, integration partnerships coordinator for the Colorado Refugee Services Program, said the organization is prepared to support all refugees placed in Colorado. However, resettlement is a complex and often drawn-out global process, so it typically takes a few years or longer between initial displacement and large-scale resettlement of a particular community, she said.
Right before the war began, American diplomats thought Sudan was on its way to transitioning to a full-fledged democracy, which would have met demands from civilians who protested during a revolution in 2019 asking for this new kind of governance.
Helping Sudan, and other countries, transition to a democracy was part of a core foreign policy goal of President Biden. But shortly after the war started, American diplomats who had been involved in negotiations in Sudan shut down the embassy and fled Khartoum.
Now, critics say the Biden administration did not empower civilian leaders in Sudan, instead prioritizing and coddling the two generals at war with each other.
“Often, there’s an assumption that civilians in wartime are unable to protect themselves. And so the international community, usually in the form of UN peacekeeping, comes in and tries to protect civilians from the violence they experience during war,” Jose said.
“Sometimes efforts by the international community are misguided and actually hinder or harm the ways in which civilians can protect themselves,” she said, citing research she helped conduct in Africa.
As the war continues, Jose said, people in Colorado and across the globe should do what they can to ensure the conflict in Sudan gets the attention it deserves. People must also do research to ensure they’re donating money and supplies to reputable aid organizations, such as the Sudanese American Physicians Association, she added.
Thirdly, it would be helpful for people to pressure the U.S. government to appoint a special envoy to Sudan to help create a durable ceasefire, she said.
There’s no dedicated American diplomat working to resolve the crisis in Sudan who could also work with the other neighboring countries that have an interest in a peaceful Sudan, she said.
“There is an American ambassador who is limited in what they can do. But a special envoy has a heightened mandate and might be more effective to get the two warring factions to come to the table and agree to a ceasefire and put pressure on them to do that,” she said.
“The U.S. had a special envoy in Sudan when the conflict in Darfur was at its worst. But we haven’t had one in a while,” she said.
In the meantime, she encouraged people to refrain from traveling to Sudan under the guise of distributing aid. “There are international aid agencies there who are equipped to do the work,” she said.
The internet is down in Khartoum, where Selma Hamid grew up. She cried as she described how hard it is to reach family members living there.
Hamid moved to the U.S. seven years ago as an asylum seeker. “This, for me, is a safe place,” she said of America. “Looking at what’s happening right now, it’s bringing all the memories back, very strongly. I know I’m not there anymore but still I feel all the pain.”
When she was young life was great. But times got much harder as the Sudan government became more dictatorial.
Hamid had hopes of returning to Sudan but now, she said, there’s not much to go back to. “We thought it would be better one day.”
Even if the war ceased tomorrow, rebuilding everything destroyed will take many more years of work, she said at the Aurora event.
“But we will rebound,” she said. “We will have more gatherings and discussions and we will come together to get everything we need.”