How the Bay Area's Sudanese Community Mobilized for the Revolution

As military forces brutalized civilians in Khartoum, the Bay Area's Sudanese immigrant community sprang into action and hasn't stopped since.  (shah noor hussein )

"Harrowing" doesn't come close to describing the scene in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum last month. After Omar al-Bashir's 30-year rule came to an end in April following four months of protest, reigning security forces slaughtered and raped dozens of pro-democracy demonstrators, dumpling their bodies into the Nile on June 3.

Because the government ordered an internet blackout on the day of the massacre, the world may not have heard about it without the efforts of Sudanese expats around the world. Gleaning whatever updates they could from family members with landlines and VPNs, they flooded Instagram and Facebook with information, organized marches and called on their elected officials to speak out.

"Not only in the U.S., but in Australia, New Zealand, Iceland—wherever there’s a Sudanese person, there was activism to support the revolution," says Fremont organizer Gamila Abdelhalim, who credits the Sudanese diaspora for drumming up international pressure that led to a recent power-sharing agreement between the country's military and civilian leaders. With reports of paramilitary forces killing protesters as recently as last week, the fight for justice is far from over. 

The Bay Area's Sudanese immigrant community was crucial to amplifying the voices of pro-democracy protesters during June's internet blackout in Sudan.
The Bay Area's Sudanese immigrant community was crucial to amplifying the voices of pro-democracy protesters during June's internet blackout in Sudan. (shah noor hussein)

Abdelhalim protested in Khartoum while visiting for her daughter's wedding in December, when gas and bread prices exploded and the first sit-ins began. She returned again in April to bring protesters food and art supplies, and to stock the sit-in pharmacy with medical necessities. Back at home in the United States, where she's lived since 1996, she helped organize solidarity marches and rallies in San Francisco, Sacramento and Oakland. Her schedule hasn't slowed down since.

"I'm not doing my laundry on time anymore," she jokes.

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Much like the on-the-ground efforts in Sudan, it's everyday people rather than career organizers who helm the ongoing protest movement in the Bay Area. Abdelhalim, by day a daycare and preschool owner and an immigration consultant, is the founder of a traditional Sudanese dance troupe called Shabbal, the members of which sprang into action alongside her. This Sunday, July 28, she facilitates an art bazaar and volleyball tournament at Lake Merritt to raise money for the Ahfad Trauma Center in Omdurman, Sudan, which has been treating survivors of the massacre.

"Seeing my own parents and Gamila, my aunt, being so passionate brings me back to the reason they came here," says Lina Salam, a recent UC Santa Cruz grad and Abdelhalim's niece. "No one wants to leave their country, but they had to leave in a time of political and economic turmoil."

Gamila Abdelhalim (far right) and Lina Salam (second from left) listen at a teach-in about the Sudanese revolution at Oakland's Cafe Sama.
Gamila Abdelhalim (far right) and Lina Salam (second from left) listen at a teach-in about the Sudanese revolution at Oakland's Cafe Sama. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

On a recent Sunday, Abdelhalim and Salam exchange warm greetings with friends and family members at Oakland's Cafe Sama, where Sudanese-American artist and educator shah noor hussein is hosting a free seminar about the revolution. hussein, who teaches at Laney College and UC Berkeley's pre-college academy, is a member of House of Malico, an influential Oakland collective that throws events to uplift women and LGBTQ+ people of the African diaspora. (hussein spells their name in lowercase and uses they/them pronouns.)

"A big part of my personal call to action is calling in as many allies as possible to not just listen, but take their role in sharing the information, self-teaching and staying active," hussein says.

The activists tell me that student protests kicked off the Sudanese revolution, and that there's a spirit of intergenerational solidarity among citizens eager to see a civilian-led government. The same camaraderie is true, they say, of first- and second-generation Sudanese immigrants in the U.S. It's certainly observable at the teach-in at Cafe Sama, where Salam arrives in a "Justice for Sudan" T-shirt and the millennial uniform of hoop earrings, checkered vans and black skinny jeans. Her aunt wears a flowing, aqua-blue thobe, the traditional dress of Sudanese professional women and a symbol of the revolution.

In Khartoum and all over Sudan, an unprecedented number of women took to the streets, calling themselves kandakas, a term for the Ancient Nubian queens who once ruled the Nile River region. A photo of a 22-year-old modern-day kandaka in a white thobe, standing on top of a car and leading protesters in a chant, went viral and became a symbol of the people's power.

"Women are not only fighting the oppression of the government, they’re fighting the restrictions that are in place from culture, society and religion," says Abdelhalim, adding that she defended her daughters against disapproving whispers while the family attended sit-ins in Khartoum.

Artist and educator shah noor hussein facilitates a teach-in about the Sudan revolution at Oakland's Cafe Sama on July 14.
Artist and educator shah noor hussein facilitates a teach-in about the Sudan revolution at Oakland's Cafe Sama on July 14. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

At Cafe Sama, about a dozen people of different ethnicities, most of them women in their 20s, gather around to listen to hussein's talk as a playlist of Sudanese music wafts in over the sound of the espresso machine. Most of the non-Sudanese members of the group heard about the event through activist networks on Instagram; those of the diaspora planned it through a WhatsApp group chat, where the local Sudanese community has done much of its organizing.

During Sudan's internet blackout, activists from the diaspora became the vital link between Sudanese demonstrators and international media. "It was six weeks of silence, I couldn't talk to most of my cousins," says hussein. "All of our information was coming through those few people who could get access to internet, mostly through VPNs."

Young protesters gather at a San Francisco rally to support the Sudanese revolution.
Young protesters gather at a San Francisco rally to support the Sudanese revolution. (shah noor hussein)

Activism has also brought the local community closer. hussein was raised mostly in Los Angeles and moved to the Bay Area in 2014 for a masters program in anthropology. "I'm kind of part of this middle generation, late 20s and early 30s, that doesn't live with our parents," they say. Though they didn't grow up in the East Bay's Sudanese enclave, based mostly in inland suburbs like Fremont, Hayward and Union City, their connections to it deepened as they've been in almost constant contact planning teach-ins and rallies.

"People have asked me a couple times, 'What's the group that's organizing this?'" says hussein. "I'm like, 'It's the diaspora, bruh. All of us who live here.'"

shah noor hussein and Gamila Abdelhalim's photos and other artwork from the Sudanese diaspora are on view at Alena Musuem's pop-up at Swan's Market in Oakland through Aug. 20.

The Sudanese dance troupe Shabbal performs at Oakland's Umoja Festival on Aug. 17, where they will also have an informational booth and opportunities to donate to massacre survivors in Sudan. Details here

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Gamila Abdelhalim speaks at the African Advocacy Network's annual picnic in Golden Gate Park on July 27. Details here

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