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A Foothold On Two Continents

Sankar Raman
Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

A Foothold On Two Continents

He is a husband, a father and a dedicated Amazon employee. But Rudwan Dawod is also an impassioned freedom fighter,  determined to see democracy prevail one day in his native Sudan.

Who knows?, he muses. Maybe one day he will even run for office in Sudan himself.

Doing this would require Dawod, his wife Nancy and their daughter Sudan Nyala to relocate from Eugene, Oregon, to the country little Sudan was named for. The family has traveled extensively in Sudan, the country where Dawod and Nancy first met. The Dawods share a joint commitment to Rudwan’s home country. 

The Dawods: Rudwan, Sudan and Nancy, at home in Eugene. Photo Credit Sankar Raman

 Sudan, Africa’s third largest country, is also the third-largest country in the Arab world. Before the secession of South Sudan in 2011, the Republic of Sudan was the largest country, both in Africa and in the Arab world.

About 43 million people live in this nation in northeast Africa. Sudan shares borders with Egypt, Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. To its northeast, Sudan hugs the banks of the Red Sea. Natural resources abound, including an alphabet’s roster of minerals, from asbestos to zinc.

Repression in Dawod’s native country remains widespread. According to Reporters Without Borders, Sudan ranks as number 172 out of 180 countries in terms of freedom of the press. Public gatherings — peaceful assembly — continue to be suppressed. Unrest has been a near-perpetual condition in 21st-century Sudan.

So Many Arrests

If modern-day Sudan offered a frequent user’s card for political prisoners, Rudwan Dawod would certainly qualify. The duration of his incarcerations varied, but the longest took place in 2012, when Nancy was at home in Oregon, and pregnant. That, he says, was the hardest of all, being away from Nancy at such a key time.

On his most recent stay in Sudan, he was imprisoned on four separate occasions.

“Each time it was different,” he said of his many prison sojourns. “It was crazy every time.”

In his most recent prison stint, Dawod found himself in a tiny cell, maybe three meters by one-and-a-half meters. There were no windows and only a primitive toilet. Each day, tiny pieces of bread were passed through small holes, the day’s ration for however many prisoners were in the cell.

Typically, Dawod said, that number was 13. But sometimes, 18 prisoners were squeezed into the squalid space. Sleeping presented a major challenge.

“When you breathed, either you breathed on someone’s feet or on someone’s face,” he said.

The overhead light glared 24 hours a day.

At various times, Dawod has been charged with spying — an offense punishable by death in Sudan — and other offenses. He bristled when asked if he and his most recent cellmates had been convicted of the same crime.

“We don’t consider what we did a crime,” he said. “We were all freedom fighters, all peaceful protesters. We were activists. We knew each other.”

Adversity breeds camaraderie, he pointed out: “Whoever you meet today (from that time), they would be like a brother.”

Early Years

Dawod was born in east Sudan in 1982. His native city of El-Gadarif — also called Gadarif and also spelled Gedaref — lay about 250 miles from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Tall mountains surrounded the city on three sides. Although Gadarif was not in the Darfur region, most of the inhabitants were of Darfuri origin, Dawod said.

But starting when he was 10 years old, Dawod and one of his brothers went to live in Darfur, in the western part of Sudan, with their grandmother. Their grandmother was getting older. The boys tended her goats. They made the long trek to get fresh water for the family and the animals. They loved their life in Darfur, and when their father wanted to move his sons back north with the rest of the family, the boys remained with their grandma.

“In our culture,” Dawod said, “it is very common to give one of your children to your mom as a gift.” And so the boys were given to their grandmother.

It was the 1990s, a time Dawod remembers when Darfur was peaceful, “completely different from what it became,” he said.

“This place was so beautiful. Everything was so good,” he continued. “Until the Sudanese government interfered in the feuds in early 2000.”

Around the world, children’s history textbooks have a habit of glossing over cultural unpleasantries. Dawod said he knows now that “the South Sudanese people were always oppressed. But we didn’t learn that from history books or TV.”

Instead, “most of the Sudaese perceived the South Sudanese as bad people, supported by Christian countries, who always wanted to take over our country,” he said. “We didn’t realize they were fighting for the right to be equal citizens.”

Dawod was just a schoolboy, and the struggle between the northern and southern parts of his country — the emerging civil war — was confusing. People from the south of his country were portrayed as inferior, since they were not Arabs, he said. The distinction was harsh.

Arabic was Dawod’s first language, but he learned it with an accent because it was not the first language of his parents. Dawod worked to lose his accent because it invited discrimination, even beating, from other children.

A displaced woman sits on a bed next to the remnants of her burnt-out house in Khor Abeche, South Darfur. Photo Credit: Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID

“In Sudan, it was Arab vs. black culture,” he said. “It was just a whole brainwashing process.”

As the strife between north and south turned into all-out civil war, Sudan’s central government took a page from conflicts all over the globe and added religion to the mix, Dawod said. The country’s official religion was Islam, the faith Dawod himself practices. But many in the south were Christian.

“The government added the religious element to make it sound like they were infidels,” he said. “It was not really a religious war, but the government of Sudan made it sound like a religious war to recruit more people and to build more anger. It also sounded like a war between Arabs and against blacks. The government was trying to organize the whole of Sudan by forcing the Arab culture against the African culture.”

Dawod, with his very dark skin, felt conflicted.

“I felt some secret pride in my identity as a black person, as an African,” he said. “But I couldn’t really talk about it.”

The Military

Sudan had firm rules about military service. Before enrolling at a university, all students were required to receive military training for 45 days. The ensuing one-year service requirement could be completed at any time while the students were in college. Once Rudwan finished high school in 2000, he headed off to military camp for 45 days of training. The experience turned out to be transformational.

The central government needed to mobilize the entire nation, and “the camp’s purpose was to brainwash you even more and to prepare you for the war against South Sudan,” Dawod said. “You got brainwashed. You got radicalized, basically. It was jihad, and why this was more important than anything, even mom and dad.”

The government referred to this process as “intellectual training,” and in most cases, it worked, Dawod said. “Some, especially the young boys I went to camp with, became jihadists.”

There was one exception at camp, a trainee named Santino. Dawod gravitated to him immediately.
At the conclusion of indoctrination lectures, trainees were expected to respond with enthusiastic applause. But Santino, said Dawod, “he was always so numb, not reacting like the rest of the trainees.”

Santino was slightly older than most of his fellow trainees. “I was short, he was tall, like most of the South Sudanese,” Dawod said. They developed a bond of trust. “I felt I could talk to him about what I had been feeling for many years.”

And both knew, said Dawod, “that what we were being taught here was completely wrong.”

Santino talked about his own background, as a South Sudanese, as a Christian. For Dawod, this unleashed feelings he thought he had quashed.

“From an early age, I remember the South Sudanese who were housemaids. They came to the house to wash clothes. They were not treated fairly,” he said. “They were called names. It was common to use the N-word.”

But someone like Santino, Dawod said, “he was aware that he was not less than the rest of the Sudanese people.”

Santino and Dawod lost touch as the military moved them to different assignments. Rudwan went to Khartoum, while Santino remained in Darfur.

“But I can still see his innocent face,” Dawod said. “Santino,” he went on, “I just appreciate the time I spent with him.”

In Khartoum, Dawod joined a technical unit of the military. Two years later, he was ordered to join the Sudanese forces fighting in South Sudan. He refused. He had completed his mandatory service, and knew that because he was perceived as a Darfuri, he had no future for advancement in the military.

When protest is a family affair: Rudwan, Nancy and Sudan demanding that power be transferred to civilians. The July 13, 2019, protest in Khartoum was one of many the family took part in during a 2019 visit to Sudan. Photo Credit: Dawod Family Archives

Political Awakening

 Dawod’s political activism began sometime around 2005, after he had enrolled at the University of Juba. Originally the school had been in South Sudan’s capital, but because of the war, the whole administration had moved north, to Khartoum.

Dawod joined the student wing of Sudanese Congress Party, called Congress of Independent Students.

Dawod, calling himself a progressive, viewed Islam as a religion, not a political ideology. He advocated a secular nation, “where everyone could coexist.”

And so he became a leader of a new youth movement called Grifina. In Arabic, the term translates to “we’re fed up.” Grifina based its platform in opposition to “war, corruption, dictatorship, injustice and discrimination against minorities.” Grifina was Sudan’s first youth nonviolent movement.

Under Dawod’s leadership, the group set out to educate the Sudanese public, especially young people, about the rights and methodologies of nonviolent resistance. Grifina staged educational campaigns that included public forums, art exhibits and mukhatabat, or street talks.

It was an uphill battle. “Nonviolence is not that popular in Sudan,” Dawod said. “Violence is rooted deep in our culture in Sudan. Sudan’s people are just fighters. We are warriors.”

Domestic violence in his country is especially problematic, Dawod said. 

“To me, I can’t isolate the violence that is happening in families — how we raise our kids, how husbands treat their wives — I don’t isolate that from civil war. Many people believe that with violence, you get what you want,” he said. “It has been proven in Sudan that violence works.”

Their new movement had recognition issues. “At first there was no support,” Dawod said. “People did not see us as serious.”

Dawod had his own struggles as well, “because I came from Darfur, and Darfur is like the center of violence in Sudan. This regime does not listen unless you have a military movement.”

At the university, Dawod thrived. He learned about different ideologies. He met new people who shared his views. He felt validated.

“My friends who were going to the university, they were what inspired me,” he said. “I could relate to them. Whatever I said, they would get it. The level of conversation was completely different. I felt I belonged.”

One advantage to enrolling at Juba was that it was among the few Sudanese schools that had a dual system of studies in English and in Arabic. Most of his compatriots, he said, had to learn English after they got to the U.S. or another English-speaking country.

In his first year, Dawod became part of the student union. He received training about leadership and debate. It was an honor. The school had 20,000 students, and only about 40 were elected each year to the student union.

Dawod found his political voice. He spoke at protests and in public discussions. The crowds loved his message. The government was trying to paint the resistance in Darfur as nothing but a bunch of criminals, he told his audiences. 

“But what I told them was, these guys are not criminals. You are not criminals. We know what is going on.” 

Dawod knew it was dangerous to speak out, and he knew people from the government were watching his house.

On one especially emotional day, Dawod learned from a friend that the friend’s village in Darfur had been destroyed by government troops. The friend’s entire family had been killed.

“Not just his family, his entire village was wiped out,” Dawod said. In his speech that day, “I pointed at him and told the audience about his story.” The friend’s family had no connection to the military on either side, Dawod explained. “They were killed because of their ethnicity.”

Sadly, his friend’s loss was not unusual. “In every village in Darfur, you will find war casualties,” Dawod said, “people who lost their homes, their savings, ladies who got raped.”

Just recently, in the South Darfur city of Nyala, two of his childhood friends were killed, Dawod said.

“They were brothers. We used to call them the twins,” he said.

Officially, the civil war death toll is 350,000. “But that number was reported three or four years ago,” Dawod said. “Unfortunately, the killing has never stopped.”

Love Walks In

Celebrating the construction in 2009 of a school in Turalei, Sudan, Nancy (second from right) holds a brick produced by the brick-making machine that Rudwan (second from left) is leaning on. The town of Turalei has produced the three tallest players in the National Basketball Association, including Rudwan’s friend Bol (standing at rear). Photo Credit: Dawod Family Archives

In 2006, Dawod joined a protest at Juba University because the student union had been suspended. He and his fellow student union members were all expelled. Students began rallying in support of them at universities throughout the country.

 In 2009, he moved to South Sudan and became involved with a nonprofit organization called Sudan Sunrise. The U.S.-based group was dedicated to building schools and also to promoting reconciliation, education and community building. Among the group’s founders was Manute Bol, the late NBA player. A recent newsletter from Sudan Sunrise declared, “Compassion spreads faster than COVID.”

While working on a school-building project in South Sudan, Dawod met an American volunteer named Nancy Williams.

“First we became friends,” he said. “And then we fell in love.”

Their union faced many cultural roadblocks. Nancy was slightly older than Dawod. She had been married before. She was white, born in Wisconsin and raised in Oregon. Dawod was committed to remaining in Sudan to help his country. He was a student. He had no assets to speak of. 

“I just saw all these obstacles,” he said. “I could not see her living in Sudan, and I could not live anywhere but Sudan. I love Sudan.”

In Sudan, Dawod explained, “the matter of getting married is a family decision. You have to get the whole family’s approval.”

Those conversations were awkward. 

“They were shocked when I told them I had found a nice lady from America,” he said.

His uncles, part of the family council, opposed the match because Nancy was Christian. They told Dawod they would not consent to the match unless she became Muslim.

But his father said, “Son, you love her. Go ahead.”

They married in Sudan in February, 2010. The following September, after Dawod had received the requisite papers to enter the U.S. they had a second ceremony in Springfield, Ore.. 

The couple had agreed that Dawod would settle in the United States, but that each year, he would return to Sudan. Dawod had warned her, “The path I am taking, it is very challenging.” On a 2012 visit to Sudan, Dawod was arrested once again while organizing what he called a peaceful protest for Grifina. His father and three of his brothers were arrested with him.

“None of us was prepared for the prison time, the torture,” he said. “That was one of my worst arrests.”

Back in the U.S., Nancy was eight months’ pregnant. She was determined to have her husband beside her when their child was born. Nancy worked diplomatic channels and Dawod was released from detention. He returned to Oregon two weeks before Sudan Nyala was born.

Nancy and Rudwan welcome the 2012 birth of Sudan. Photo Credit: Dawod Family Archives

Torture, and the Path of Nonviolence

According to Rudwan, violence is so prevalent in his home country that it is even a part of the Sudanese spoken word. The language, he said, has many words to express brutality. This makes it difficult to preach a doctrine of nonviolence, Dawod said. But as his political consciousness was growing, Dawod had studied nonviolence extensively. In particular, he read the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and the late U.S. congressman John Lewis. 

“I fell in love with the U.S. civil rights movement,” he said.

He and others from Grifina were preparing for a large march on July 3, 2012. He was about to start leading a chant of “Freedom!” when government security agents showed up.

“They picked me up, threw me on the ground, then tied my hands and legs,” he said. “At least 12 people were arrested at that moment. They were beating us all the way to the police station. Then they covered our eyes when they tortured us so we could not see their faces.”

Dawod could not fight back. He felt doubly helpless because he also could not protect his 72-year-old father, who had been arrested at the same time.

“My dad, surprisingly, he was so proud of what I was doing that he lectured our torturers. He told them: ‘You are not real men. I am proud of my son.’”

In retaliation, the officers isolated Dawod, throwing him into a smelly, postage-stamp of a windowless cell. 

“When I asked to pray, they said, ‘you are not even Muslim,’” he said. For three days he remained in that squalid cell, and then was transferred to a different prison. That arrest lasted 45 days. 

Dawod was charged with spying for the United States. The offense carried a possible death sentence, or a prison sentence of at least 15 years.

At his court hearing, he was surprised to see a throng of supporters, mobilized from afar by Nancy and from within Sudan, by Grifina. Dawod looked around and saw Sudanese activists from all over the world. One contingent that had come from the U.S. embassy was especially imposing, Dawod said: “A bunch of foreigners coming to court in a big armored vehicle.”

In his weakened state from torture and imprisonment, “When I saw so many people there in court for me, I got extra strength,” he said.

After several trials, he was acquitted. Sudanese newspapers reported that he was an American, trying to overthrow the Sudanese government through violence.

Back in the United States, he joined the Democratic presidential campaigns of both Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton. On Jan. 20, 2017, he returned to Sudan.

“I had to leave,” he said. “I could not imagine living in Trump’s America.”

Gandhi on Facebook

On every trip to Sudan, Dawod comes equipped with dozens of cell phones and other technology to hand out to opponents of the government who share his passion for nonviolence. He says social media has made it possible to spread the message as never before, as if, he suggested, Gandhi had taken to Facebook.

“With Facebook, we knew the future was ours,” he said. “Finally we had a platform.”

Twitter has also been a social movement godsend. The Sudanese government controlled radio, television and newspapers, Dawod said, but was slow to realize the threat of the internet.

Dawod hands out cell phones and notebook computers, allowing his followers to become “citizen journalists,” countering government propaganda with their own first-hand observations.

In the final years of al-Bashir’s long reign, Dawod and others in Grifina struggled with how to damage his carefully sculpted image as a respected, charismatic leader. Then they hit on the idea of humor, creating political cartoons in his image.

“We made fun of him, and it went viral,” he said. “And there are no laws that prohibit this kind of action.”

Al-Bashir may be out, but his successor, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, is no great champion of democracy, according to Dawod. He and his Grifina comrades continue to recruit, focusing on young people, and striving for diversity. 

In most Sudanese political groups, he said, “there isn’t any sense of nationalism. We wanted to create that.”

Giving women equal footing in the movement is also unusual, Dawod said. Grifina encourages women to deliver speeches, then uploads them to social media. He said some young politicians also have joined up with Grifina and the Sudan of the Future campaign. That campaign, he says, adheres to a fiercely democratic philosophy.

“Anyone who wants to run, he can come up with a plan. We will all support one another,” Dawod said. “Losers support winners. We will all unite behind one candidate. The people will choose who will represent them, not the elite.”

Back in the U.S. of A.

Even the most committed political activist needs to feed his family. Dawod returned to Oregon in early May, 2020 and found a job at an Amazon warehouse near Portland. At first he made the one-hour-each-way commute via bicycle; eventually he bought a car. His body is apparently a constantly self-charging battery, for in order to maintain his toehold on two distant continents, he sleeps very little.

“But a very deep sleep,” he points out.

Before the confinement that came with the coronavirus pandemic, Dawod often spoke at U.S. universities and high schools, through Sudan Sunrise. Now he has transferred to online events.

He works with a network, Friends of Sudan, to tell people in the United States about his native country. 

“Here in the U.S., I don’t think people really know a lot about Sudan,” he said. “Some people don’t even know where Sudan is. We are trying to change that.”

Fears about al-Qaida and other forms of Islamic radicalism hamper that effort, he conceded. Dawod does not dispute the dangers of such groups.

“Now, since Islamist groups are not in power, we are afraid they will use assassination and bombing to destabilize Sudan,” he said. “That is where the U.S. and other countries can help Sudan.”

Along with nonstop political activism, Dawod is an unabashedly proud father. He reports that his daughter, born in 2012, is trilingual, speaking English, Arabic and the Spanish she has learned at her Spanish-immersion school in Eugene. Sudan Nyala has marched in protests, often standing at the front of the crowd to lead the chants.

“She is a young activist,” Dawod said. “We don’t want to choose her path in life, but it seems she is doing just that.”

Family discussions are likely to include such topics as systemic racism.

“In the U.S., it is really deep,” he said.

But he sees glimmers of change. Oregon feels very different than the place he arrived in eight years ago, Dawod said.

“You feel like you are more welcome here, as a person of color. To me, to witness that, it is really amazing,” he commented.

Sudan, age 9, 2021. Photo Credit: Sankar Raman

A Message for His People

 If Rudwan Dawod has one message for the people of Sudan, it is this:

Sudan can become truly democratic “only if we are united, and only if we do it through nonviolence. I hope the military leaders will put down their weapons and work together. I hope we have no more war.”

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