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Home in the heartland: Sudanese Americans in Iowa City hold on to their heritage while embracing new lives

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Sudan to Iowa City
Hanadi Elshazali stands in a field that became a gathering place for many in Iowa City’s Sudanese community. — photo by Adam Burke

From the busy street of Mormon Trek Boulevard in Iowa City, the Pheasant Ridge Apartment Complex looks like an assortment of dull brick and tan-sided units plopped down in seemingly random locations around the block. Drive in just a few hundred feet, however, and the neighborhood is buzzing.

This is the heart of Iowa City’s Sudanese American community. The year is 2000, and many of the families have just arrived, having made the lengthy trek from Sudan to Iowa City—7,109 miles to be exact. Fireflies light the dusky sky above the green area in the middle of the complex. Playing children run across the field, each hoping to be the leading scorer of the evening’s pickup soccer game. Smells of chai tea and coffee intermingle with the smell of cut grass as adults on the sides of the field drink their brews and gossip about the day.

This gathering spot in Pheasant Ridge marks a nightly ritual among the community. It’s their space to unwind, chat, play and be transported back to the old neighborhoods of Khartoum and Omdurman. They call the field “Nadi El Tejani,” named after the wrinkly man who first started spending his nights on the grass, sitting in his chair and drinking tea alone until, one by one, community members came to join him.

“We were trying to get the best of both worlds.”
— Ruaa Elkhair

On this particular night, 15 years ago, the sun begins to set and the evening’s festivities wind down. On the field, 10-year-old Ruaa Elkhair says goodbye to her friends, who will join her on the bus to Roosevelt Elementary School in less than 12 hours. They are inseparable, and their stories blend in more ways than one. Born in the northern African nation of Sudan, they find themselves growing up worlds away, in Iowa City, Iowa.

 


 

Elkhair said goodbye to her homeland at the age of five. Her father had led a coup against the governmental regime, and after spending some time in prison, he knew that the family had to leave. Elkhair got on a plane with her parents and three brothers and escaped to Egypt, where the family lived for a year before gaining refugee status and moving to the United States.

“A lot of people leave if they can because it’s just too hard to live there,” Elkhair said.

The political situation in Sudan has been on rocky ground for much of the last 50 years. Multiple governmental overthrows since the early ’80s have made for an unstable power struggle that still persists to this day. In 1983, President Jaafar Nimeiry introduced Islamic Sharia law to the nation, leading to a breakout of civil war in the Christian South.

Nimeiry was removed from power in a military coup two years later, and the resulting civilian government was then overthrown in 1989 by Omar al-Bashir and his Islamic Front. President al-Bashir has remained in power since 1989.

For more than two decades, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army—the main rebel movement in the south—have fought with the Sudanese government over resources, the role of religion in the country and self-determination.

Hanadi Elshazali is another Sudanese resident who works in Iowa City. She left Sudan in 1998 with her husband because of the tense political situation.

“[The regime] affected the economic and financial status for everybody, and living situations for everybody,” Elshazali said. “There were no jobs. There was no future. Nothing. You had to be part of the regime or you wouldn’t get any service or offers.”

During this time of political instability, refugees started pouring out of Sudan in search of opportunity and a better life. The United States, meanwhile, takes more refugees every year than the rest of the world combined, said Loren Bawn, operations manager at the Iowa Department of Refugee Services.

“I think working with the United Nations and trying to resolve international situations is just part of our country’s foreign policy,” Bawn said. “Because of that, we fortunately have a pretty strong refugee program.”

Many of these refugees, from Syria to Sudan, Iraq to the Ivory Coast, end up resettling in Iowa.

 


 

So what is it about Iowa that makes the state so appealing for those coming from lands far away? According to Lyombe Eko, documentarist of African affairs and associate professor at the University of Iowa School of Journalism, the biggest factor has to do with word of mouth.

“Most refugees who come to the United States do not have any idea where they are going, so they usually go where other people from their country have gone,” Eko said. “They have certain contacts or networks already here.”

Mahmoud Siddig moved to Iowa City with his family in 1998 at the age of 11. He had aunts and uncles who were already settled in the town, which made his family’s transition easier.

“The Sudanese community in Iowa City provided comfort and security. You had a community that you could relate to,” Siddig said. “Instead of being just randomly here and lost, they provided guidance on how to adapt in this new system.”

The density of the Sudanese community in Iowa City is also a draw. From 2005 to 2009, almost 1,000 Sudanese moved to Iowa, the largest migration from any Arab country to the state, according to the Arab American Institute Foundation.

“If you compare other cities, there are more Sudanese in Chicago, or D.C., or Dallas, but the overall Iowa City population is not big in itself, so when you compare that, the ratio is pretty big,” Siddig said. “We all live in one neighborhood as well.”

There’s also a certain charm about the Midwest that makes the move a little smoother than it would be in other places, said Eko.

“Iowa is middle America. There is not much crime in Iowa, Iowans are generally nice and accepting people,” he said. “It’s a welcoming place.”

Even with the strong sense of community that Iowa City’s Sudanese population offers its newcomers, there were still many things that came as a shock initially due to the drastic differences between cultures.

“It’s such a huge shift for everybody, because there’s the culture, the language, the weather. Everything is different,” Elshazali said. “But the main challenge is the language. Everything is through language, so you have to learn good English so you can communicate in life.”

Siddig recalls his first memories of the U.S., which took place in Reagan National Airport as soon as he stepped off the plane for the first time in 1998.

“The thing that grabbed my attention was that all of the doors opened automatically, which is not something you see regularly in Sudan,” Siddig said. “That was the first sign of being in a well-developed country.”

Iowa City has many resources available to Sudanese people working to address cultural changes and differences, including programs offered by the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County. The center offers support services to assist in housing, jobs, getting licenses, signing up for governmental programs and other necessary services. Elshazali now serves as a family support worker at the center, having receiving the same services herself more than two decades ago.

 


 

Ann Hassan’s family moved to Iowa City when she was 10 years old, in 2005.

The children stuck together all the time, said Hassan, becoming family in the process and living their childhoods in tandem.

“The people I surrounded myself with were all Sudanese Americans. They all had the exact same experiences as myself,” she said. “We were as close as can be, and we stuck together.”

Although Sudan is thousands of miles away from Iowa City, the first generation Sudanese community in Iowa City worked hard to emphasize Sudanese culture and values to their children growing up in this new land, this “New Sudan.” The children would go to school to become fluent in English, but at home only words of Arabic would flow through their mouths as they talked about their days with the adults in the community. While outside Iowa City was often covered in snow, inside the apartments on Pheasant Ridge were kept warm with the scent of Sudanese cooking , as spices mixed with the burning of traditional incense (bakhour), welcoming visitors for a nice chat or a meal together. Posters of family members from back home and verses from the Koran often lined the walls until they were filled with color.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Sudanese culture is generosity. This is evident in the bonds that the Iowa City Sudanese community has formed.

“Sudanese culture is all about just taking care of others. Having a neighbor is truly like a family member,” said Hassan. “My parents put so much emphasis on always taking care of your community and other people.”

The importance placed on keeping the culture alive in the younger generation was, in part, the responsibility of the entire Iowa City Sudanese “family.”

“I think [the community] helped us nurture our culture. We tried to get the best of both worlds,” Elkhair said. “It was just nice to be able to be Sudanese if you wanted and American at the same time.”

 


 

Over the last decade, the Sudanese community in Iowa City has changed dramatically. As more newcomers have arrived, the community has expanded, becoming more disparate. For a new generation of children born in the United States to Sudanese parents, it is becoming increasingly difficult to instill the same sense of cultural identity.

The generation growing up now has never seen the mosques of Khartoum or been surrounded by Arabic shouting as they walk through a city bazaar. They are children who, for the most part, know nothing other than the local neighborhoods of Iowa City, and the Sudanese-American version of what their culture represents.

“As a community, we were not ready to move to the U.S. So we have a very big conflict with our children,” Elshazali said. “There’s a huge gap between us and the children—parents speaking Sudanese, children typically American. They think of us as too Sudanese, we think of them as too American. We need to bridge this gap. We have to.”

Although Elshazali agrees that the best option would be to take the children back to Sudan, she realizes that that isn’t realistic, affordable or safe. She is looking to address the issue instead on a local level.

“This is something we have to build—through policy, through schools, through community centers—we need to do something really serious and strong about this issue,” she said.

 


 

Many of the first-generation Sudanese children raised in Iowa City have embraced their unique culture and position in the world, however.

In 2013, Siddig founded Sudanese American Public Affairs Association (SAPAA) “to promote education, leadership, civic and political engagement to the Sudanese American community.”

The group tries to target young Sudanese Americans and mentor them to succeed in a professional environment. They also focus on what it means to be a Sudanese American.

“Older folks just consider themselves Sudanese, but for us growing up here, we’re speaking both Arabic and English, and kind of relating to both cultures. I listen to American music and Sudanese music, sometimes I’m dressed in traditional Sudanese style, sometimes I’m dressed very Western, so what am I?” Siddig asked. “I don’t consider myself to be just Sudanese and I don’t consider myself to be just American, so I’m a Sudanese American.”

At the University of Iowa, Elkhair serves as one of the co-founders of the Sudanese Student Association (SSA). The association’s goal is to create an environment that caters to the specific needs of Sudanese students, including providing the sense of community that Elkhair grew up with in Iowa City.

I think it’s important for younger generations coming up to have that safety net, and be able to come and bond, and have a group to always rely on,” Elkhair said. “We also wanted to show the campus that there is a big Sudanese community, and we wanted to make everyone see it.”

 


 

In a reality where many were born halfway across the world, however, one question remains: Where is home?

“The biggest challenge is trying to identify who I am,” Elkhair said. “It’s hard sometimes, since you don’t really fit in with American society but you’re not 100 percent Sudanese either.”

When Elkhair encounters these challenges, she thinks back to the days running around Pheasant Ridge with her friends, yelling a mix of English and Arabic to each other in an unofficial meld of languages that they could all still understand.

She thinks back to the cultural diversity fair each year, where she smiled ear to ear while performing traditional Sudanese dance for the citizens of Iowa City who might not have known about the vibrant ethnic community that existed just blocks away from the university.

She thinks back to her mother’s home-cooked meals, to the thousands of cups of chai over the years and to the colorful photos of her homeland on the walls. But most of all, she thinks back to the gatherings at Nadi El Tejani, which have tapered off in recent years as a new generation steps in. Those days when the whole community came out under the stars, it didn’t matter where in the world they were—to Elkhair, that was home.

“I think we’re all trying to better each other, and be proud that we are Sudanese and proud to have grown up here,” she said. “Ultimately we want to give back to the community and go back to Sudan to help our families and everyone to reach their best potential. We are privileged that we got to come here and get a good education and a better life, so I never want to take that for granted.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 179


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