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Fleeing Sudan: One Refugee’s Story

Behzad Yaghmaian recounts the tale of Nur’s journey to Istanbul.

Photo Credit: Behzad Yaghmaian


  • Behzad Yaghmaian recounts the tale of Nur's journey to Istanbul as a refugee of Sudan.
  • The human smugglers made refugees feed sleeping pills to their young babies to keep them silent for 14 days.
  • Nur's family in Sudan broke tradition and sent her to the capital to get a university education

The year 2003 brought the arrival of a large number of Sudanese to Turkey, fleeing ethnic and religious violence and civil war.

Leaving Sudan for Libya, some boarded large ships and arrived in Istanbul directly through the Mediterranean and the Marmaras seas. Others traveled via Lebanon and Syria.

Human smugglers organized different stages of their journeys. Once in Istanbul, they were taken to safe houses. I met a group of ten Sudanese, new arrivals in Istanbul, in April 2003. Many were in need of immediate medical care.

Holding their young children in their arms, they had stayed in the darkness at the bottom of a ship, crowded in with many other people for fourteen days and nights.

Nur’s Journey: What It Takes to Find Refuge by Behzad Yaghmaian

Part I: Fleeing Sudan: One Refugee’s Story

Part II: Sudanese in Istanbul: Nur’s Story

Part III: Getting to Greece: Nur and Leyla

On the orders of the human smugglers, the parents fed sleeping pills to their young babies. For fourteen long days and nights, the babies did not utter a sound. They remained asleep, protecting the adults on their voyage to the West.

Fleeing the war at home

Dire conditions and direct threats had compelled them to take their chances in getting to Turkey.

Nearly 4,000,000 people, 80% of the estimated population of then-southern Sudan (today South Sudan), became displaced at one time or another since the mid-1990s, and 1,800,000 people became internally displaced. Sudan became home to the largest internally displaced population in the world.

Enlarge Nur and her daughter Samah. Photo by Behzad Yaghmaian.

Standing at the door, I watched the men and women in the room. Some struggled over the English forms before them, others were resting. There were women in headscarves, men in worn-out clothes.

Looking across the room, I noticed a small, beautiful woman holding a little girl in her arms, gently touching her face, smiling, and staring at us with a pair of radiant and round black eyes.

She wore a gray and white headscarf knotted in the front. The scarf covered her hair and neck. That was her Islamic cover.

At times I would look across the room and see her still smiling, staring at us as I talked with others. I nodded at her and pulled out a chair, inviting the woman to join our conversation.

Her name was Nur. A Sudanese with a bachelor degree in management, she left Sudan with her husband and her one-year old daughter. “This is Samah,” she pointed at the girl in her arms.

Her eyes following the movements in the rooms, Samah watched the adults filling out papers and forms. Large discolored spots covered her skin, a reaction to fourteen days of constant drugging to keep her silent during the smuggling.

Nur’s childhood

Coming to Istanbul, Nur left behind an ailing old father and a brother waiting for Nur’s financial support from Europe.

Three years before leaving Sudan, she was married to her cousin Yussuf, a manual laborer with no education.

He spent his childhood and adolescent years grazing animals. Nur and Yussuf were born to an extended shepherd family, nomads migrating with their animals with the change of seasons.

I asked Nur about her childhood years in Sudan. In broken English, using her hands and asking for help from a friend, Nur explained to me her home in Sudan: a triangle shaped tent made with “dried grass.”

“The material was very strong. Rain could not go through it…very strong,” she explained with excitement. “When it rained, we moved for the animals,” she said. They moved looking for new pastures to graze their animals.

“We lived quietly. Every week, we went to a big market to sell our animals and buy new animals. We had a simple life. We had a big family. We lived together. In the evenings, we made music and danced. That was our custom,” she explained.

Educational exception

With elegance, moving her fingers and hands, she told me about their dance routines, the bracelets the women tied around their ankles, and the musical sound they made when the dancers pounded their feet to the ground and gracefully moved them around.

Few people in Nur’s extended family would continue their education after primary school. “The boys in my family only finished primary school.

After that, they helped their fathers with the animals.” That was the story of Yussuf and Nur’s brother. Grazing animals was all they knew.

Nur was an exception. The top student in her class, her father and grandfather went against the old tribal traditions and decided to send her to high school, and later to the university. She was sent to Khartoum to live with a friend of her grandfather and attend school.

Nur became the first person in her family with a university degree.

Flight to Europe

Two years after her marriage to Yussuf, Samah was born. A year later, they traveled to the Red Sea town of Suakin.

“We were put in a small room in the bottom of a big ship. No one saw us.” The smuggler was a ship employee. “Nobody could go outside. The small people (children) could not cry.”

Two weeks later, holding the little Samah in her arms, Nur and the other Sudanese joined the migrant community in Istanbul.

Asylum denied

Like so many migrants who arrived in Istanbul, Nur applied for asylum with the UNHCR, but following the male-dominant culture of her place of birth, she first filed for protection as Yussuf’s dependent.

The UNHCR staff in Ankara interviewed Yussuf for two hours. He failed to understand the questions asked and to make a convincing case for asylum. The case was rejected.

Hoping for another chance, Nur requested the opening of a new case based on her life history in Sudan. In an appeal letter she wrote to the UNHCR with my help, Nur described her reasons for leaving Sudan.

Why Nur left Sudan

I have experienced persecution because of my tribe, and my non-willingness to join a political organization supporting the government of Sudan. I am from the Nuba tribe, a minority group of people with darker skin and life habits different from the ruling group in the country.

While studying in the university, I was pressured to join a Muslim student organization, The United Muslim Students. Not wishing to be political and not knowing the exact activities of the organization, I refused to join.

This was not taken lightly. They continued to pressure me. I refused time and again. The refusal to join came to haunt me when I graduated from university and applied for a job in my town.

I applied for employment in a government owned company…My application was declined…I applied for a teaching position in Kosi near my home. Once again, I was denied employment.

Instead, I was dispatched to a small town far away from my home. Once there, I developed a serious throat illness. I begged to be allowed to return home for medication. My request was rejected.

I taught for three years. While I worked harder than other teachers, I was paid only once in three months. Meanwhile, my illness became more severe. As a result, I was finally allowed to teach in Kosi.

But the same problems followed me there. My headmaster made me work many hours more than other teachers, harassed me and shouted at me. The teachers scorned me. I worked for four years under unbearable conditions…

Life was becoming unbearable for me. In my own country, I did not feel normal…”

Rejected again

The UNHCR rejected her request. She was not a refugee. The discrimination she suffered in Sudan did not amount to persecution. She did not have “a reasonable fear of persecution” in her country of birth.

With this rejection, Nur lost the chance to enter Europe legally. She began planning and waiting for the right time and right border to cross illegally. This was late October 2003, Nur was three months pregnant with her second child.

Editor’s note: This essay was adapted from Behzad Yaghmaian’s memoir Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West, (Delta, 2006).

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About Behzad Yaghmaian

Behzad Yaghmaian is a professor of political economy at Ramapo College in New Jersey.

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