Meet Assem: Sudanese Refugee and Volunteer

Assem, a Sudanese refugee in Amman and a volunteer staff member at CRP.

The Sudanese authorities “use a lot of things, like burning by cigarette,” says Assem, as he points out the scars on his arms, “like here, here, here, and some here, all this by cigarette.” Assem is a Sudanese refugee and a volunteer staff member at CRP. His story of perseverance and courage is a remarkable one, but not an unusual one for a Sudanese refugee in Amman.

Assem grew up in Darfur, Sudan, a region long plagued by violence. He left Darfur to attend university in Khartoum, the capital. At first things went well, and Assem volunteered with fellow Darfuri students on campus.

But then, the violence erupted again. Political turmoil in Sudan spurred the government to crack down on Darfuri students. Assem just wanted to continue his education — as he says, “I hate military, I hate war, I hate politics in general” — but the government rescinded his scholarship due to his ethnicity. After he and other Darfuri students complained, the police jailed them and subjected them to beatings. After two days they were released and ordered to keep quiet.

With his scholarship rescinded, Assem had to leave the university. He fell sick from a waterborne illness, exacerbated by the beatings he received in prison. He managed to travel to Cairo for surgery, and finally found enough money to pay for the university. A year after he left the university, Assem returned to finish his education.

The year that Assem planned to graduate, the university held elections. Assem had become a leader among the student body, so a university official approached him with an offer. Sway the elections, they told him, and he would graduate with highest honors and receive a large sum of money. But, he reflects, “I told him no, I’m not doing this. I’m not like this  . . . I hate corruption.”

That evening, the police showed up at Assem’s dormitory. They arrested him, brought him to prison, and tortured him. He describes the “pushing” and the “verbal abuse” they subjected him to. The authorities held him to the floor and shoved his head underwater, while threatening to do the same to his family. He remembers his torturers’ demand: “If I tell anyone about what’s happened for me, they’re going to kill me.”

When the torture finished, Assem left prison, but had to sign a document once a day to prove that he hadn’t fled the area. Though he didn’t want to sign, he feared for himself and his family, so put his name on the paper. He recalls how “every day before I signed, they told me you have to do a lot of things. The first, to clean the toilet. And then they just made me stand under the sun around an hour, two hours.” After that, Assem had to pick up the officials’ trash before they finally let him sign. After many months, he had had enough.

Assem decided to run away. A sympathetic truck driver offered to hide him among some cargo, where he stayed for three days until he reached Darfur. After reuniting with his family, Assem opened an internet café, which ran successfully for a few months. But then, a stranger called. The voice on the phone told him that “if we need you, we’re gonna catch you . . . men are following you.”

Assem feared for his life. He applied for visas to many countries, and finally received a medical visa from Jordan.

Once in Amman, Assem went to the UNHCR to apply for refugee status. After a series of interviews, the agency accepted him as a refugee and offered him eventual resettlement to another country. In the meantime, he went through seven months of medical treatment for the physical and psychological scars left by his torture in Sudan. Once he recovered, Assem began to study English. He volunteered with numerous NGOs, including Jesuit Refugee Services, the Red Crescent, and most recently CRP.

Sudanese refugees wait in line at one of CRP’s food voucher distributions.

But life in Amman has proven difficult for him. As a refugee, he cannot legally work. Even with the UNHCR and NGOs, refugees like Assem don’t receive enough resources to get by. “You have to try to be alive,” he says, “but how?” Refugees are forced to work in the informal economy, where they risk arrest by the police. Employers often refuse to pay, and so refugees contact the police. But the police immediately ask “do you have paperwork?” And for refugees who don’t, the authorities say “we cannot do anything.”

Sudanese refugees also face an everyday battle with racism. Assem has “found a lot of racism here.” People on the street approach him and compare his skin color to their own. Passerby hurl racist epithets, like “Abu Samra” (a slur for a dark-skinned person) and “chocolate,” at him. And when he went to a family to complain about their racism, they justified it. “They just told you ‘yes, yes, you are really black.’”

Despite all the adversity he has faced, Assem remains optimistic. “My life, it is scary too, but in the same way, some of people are good. Not all of the people are bad. Some are good. They think as a human being, [treat] you as a human being.” Assem brings his positive energy to CRP, where he volunteers with children.

Though Sudanese refugees often receive less publicity, they are one of the most marginalized communities in Amman. As CRP prepares to open a new Community Center for Sudanese refugees, we NEED your support. Please, help us support people like Assem and sign up as a monthly donor.