Out of Sudan:

Migration and Civil Unrest

Elizabeth Martinez

ASB 340

Professor Koptiuch

May 13 2003







     In recent years the US has experienced a large influx of migration. Immigrants come from many different countries, races, religions and for many different reasons. One group of immigrants that received national attention is a group from Sudan that has been called “The Lost Boys”. The reason behind the national attention is due to the dramatic circumstances that brought them to America. To understand these circumstances it is important to understand their history. Sudan is the largest country in Africa. It is between two powerful cultural regions, the Islamic north and the Christian south. Africa has more than 400 languages and dialects. There are 597 different ethnic groups with a variety of traditional indigenous religions, many of these fall into the two major religious groups of the Islamic north and the Christian south (South Sudanese Friends International 1).

     In the 1940s a nationalist movement arose along with two major northern political parties, this movement excluded the southern people’s ability to take part in determining their future. The two major northern parties were the Umma Party, which represented the Muslim, Mahdi sect and the National Unionist Party which had the support of al-Maghani who was the head of another Muslim sect. The National Unionist Party was calling for union between Egypt and Sudan while the Umma Party was demanding independence from Egypt.  

     The disagreement between these two parties along with the exclusion of southern Sudan fueled civil unrest. Civil war broke out in 1955, in 1956 Sudan had become an independent nation, but the civil war continued. In 1972 a peace agreement was signed between the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement and the Nimeiry government. This agreement did not last. In 1983 civil war broke out, with President Nimeiry announcing that, Sudan’s civil law had been revised to conform with Islamic Law. This Law seriously violated the 1972 peace agreement, forcing the south to adopt Arab culture, language and the religion of Islam. The Nimeiry government was strengthening Sudan’s ties to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as economic hardships drew it away from the Soviet Union and closer to western nations. During the 1980’s, strikes, riots and shortages of goods and services had devastated the nation. The discovery of natural resources, such as minerals and petroleum that were discovered in the south added to the problem. Although the discovery of natural reserves should have helped Sudan’s economic situation, it became another source of conflict between the north and the south over who would control it.

     The southern forces backed indirectly by the Soviet Union through Ethiopia reorganized into the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army and rose up against the North. At this point in the civil unrest, the war took on a religious aspect, fueled by Nimeiry‘s implementation of the Sharia, which is Islamic law. In 1986 a coup forced Nimeiry out of power and he was replaced by a coalition of northern political parties. On 1989 a northern coalition was overthrown by General Omar al-Bashir and Hasan al-Tarabi, a fundamentalist leader of the National Islamic Front. Sudan was turned into an Islamic dictatorship outlawing all other political parties except the National Islamic Front.

     In response to the newly formed government, the north formed the National Democratic Alliance and included the southern forces of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army. Peace talks began to take place between the Alliance and the government, but issues over the south’s self-determination and the relationship between church and state could not be overcome. In 1991 the south split into factions and more violence erupted nearly destroying the region. Despite the turmoil in the south the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army managed to survive as an organization. International intervention made it possible for the armed resistance to the north and the peace talks to continue. In 1994 a peace movement began to emerge in the south. In 1996 several southern rebels signed a peace charter with the Government of Sudan, but the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army never approved. A breakthrough in the peace process came in 1997, when the government allowed a referendum on self-determination for the south giving them the option of unity or independence ( South Sudanese Friends International 1-2).

     The journey of migration begins during these decades of violence and uncertainty. In 1987 Maduk began a journey that would lead him to a far away place. The U.S. is very different than the villages of Sudan and the traditional lifestyle he lived there. It was at the age of ten that Maduk was forced to leave his village and run for his life. He said that everybody was just running and that some would find family members and others did not. When I asked him what it was like not knowing where to go he said that they knew where they were going.

     “He was part of 26,000 Sudanese boys that were forced out of their villages by violence. They made a torturous journey of about 1,000 miles to the neighboring country of Ethiopia. As they began their flight, “government troops blazed through Southern Sudan ¾ reportedly killing the adults and enslaving the girls ¾ scattered groups of suddenly orphaned boys converged and headed toward Ethiopia where they hoped to find peace and their families again” (Kriner 1-2). Maduk was part of these refugees who are known as the “Lost Boys”. He says that he spent about a year in an Ethiopian refugee camp and was forced to leave when fighting erupted, running back to Sudan where the rebels had regained control. He explained that the fighting was taking place in different places and that depending on who was winning, depended where you could run. The rebels at times would gain control of the garrisons, and when the American Red Cross was aware of it, they would leave food at the garrisons. On their way back to Sudan they faced many hard ships and many died just like on the trip to Ethiopia. He said he was among those who tried to cross the River Gilo, where thousands were shot, drowned, or eaten by crocodiles and other wild animals. When they arrived in Sudan the government was back in power and that they had to run to Kenya, where Maduk spent about nine years in the refugee camp.

     The Red Cross estimates that it took them about two months to walk to Ethiopia and more than a year back through Sudan to Kenya. The estimation is that about 10,000 of the original boys survived the journey and arrived at the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Maduk says that the camp was made up of little communities, and that some of the children found relatives there. According to Maduk some of the communities might be made up of boys who had found an adult uncle or someone who was with them and that others were made up of nothing but boys. He says that life there was very hard and that they were provided only with what they really needed to survive. According to him the refugees that would be allowed a chance to come to the US were selected out of those who were totally alone with no adult to help them. He said that the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees made up a list and gave it to the U.S. and that from about 10,000 in the camp about 3,800 were allowed to come.

     Maduk is 23 years old by his documentation but says he is actually 26 years old. He came here two years ago and has been attending school at Phoenix College, he works security at the Phoenix Art Museum where I also work. He is from the Dinka tribe, he speaks Dinka,  Arabic and learned to speak English in the refugee camp. His immediate family has survived, he has his mother, his father, three brothers, and three sisters from the three different wives his father has. Multiple wives is something that is common in African cultures.

     It was difficult for Maduk to make the transition from village life to life in Phoenix. The International Rescue Committee was the organization that helped him to adapt by providing volunteers to take him shopping and explain the way things worked. He said that they provided him with an apartment and all his necessities for three months and that now he has to take care of himself. He lives with his uncle who is only eighteen and is also from Sudan. He says he talks to his family, who live near the border of Sudan and that he sends remittances to them. He said that in order to talk to them they must cross the border to Uganda and wait for him to call.

     He says he would like to return to Sudan to marry someday. When I asked him if he would have more than one wife he laughed and said no, that he sees here how you need to be able to feed them and pay for their education. Maduk says that even in Africa it is becoming less common to have more than one wife. When I asked him if he thought this was from western influence he said yes and that he believed the influence came mostly from the British. I asked him once if he would like to return home if things could be fixed there and if he had money. He said “yes, home is always home.” 

      Maduk’s experiences as demonstrated by Sudans turbulent past, is part of web of interwoven political circumstances and economic situations. Sudan, like many other nations, was colonized at various times by the French, British and Arabs. Many of its problems come from foreign influences that have shaped its destiny over the years. The reasons for immigration are complicated. “U.S. policy-makers and the general public believe the causes of immigration are evident: poverty, unemployment, economic stagnation and overpopulation drive people to leave their countries” (Sassen 1),                                                              but the root of the problem goes much deeper than that. Things like colonization and foreign investment can often be a root cause of many of these circumstances.

          Colonization destroys cultural patterns of production and exchange by which traditional societies in “underdeveloped” countries previously had met the needs of the people. “Many precolonial social structures, while dominated by exploitive elites, had evolved a system of mutual obligations among the classes that helped to ensure at least a minimal diet for all” (Lappe’, Collins 76). One of the effects of colonization is the uprooting of people from traditional modes of existence, “It has long been recognized that the development of commercial agriculture tends to displace subsistence farmers, creating a supply of rural wage laborers and mass migration to cities” (Sassen 3). This has been the case throughout Africa, in 2000 the United Nation has reported that 38% of Africans lived in urban areas, but Africa’s urbanization has not been matched by infrastructural and economic development. Across much of Africa, basic urban services like housing, water supply, garbage removal, road repair, public transportation, health, and educational facilities are inadequate and in a deteriorating state (Obosu-Mensah 1). Another effect, comes from foreign investments, like large petroleum industries, which have had a long standing interest in controlling petroleum reserves. In Sudan’s case, the discovery of natural reserves, become a destabilizing force in the fight for control. For Sudan, the discovery of natural reserves and the profit that goes with it, became yet another source of friction in an already war torn country. 


     The civil war within Maduk’s country forced him to migrate many times in his young life, first to Ethiopia, back to Sudan, and on to Kenya. His next emigrational experience would be to the United States. Pre-migration experiences of refugees often differ from those of immigrants, because of the nature of their departure from their country and the time spent in refugee camps. Because of their special circumstances refugees are eligible for special government-funded programs to aid their adjustment (Koltyk 9). Maduk received help from the IRC, which is an organization that helps refugees adapt to their new way of life and help with financial support. The term refugee for the purpose of seeking asylum, is defined by the Untied Nations. In the case of Africa it has been extended through a “Convention approved by the Organization of African Unity to cover any person who owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part of or the whole country, is compelled to seek refugee outside his country of origin” (Martin 1).

     There are more than 20 million refugees, forced to seek safety in other countries, and Maduk is just one of them. He has come seeking safety and brings with him his mild manner and the richness of his culture, what he may someday take back, will be the experiences of our cultures. This experiences, are already being shared through his phone calls and the remittances he sends to his family. He will eventually become comfortable with his new life. My hope is that he will not become totally assimilated, but become part of a growing trend called transnationalism defined by Basch, Glick Schiller and Szanton Blanc (1994) as, “the processes by which immigrants link together their societies of origin and settlement” (qtd. In Levitt 6). He has led an interesting life and his unique experiences could serve to enlighten and enrich our own experiences.    

       Works Cited


“About Southern Sudan.” South Sudanese Friends International home page

     15 April 2003 <http://www.southsudanfriends.org/southernsudan.html>


Koyltyk, Jo Ann. New Pioneers in the Heartland: Hmong Life in Wisconsin.

     Needleham Heights, Massachusetts: Simon & Schuster Company, 1998.


Kriner, Stephanie. “The Lost Boys of Sudan Part One: The Long Journey.”

     American Red Cross home page

     <htpp: www.redcross.org/news/in/africa/01084lostboys_a.html>



Lappe’, Frances Moore, and Joseph Collins. ”Why Can’t People Feed

     Themselves?” From FoodFirst: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity, Institute for

     Food & Development 1977, reprinted in Annual Editions in Anthro

     99/00, Duskin Pub Group


Levett, Peggy. The Transnational Villagers. London England. University of

     California Press, 2001.


Martin, Susan Forbes. Refugee Women. London & New Jersey: Zed Books

     Ltd., 1992.


Obosu-Mensah, Kwaku. “Changes in Official Attitudes Towards Urban

     Agriculture in Accra.” African Studies Quarterly: The Online Journal for

     African Studies. Urban Agriculture and Accra, Ghana.



Sassen, Saskia “Why Migration” Report on the Americas. 25(1)1992:14-19


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