How We Turned Away Sudanese Refugees

Imagine yourself as a refugee – compelled to flee persecution, stuff forced to flee the only homeland you’ve ever known. You come from a place where stories of brutality are the norm. A place where the characters in these stories are your friends, troche your neighbors, your family – all victims of mass murder, of rape, of being burned alive.

This is a place the world’s eyes have turned away from, a place whose name is no longer carved into the fray of newspaper headlines. Your struggle is forgotten; your suffering is solitary. Darfur, the place you call home, is no longer livable. So you make your way to Khartoum, where you manage to find low-paying jobs and save just enough money to pay a local broker who gets you a passport that doesn’t bear the name of your birth, and along with it, a medical visa to Jordan and plane tickets. You can only travel with one companion, so your family comes in pairs – one seeking medical treatment, the other a companion. This is not the only way out, but it’s the most common. And this is if you’re lucky – really, really lucky.

So you leave Sudan a refugee.

Jordan, you’re told, is a place where you’ll find refuge for your family. Jordan, you’re told, not only has a history of taking in refugees, but has built a legacy since its inception on welcoming waves of people that have helped shape the country into what it is today. Here, you are told, is a land defined by its safety. And with the world spotlight on this little island of stability that has beaten back the chaos surrounding it, you’ll find a helping hand from international organizations that will surely carry you to even safer shores.

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Instead, you find the world cares as much about you here as they did back home. You wait outside the UNHCR in hopes that your story will be heard. But the listening is slow. Your voice competes with many others, and you are merely Sudanese. You are, what the UNHCR refers to simply as, “non-Syrian”. Soon enough, your daily life is engulfed in prejudice because of the color of your skin. You find your way to Jabal Amman where you’re told that people who share your color, who share your story, might help you – might see you. And if they do, home becomes a crumbling apartment near the second circle, crowded with families huddled together.

Everyday, you wait outside the UNHCR to be heard. Everyday, you wait for someone to take an interest – to show compassion. You cannot earn a living here, so you ask for aid. And everyday, you return to your shelter empty-handed. If you’re lucky, the police will ignore you.

You are stuck in limbo – unable to return to a homeland that will surely persecute you for having fled in the first place, unable to stay here where laws, policies and disgruntled citizens render life difficult, and unable to move elsewhere because you are not, as you’ve been told, a priority.

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So you set up a tent on an empty plot of land just outside the UNHCR, and wait. You, and hundreds of others, in a community that has grown beyond 3,000 people that share your skin color – that share your story. And you wait. You articulate a list of needs. The need for assistance allowing your family to buy food and the need to be relocated elsewhere are at the top of that list. You ask to be treated as equals to others fleeing similar terrors. And you wait. You wait for your application to be processed; you wait for your story to be heard.

But winter is coming and life inside the tent is a constant reminder that whatever labels you’ve been given, and whatever classifications have been attached to your paperwork – you are a refugee.

And after weeks of sitting peacefully outside the UNHCR, riot police arrive one early cold Friday morning in December, while the city is still asleep. They’ve come with buses and ask you to board. You comply, thinking your stories have finally been heard, that perhaps you and your family are on their way to a proper facility or camp. The street outside the UNHCR is lined with Gendarmerie forces, anti-riot police, and fire trucks. As your bus heads to the airport, bulldozers level the makeshift camp outside the UNHCR and water cannons wash away any residue of your existence there.

At the airport, you’re put into a hangar while your passport and identity papers are taken. You think they must finally be resettling us elsewhere. But then hours go by and night comes. The weather turns frigid inside the hangar, and it’s starting to seem like something has been lost in translation. It’s starting to seem that the plane they’ll be putting you on isn’t headed to safer shores, but rather back to the very hell you escaped.

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You are afraid. You are in limbo, teetering on the possibility of being returned. UNHCR brings you blankets in the middle of the night to ward off the cold in that hangar, but are nowhere in sight when Sudanese officials – the people whose government you fled from – are brought in. Deportation now seems inevitable, and so you do what any desperate person does – you resist.

In the moments that follow there is tear gas inside the closed hangar. There are people running and the unarmed are beaten to submission with batons. Pregnant women go into labor and are shipped off to a public hospital, along with the injured, some of which manage to escape in the chaos. This is what a state of helplessness looks like.

Hours later, you’re on a plane, hands bound with zip-ties. You’re being brought back like escaped prisoners.

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Refugee stories are difficult to tell. Every one of them is unique in their own way. But as a citizen of a country that has been on the receiving end of refugees, a country that has a tradition of taking in the people the world has forgotten – it is difficult for me to reconcile this legacy with what happened this past weekend.

Simultaneously, it is illuminating. The narrative that has been framed with the Syrian crisis has shifted from one where we are the nation that welcomes the people the world has forgotten, to a nation where we have leveraged the misery of others for own gain – mostly in the form of foreign aid. Or so it seems. It used to be that refugees were integrated, weaved into the tapestry of a constantly evolving social fabric, one that was made stronger with every wave. It used to be that our role to extend the safety of our borders to those stranded beyond it – and yet, even as you read this, thousands of Syrians are left stranded at those very borders with nowhere to go. Even as you read this, the 800 Sudanese we shipped back to the land they escaped are destined to face pain.

[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#282828″ text=”#c7b136″ width=”30%” align=”left” size=”2″ quote=”It used to be that we saw ourselves as custodians of these people; Palestinians helped shape our economy, Iraqis taught in our universities. And every time, we emerged better from it.” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]


It used to be that we saw ourselves as custodians of these people; Palestinians helped shape our economy, Iraqis taught in our universities. And every time, we emerged better from it. We shared their adversary and made it our own. But today, refugees have become bargaining chips, whose value is determined by their worth to the global community – victims of an aid economy. Or so it seems.

Since the Syrian crisis began, Jordan has shown the world that it was willing to carry out a responsibility to its brethren when few others would. It has also pleaded with the world to share that responsibility, and it has pleaded for help to sustain their safety.

It wasn’t that long ago when HM King Abdullah told the world “the serious situation in Syria has unfortunately imposed a difficult reality on us in Jordan. But it is much harder on our Syrian brothers and sisters, especially those who were forced to leave their homes, families and communities as they were left with few options.” It wasn’t that long ago when the King said that we, as a nation, have “a humanitarian responsibility that we will keep fulfilling,” and that “our success in that depends on continued international assistance.”

And yet, here we are today – a legacy being undone by an act of cruelty. A people neglected by the world, and forced out at gunpoint by our own.

The government might tell us that these people arrived here under false pretenses, even though they issued them the visas, even though they remain aware of the thousands of Sudanese that exist within these borders and the fact that they are refugees, by any other name. The government might tell us these people were protesting illegally – as if a family that has lost everything is expected to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Interior that will happily grant them one. Or, the government might remain silent, even as journalists and advocates attempt to probe. Others, disgruntled by the wave of refugees they view as the encroaching ‘other’, will defend the decision. But none of this is the Jordan I know – the Jordan I grew up with.

At the end of the day, whether the world is watching or not, whether the decision is defended or not – what happened this past weekend has tarnished the legacy that was carefully crafted for over half a century. There is no arguing this. Because at the end of the day, regardless of the labels and the paperwork or even a sit-in outside the UNHCR – a group of helpless people and their families were rounded up by the very security apparatus that is sworn to protect everyone that crosses into our land seeking help.

This is a reality we need to deal with, and no amount of rhetoric or speeches or official justifications can remedy this chapter in our history. We can gloss over it and pretend it never happened, but it will have changed us even if we don’t know it yet.

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Today, I am a Jordanian dismayed, ashamed, but also confused. I no longer know what we stand for if we have stopped standing for it. I can no longer reconcile a legacy with an ongoing reality. I can no longer tell if we are a country that takes in the helpless, or if we are a country that turns them away because of “paperwork” or “economic strain”. I can no longer tell if we are a country that sees its brethren as an integral component in this eclectic mix we call a society, a country that sees them as a “responsibility”, or a country that sees them as a “burden”, as someone else’s problem, as tokens to be bargained with. I can no longer tell if we are a country with a fluid identity, whose social fabric is reshaped for the better with every adversity it faces, a country that embraces people we call our brethren – or a country that sees them as threats to the social fabric, that sees them as foreign to a fixed national identity, that sees them as people to be tolerated.

Over half a century ago, when Palestinians fled across the bank, grandfathers who bare my family name offered them their homes to live in, and gave them land to plow alongside them. Every night, they broke bread with them. What little they had was shared with those who had less, because that’s who we were. When conflicts broke out, we stood up for others, and we fought for others. Not only because politics dictated it but also because those who put on a uniform actually believed in what they were fighting for.

I cannot reconcile that heritage with today. I cannot reconcile the fact that in the past four years or so, we’ve taken on over half a million people, but have rejected these 800, in a community of 3,000 that hasn’t come to take our jobs or overthrow our government, but rather, seek out the refuge we have historically offered, while they wait to be resettled elsewhere.

If we are in fact the nation we have described ourselves to be – the nation we tell the world we are, then what values we have should never be compromised, what responsibilities we have should never be shrugged off. Not in the name of valid paperwork. Not in the name of economic strain. And not because they didn’t meet the criteria set within the border of a checkbox.

Today, 800 have been deported, and the community of their friends and family that remain within our borders are blanketed in fear of the unknown. And here I am, a confused Jordanian clinging to hope that we can restore our legacy before it tarnishes away from our grasp.


  • Truly heart breaking, even worst is the cruel if not savage treatment of desperate people.
    Meanwhile, how much more can this country, with limited resources take?

  • This is really sad.
    The thought that these Sudanese are in many eyes (non-Syrians), that this lens is what grants them a reason to be in Jordan is just way to much. No matter what the (consequences) of them staying in Jordan are, there is surely a better and a more humane way to deal with those consequences.

    When I first saw the photos of people being tied-up I did not believe it. I didn’t! I was sure it was a mistake and the photos will be denied but I was too lost in my reality haven I guess!

    I wish I can say this will not be forgotten (maybe not soon though) or repeated, in some form or another. But I cannot.

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