On August 17th, I was one of over 120 individuals to begin a three day journey into a long-awaited conference which was a source of suspense for many Sudanese Americans. People from all over the United States made their way to the Westin Hotel in Tysons Corner, Virginia, to attend this inaugural conference which was a result of a plausible effort brought forth by the founders, board members, and volunteers who helped make the conference a reality. The audience was diverse, both ethnically and intellectually and carried a sense of zeal which was heartening.
The conference was organized by The Sudanese American Public Affairs Association (SAPAA) an apolitical organization in its infancy. The idea of SAPAA was brought to life many years ago when a group of individuals decided to create a non-political, non-religious organization to serve the various interests of a diverse Sudanese American audience residing in the United States. The idea was to establish close ties between Sudan and the United States, but mainly, to help Sudanese Americans understand the ramifications of residing in a country that has become home. The conference covered many topics which ranged from how to be a good a citizen to the psycho-social and health issues facing many Sudanese Americans.
I was fascinated by the level of organization, the overwhelming number of individuals who attended, and even the tasty food. However, the source of surprise came not only from the achievements of the conference, but from the very seemingly simplistic idea which failed to materialize many years ago until the idea of an all-encompassing, yet apolitical conference materialized last weekend.
One of the highlights of the conference was the young Sudanese Americans session which produced thought provoking ideas and sentiments. What captured my attention was the audacity of many young individuals who expressed the need for bridging the gap between first and second generation Sudanese Americans. Many claimed that immigrant parents often try to impose their way of life, notwithstanding the idea that their children’s outlook is often shaped by the American way of life which often clashes with the Sudanese psyche. Additionally, many parents complained of being ignored when the issues of identity and assimilation arise.
Many second generation Sudanese Americans often face the issue of identity which is eclectic in nature. One speaker, Mahmoud Siddig mentioned that he must sometimes wear different hats to function both in the realm of a Sudanese environment as well in mainstream America. He added, while presenting a bold photo of him wearing a cap, “This is my American swag.” Another speaker, Hind Malik, mentioned the issue of marriage within the community and discussed the discourse in finding a suitable spouse who has the best of both worlds, culturally speaking.
Interestingly, one of the themes of the conference was the kindred relationship that many Sudanese and South Sudanese still hold. Another highlight moment during the conference was when Thon Moses Chol, an Educational Resource Specialist divided participants into four groups and asked them to describe Sudan in one minute. The groups came up with many interesting ideas and proudly produced commercial-like presentations which depicted Sudan in the way they would want to present to a non-Sudanese.
One of the themes of the conference was overcoming prejudices and perceived notions. This session was led by Elshafei Dafalla, an artist and human rights activist. Through this session, participants of the conference produced an art piece which conveyed the ideas of tolerance and understanding.
As a disclaimer, the board members of the association vowed that the group will remain a non-political group – an issue which has been very divisive and controversial in a community where daily conversations and politics are often difficult to separate. Most Sudanese American associations in the past have allowed politics to taint various efforts directed toward helping the Sudanese American community.
I have learned from this experience that Sudan urgently needs to be 'rebranded' as it has been exposed to a lot of negative press. Young Sudanese Americans must play a big role in bridging the gap between their generation and the previous one. It is my hope that this excitement will continue to translate into an effective campaign for change because the secret lies in a collective effort by both generations. I believe that the mission of this organization will set the stage for a new beginning in a world which has become a global village and where bridging the gap cross culturally has become incumbent upon us.