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On Ahmed Mohamed and (part of) the Reality of Being Sudanese-American

Yesterday, I came across this link on Twitter – a report on PRI on how the Sudanese-American community feels about the Ahmed Mohamed debacle. If you’re unfamiliar, Ahmed is a 14 year old Sudanese-American boy who was recently arrested after he brought a clock he built to school (after getting permission from his teacher) because his other teachers thought it “looked like a bomb”.

The story was picked up, social media outrage ensued, Ahmed received an outpouring of support from people all around the world (celebrity and regular folk alike), and most notably from those in the tech field. Hooray. A (rare) happy ending to a stupid, heartbreaking situation.

On our end, the Sudani diaspora did its part supporting its brother. We tweeted, facebooked, etc. The Sudani-American community online was alight. We were moved (to tears, some of us) when Ahmed got recognition from his dream school, MIT, from NASA, from all the places a brilliant boy like him would flourish. In karmic fashion, this boy, who should have just been a “regular genius kid” who received accolades and support from his school, was instead getting attention from all over the world thanks to the humiliation he faced at the hands of his educators. It made us happy, and proud. Social media justice had been served.

But there were a number of Sudanese across the diaspora who didn’t understand “what the big deal is”. Who cares about Ahmed when there are thousands of children suffering in Sudan? Ahmed is in America. Ahmed got gifts. Ahmed got invited to the White House. Ahmed is enjoying the attention. What about all the kids who are just as smart as Ahmed who will never be recognized? Who will never go to MIT? Who will never even get to express the fact that they too like to build things?

And they are right. There are thousands of brilliant young minds in Sudan who will never live up to their full potential because they don’t find the support and quality education they need. But why should one cancel out the other? Why does supporting Ahmed automatically mean that we don’t care about those other kids? As my friend put it, “why are they mutually exclusive?”

But sadder than that (for me) is the oversimplification of the Sudanese-American plight – or rather, the minority plight in America. Local Sudanese (and to a great extent, those of us living in the Arab countries) have a tendency to dismiss the experience of Sudanese-Americans because “into fi Amrika, what problems could you possibly have?”

In reality, most of us aren’t out there “murawigeen” [chilling],  but have to actually deal with the fear of our kids (and ourselves) being type-casted and labeled. Ahmed has been called a terrorist by his classmates since he was in middle school – that’s the age of 11-12. His teachers’  reaction to his ingenuity is proof enough of what he has to deal with as a little Muslim boy in that school. What kind of damage does that do to an adult, let alone a child?

Most of y’all forgot that Ahmed’s experience is not unique, it’s not a fluke, it’s not “sensationalism”, and many of y’all forget that Ahmed is lucky. He’s a cute little racially ambiguous boy (because yes, that matters) who got the world’s attention. Massive online support doesn’t happen for everyone. Most times stories like Ahmed’s happen and you don’t even hear about them.

You have no idea what it’s like living in post 9/11 America. Most of y’all have no idea what it was like for those of us who were there on 9/11 and the bullshit we had to go through and how scared we were for our lives. You think Sudanese people were immune to that? Safe from that?

I went to college in Arizona, one of the most ignorant states in America. 9/11 happened my first month in college. Not only was I the only Black person in a class I quickly discovered was full of racists, I was also the only Muslim in that class – a fact no one discovered until 9/11. The teacher asked me questions like, “What’s it like in the ghetto?” (to which I responded, “I don’t know, I moved here from Paris”); “Why is rap music so mysoginistic and violent?” (to which another classmate responded, “Because they’re all like that”).

On September 11, the teacher refused to cancel session because “if we don’t have class, the terrorists win”. That’s not a line from a movie. It’s not a punchline. It is a MEMORY.

Do you know what they discussed in class that day? What “we” were gonna do to the ‘terrorists’, which was casually swapped for ‘Muslims’. Everyone was encouraged to “express their feelings”, which translated into some of the most violent things I’ve ever heard. These feelings were supported, not just by the other students, but the teacher as well. Now imagine being the only one in that class, and feeling the need to defend yourself but also being afraid of what was going to happen when you got out of class.

Imagine leaving class and hearing about a couple of Muslim students who got beat up on campus. Imagine hearing about a sikh man who was shot in his store because someone thought he was Muslim. Imagine your reaction when the Muslim Students Association on your campus issues a warning about walking alone on campus. Imagine going home and your roommate (who lives in YOUR house) refusing to speak to you because of what those men who don’t represent you in any way did on that day.

Now imagine Ahmed, who still has to deal with this bullshit, only it’s 14 years later, and he’s only 14 and just started high school.

This is the tip of the iceberg. This isn’t counting the number of Sudanese in North America who are harassed and even killed based on their race and religion. You think we all live over there murta7een albaal w ma 3indana mashakil? Grow up.

Ahmed bakhtu,  he got something out of it. There are so many others who just “biyaklooha fi 7ananum” [just take it/swallow it]. So please, miss me with your “this is just a way to get his dad into power in Sudan” conspiracy theories, or “it’s not that serious” or “da dala3“.

You have no idea.

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9 thoughts on “On Ahmed Mohamed and (part of) the Reality of Being Sudanese-American

  1. Pingback: On Ahmed Mohamed and (part of) the Reality of Being Sudanese-American | hamishmcshibl

  2. I was in India attending college when September 11 happened and I received heat for it because I was born in Saudi Arabia, however, the Indian government went irrational against the Sudanese and other students from Arabian countries, giving 23-48 hour ultimatums to them to depart the country, canceling their enrollments in universities if they were studying anything that got to do a tiny bit with aviation and evicting them from houses. It was a mass punishment to a largely innocent group in an unrelated country.

    Time goes on, terrorist attacks were mounting in frequency throughout the World, in the process I have lost friends and family to hideous bombings in Pune, Mumbai, Jeddah, Riyadh. I still occasionally get called a terrorist by ignorant folks and that reawakens all these memories. I ask the one who made the comment if they had lost family or friend in those attacks and in 100% of the cases it turns out they they are just playing armchair judges on me and their decree, given my origins, happens to be that I am a terrorist. Most recently I was called so was in 2014 attending a university in a western country by someone in a teaching capacity and I just did not know what to do, it was too hurtful.

    Being Sudanese gives you two; and if you identify as Arab three; complexities you have to grapple with, this is what I believe, you are Black, you speak Arabic and you are Muslim. Each one of these identities contributes synergistic effects to how people around you perceive you.

    • I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I know the feeling that brings all too well. And you were spot on about the complexities we have to deal with as Sudanese. Although I’d never wish our experience with discrimination on anyone, but I’m comforted by your comment, and glad there’s someone out there who understands. Thank you for sharing.

      • It is probably not in our interest to try to make the ones in Sudan understand our plight because all our voices will go down a black-hole. A time and resource consuming wasteful effort. What is in our interest is to try to promote an inclusive Sudan where we identify as Sudanese, absorbing all the other traits that makes us who we are. If we do not do that then these complexities will only work against us.

        As long as someone is Sudanese, it doesn’t matter if they are Arab or African. You are not less Sudanese if you identify as Arab nor are you less Sudanese if you identify as African.

  3. An interesting analysis from the second generation prospective about the challenges faced every day in schools, colleges and universities. However, the challenges in Europe and especially the UK are somewhat comparable. Many of the diaspora second generation are torn between several identities; Sudanese, Arabs, Africans, Muslims, Black and Brown. This, if I can call it identity crisis, was sometimes exploited by many extremists in university campuses and mosques to turn a few young people into radicals. There is also a cultural gap (language ect) and a lack of honest dialogue between the first (parents) and second generations. Here in the UK, we are trying to remove these generational barriers so as to establish road maps for our communities in the diaspora. what has happened to Ahmed in Texas is also happening in Europe but away from the gaze of social media.

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