Q&A: Meet Alaa Ahmed

Alaa Ahmed is a member of the first cohort of Refugees International Fellows. She has a passion for improving the lives of displaced people, especially displaced women. As a refugee from Sudan—currently the biggest refugee crisis in the world—Alaa knows first-hand the consequences of conflict and the challenges displaced Sudanese women face.

The following Q&A is a modified version of our conversation with her about her life and her work.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your family?

I am originally from Sudan and I come from a family of 10. My father is from Eritrea and my mother is from Sudan, but they both grew up in Sudan and married there. I am the fifth of seven other brothers and sisters, and we were raised in a village near Khartoum. Life was hard in Sudan. We had to work a lot and our days were filled with tasks like fishing and gathering food from the fields for our meals. There was little time for school. But between my daily chores, I would secretly visit my teacher Nadia to study.

When did you leave Sudan?

In 2006, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, my family and I left Sudan for Syria to seek better opportunities. However, it was too difficult to build a new life in Syria. We also faced a lot of discrimination there, so we returned to Sudan. Back in Sudan, though, we faced new problems. My mother was advocating for the protection of Sudanese girls––especially my sisters and me––which was contrary to the traditional practices of our community. She disagreed with some of the prevailing norms of the time, so people threatened us, and we were forced to leave. In 2010, my family sought safety in Egypt. We took a boat from Sudan. The trip lasted several days, and we ended up in Cairo, where I started my formal schooling. I was 14 years old.  

What was it like living as a refugee in Cairo?

When I think about living in Egypt, the first image that comes to my mind is my entire family carrying all of our belongings. We had to move at least fifty times because we could not find a permanent apartment where we could stay more than a short time. It was very unstable and uncertain. I can still vividly recall observing my mother, who always tried to show how strong she was, break down and struggle. It was especially difficult after my father died of cancer soon after we arrived in Egypt. This left my mother responsible for a large family in a foreign country.

So, how did my mother survive and take care of all of us? Well, she worked tirelessly, leaving early in the morning and arriving home late at night. 

But she never made enough money, and it was very hard. Looking back on it, one of the biggest challenges for us was that we couldn’t find essential assistance. What we really needed was someone to direct us and give us information on what we should do and where we could find help. I think that is the greatest need of a refugee or a displaced person when she first arrives in a country: information. We missed out on many of the opportunities to connect with other refugees. We were also afraid to interact with the local Egyptian community because we didn’t always have the right paperwork.

What were some of the biggest challenges living as a refugee in Egypt?

Everything was expensive in Egypt and we could not get medical care. When we first arrived, doctors diagnosed my father with leukemia. But we could not afford treatment, so we lost him. My brother also has a medical problem and requires constant medication. Doctors recommended a surgery as well, but we couldn’t afford it. 

Additionally, Egyptians discriminated against us and exploited us. On one occasion my mother, some of my siblings, and I took a taxi in Cairo. We had just arrived in the country, and it was clear that we were refugees. The driver told us we would not have to pay the fare, but when it came time to drop us off, he demanded a lot of money. The driver reported us to the police for failing to pay. Situations like that happened far too frequently. 

What made you interested in conducting research on the concerns of refugee women?   

In the first place, it is because of my personal experience. I am a refugee, I am a woman, and I have faced innumerable challenges. I also deeply believe that advocacy is the most effective way to improve the lives of refugees and displaced people. I choose to contribute to advocacy for refugees because I want to ensure that people like my family and I receive the protection and assistance they need. I have lived the same story and deeply understand where they are coming from. As someone with experience working with refugee-led organizations, I have witnessed many of the issues refugees face when they try to access crucial assistance. I raise my voice and speak up for the voiceless because I was once voiceless. 

I focus on education and gender because those topics affected me most in Egypt and Sudan. The most powerful tool I have received was knowledge from other advocates who supported and educated me so I would have the confidence to speak up and ask for help. By getting involved with the community I got to know many community-based organizations (CBOs), non-governmental organizations, and UNHCR which all helped me and my family find solutions to some of our problems.   

What do you think are some of the biggest problems Sudanese women face in particular, both in Sudan, in Egypt, and in any other host country?

The situation changes with time and place, but there are some similarities between all Sudanese women. I think the problems are even greater now, especially after the 15th of April last year and the beginning of the civil war. Many people have been killed and displaced internally and externally. People have lost their families. Also, one of the biggest problems for Sudanese women is sexual violence. Huge numbers of women and girls have experienced physical and sexual violence, even some men. This happens in Sudan, on the way to Egypt, and on the borders. This frequent violence causes trauma and mental health issues. The other main problem is hunger.

Furthermore, obtaining visas is very difficult for Sudanese people who try to leave the country. To enter Egypt, a person has to have a visa, which requires documentation and money. A lot of displaced Sudanese—especially women—don’t have any money or paperwork, so they are forced to enter the country undocumented and are at risk of being arrested. Many people die while taking dangerous routes to avoid authorities.

Why do you think community-based organizations (CBOs) are so important for Sudanese refugees who do make it to Egypt?

CBOs are crucial for refugees in Egypt because they are well-informed about service providers. They raise awareness within the community and educate new arrivals about how to realize their rights and even how to receive refugee status. They are also in the perfect position to engage in effective advocacy. They engage with the refugee community directly, so they know the population’s needs and challenges.

What do you think needs to be done to improve the lives of displaced Sudanese in Egypt? 

Everyone has to take collaborative action, the host country government, the humanitarian organizations, the international organizations and the community-based organizations. They all need to work together. I don’t envision much success without collaboration.

What kind of work and advocacy do you want to do in the future following your fellowship with Refugees International?

I want to continue to work to empower CBOs and refugee community leaders. They should be part of the decision-making process at the national and international levels. They should be speaking about the matters in their own communities. I also want to focus some of my efforts on helping CBOs secure more funding. Very little financial support goes to CBOs compared to other types of organizations. I plan to concentrate on public policy in my studies so that I can be more effective in realizing these goals. I am both a refugee and a leader. Life is still tough, but I am lucky. #AllEyesOnSudan