Being a refugee: From a journey of struggle to a journey of survival

Nazik Kabalo is the founder of the Sudanese Women Human Rights Project. She fled to Egypt in 2011 after being detained for her human rights work. There she continued to face harassment and threats for her activism, and faced years of limbo as she sought refugee resettlement in the US. During Write for Rights 2018, Amnesty activists from around the world spoke out for her safety. Nazik was finally resettled to Canada recently. Here is her story. 

Being a refugee is, for me, a matter of personal identity. Being a refugee is a statement of my struggle and the struggle of millions of other people around the world forced to leave their homes. Being a refugee is a reminder of the different global crises that drove us from our homes—conflicts, poverty, inequality, injustice, climate change, or sexual violence.

People do not choose to be refugees; they are forced by the serious challenges facing humanity to leave their homes and to live either in refugee camps or in inhumane conditions in neighboring countries’ slums. The refugee crisis is not a personal crisis or even a regional crisis; it is a global crisis that demands urgent fundamental change.

The reasons I left my home in Sudan to become a refugee were not unique to me. I was forced to flee nine years ago because of my advocacy against human rights atrocities and genocidal crimes. After being subjected to detention, court trials and death threats in Sudan, I went to Egypt to safeguard my life and to continue to advocate for justice and freedom in Sudan.

I arrived in Egypt in early 2012. But I was only able to work freely in Egypt for less than two years. In 2014, the Egyptian government clamped down on human rights activists and my safety was threatened again. For the next five years I lived in hiding in Egypt as a refugee and human rights activist, moving from house to house many times.

Threatened by Sudanese government agents, I was unable to obtain a Sudanese passport from Sudan’s embassy in Egypt. But I was at least able to get support from Amnesty International and other international organizations protecting human rights defenders—unlike many thousands of women and children refugees in Egypt, who are unable to find this kind of support.

Without permission to work, refugees are forced to take low wage jobs and work illegally to support themselves. This situation increases the risk that employers will abuse them. This is especially true for women who often face sexual harassment at work as well as other kinds of violence and exploitation. Refugee children are often forced to work or drop out of school. Even if they manage to enroll in school, refugee children face racial discrimination and violence inside and outside schools.

Egypt alone is hosting almost 300,000 refugees, the majority of them women and children. There are no refugee camps in Egypt, so refugees live in slums in big cities where they become victims of poverty, violence and discrimination. There are a few local organizations courageously helping refugees, but the organizations’ capacity is very limited compared to the needs of so many refugees. 

Hosting countries are supposed to be transitional stops with refugees eventually returning to their home countries or to a resettlement country. But the waiting can take years and sometimes even decades. Civil wars, brutal dictatorships, or climate change make it impossible for some refugees to return to their homeland. For these refugees, there is the long wait for resettlement in a third country. In my case I waited seven years for resettlement, with years lost because of President Trump’s “Muslim ban”, which stalled my resettlement process. For an activist refugee like myself, a longer wait means increased danger. Living at the mercy of the unknown brings physical and psychological trauma. For some, the wait is just too much of an emotional drain.

This photo was used in Amnesty’s 2018 Write for Rights campaign to protect Nazik’s identity. As a refugee and a woman human rights defender in Egypt, she faced enormous risks. Nazik was also identified by a pseudonym: Awad.

Finally, I was lucky to be welcomed by a generous community in Kingston, Ontario. Local refugee resettlement groups in Canada play an important role in making refugees feel at home. But after defining myself as a “refugee” for eight long years, I found I was unable to remove the “refugee” tag even after I became a Canadian permanent resident a few months ago. The refugee tag for me is a personal testimony of a journey of struggle and it has now taken on a new definition by becoming a “journey of survival”. Throughout my journey of struggle, the Amnesty community has been a lifeline of hope and solidarity. I’m so grateful that I’m able to write these words today because of that support.

The refugees I left behind continue their journeys of struggle, even as more countries close their borders to refugees. But if we work together and imagine a world without suffering, we can work with refugees to ease their hardships and improve their living situations. The increasing numbers of refugees are a sign of failure in our global system. The whole of humanity shares the guilt for this situation, and so it is for the whole of the international community to come together and share the responsibility for supporting refugees and begin to create a better world for everyone everywhere.