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Christians in the Muslim World

Sudan’s refugees, culturally mixed against their will

Working in Cairo over a ten-year period among refugees from African countries, especially from Sudan, has convinced me that we can learn from them and their troubled life; learn about what happens when cultures and traditions meet and uncover the truth that lies behind the experiences of exile and pain these people and peoples actually endure.



In a language not unknown to Oasis, refugees’ painful reality can be best described as a form of “forced métissage”.


Other scholars have described the refugee condition as one of being in a “border zone of multiple contextual identities.” This means that refugees acquire the identities, cultures and attitudes of the places where they end up living. In some cases, they realise it; in other cases, they do not; and in others still, they openly resist the process. Such is the case for Sudanese refugees living in Cairo who are increasingly defined by the number of layers created by their many lives. This stratification begins with their initial uprooting, an experience that is followed by coming into contact with others, and continues as they form ideas about their future country of asylum. Such phases reflect also the different environments they experience, ranging from rural areas of southern Sudan and displaced persons’ camps around Khartoum (northern Sudan) to Cairo’s Arab-Muslim society and the much-coveted country of asylum.



Likewise, individual factors and age come into play, as people feel closer to one layer rather than others depending on the generation they belong to.


An example from life


Among the many changes that I think deserve attention, the most emblematic is perhaps how matrimonial alliances are made.


A survey among members of a Christian community I was responsible for shows how courtship, marital negotiations and people’s social environment have changed in relation to traditional practices. The new social and cultural context in which people find themselves make many of the observed changes possible; the same is true for the prospect of emigrating to the West. In other words, present experiences and expectations about the future affect how refugees behave at the different stages of their migration. Indeed, it is necessary to talk about the future because some traditional practices have shown a great deal of flexibility and adaptability to the legal and cultural requirements that access to the Western world appears to demand as defined by Western nations’ immigration policies and the influence of the dominant Western cultural model.



Nevertheless, some elemental core components of marital traditions remain the same and highlight how in its deepest sense the understanding of the matrimonial pact does not substantially change in the course of forced migration. This means that the decision to marry is social rather than individual in nature, that the solemnisation of the pact comes with a patrimonial change, that the alliance requires a celebrative act and that its reference point is both horizontal (family) and vertical (family in the Diaspora).


Despite all the difficulties Sudanese refugees may encounter, no decision about marriage is taken without the involvement of all the segments of the family, from the village in Sudan’s deepest south and the relatives based in Khartoum, to the exiled community in Cairo or the farthest corners of the earth. What is more, people draw from the conceptual and metaphoric repertories that are typical of rural areas to express and calculate the value of the patrimonial element that goes into sealing alliances.



Re-interpreting the religious experience


Another study has shown that a harsh life drives refugees to seek purpose and hope in their religious affiliation and traditions but from a new perspective. Many of the Sudanese interviewed for the study compare their fate to that of the ancient Israelites, and for them staying in Egypt is part of God’s plan. He will train them to be obedient and will not abandon them. He will lead them to the Promised Land and is thus encouraging young people to come back to Him.


“Christianity is the means through which Sudanese refugees reconstruct and renegotiate their experiences in Cairo. In their disorienting and traumatic displacement, they use Biblical scripture and stories to form a unique spiritual narrative that offers them purpose and a lens through which they may envision a better future.”




The progressive role of tradition


The Cairo experience also shows that the failure to pass on traditions, or do so only formally and inadequately, can unbalance young people in how they relate to reality; this in turn can give rise to feelings of alienation that sometimes create maladjusted individuals prone to violence.


More to the point, exile over time tends to break up families and weaken the web of relations that are essential to pass on traditions, so that the young end up deprived of the necessary tools with which they can build their future.


Finally, other studies have shown how identifying with a certain tradition does not necessarily mean close-mindedness towards others. In fact, in most cases, refugees are quite willing to learn from the values of their new environment and borrow some of them. However, as much as they want to build a new home, they are not likely to forget the old one, which they had to abandon, their hearts full of sorrow.


Traditions are not impermeable to one another. Refugees who are strongly rooted in their own can more easily open up to others as well as be more easily welcomed by them they will not just put up with the red tape of the country that took them in for a while.