By Karen Cadbury 

Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers started coming to Maine in the late 1980s to escape the regime of former President Omar al-Basir, the military dictator who led Sudan from 1989 until 2019. Prior to 2011, when South Sudan seceded and two independent countries were established, the Republic of the Sudan and South Sudan were one country. According to the World Bank, in 2020 there were 1,040,308 refugees from Sudan and 314,453 from South Sudan worldwide. 

An estimated 3,000 reside in Maine, with 2,000 located in or near the Portland area. Many individuals and families have been living in Maine for a complete generation and now have children and grandchildren who were born and raised in the state.  

Indigo Arts Alliance, Black Public Media, Maine Public Radio, and Maine Film Center presented “Sparking a Revolution from Within,” a virtual discussion on April 11. It featured responses and interpretations by Sudanese American women artists to “Revolution from Afar,” a film in English with Arabic subtitles that was broadcast on Maine Public Television the week of April 4. The movie was directed and filmed by documentary filmmaker Bentley Brown. He explored how artistic expression is used by Sudanese Americans to understand the roots of conflict in Sudan, explore potential solutions, and envision new paradigms that may help Sudanese society move out of its long years of conflict and toward a new future. 

In “Revolution from Afar,” artists share their experiences and thoughts about their identities, the importance of the feeling of belonging, and the relationships refugees have with their countries of origin, as well as with the U.S. The artists feel connected and emotionally close to Sudan and South Sudan, but they are also painfully aware that because of the distance, they are not an integral part of the dynamic, unpredictable change taking place there. They equally feel outside of mainstream U.S. society. 

The discussion program “Sparking a Revolution from Within” was moderated by Hana Baba from National Public Radio (NPR) member station KALW in San Francisco, and the host of “Crosscurrents,” an NPR newsmagazine. Her stories appear on NPR, Public Radio International’s The World, and the BBC. Artists participating in the discussion were Khadega Mohammed, a spoken-word artist, community organizer, and founder of the UNfiltered Discussion Series, a youth-led discussion program on controversial topics; and Portland-based poet Nyamuon “Moon” Nguany Machara, a teacher for the Telling Room in Portland, a writing program for young people, and the recipient of a Bazelon Center award and the Diaspora Award from the Luol Deng Foundation for her advocacy work on South Sudanese issues. 

Also joining the conversation was Bentley Brown, the film’s director, originally from Texas. When he was a young person, his family lived in Chad, which borders Sudan. He speaks Arabic and a number of dialects, and was influenced greatly by the music, comedy, newspapers, and media of Sudan. Brown described “Revolution for Afar” as a film about how one joins a revolution while living geographically far away. 

Khadega Mohammed spoke about her struggle to maintain connections with Sudan from a distance. She described a trip she made home to South Sudan after 12 years, with a U.S. passport, and feeling self-conscious that she didn’t have a South Sudanese passport. Mohammed performed her poem “Between,” inspired by this experience and her ongoing questions about whether being a traveler is OK. 

“Where is home? I’m still asking myself if I should have been in Sudan, helping. The [dictator] took 30 years of people’s lives and created a cycle of trauma that gets passed down. I’m wondering how can I contribute, and I think art is an integral part of revolution, [a way of] turning guilt into something more proactive. I don’t fit in 100%; I’m struggling to redefine what it means for me to be Sudanese. And to understand the immense diversity in the Sudan today. I’m thinking about ‘futurism,’ the ability to imagine a new future and what art can do.” 

khadega mohammed

Nguany Machar moved to the U.S. in 1995. She said, “Poetry is a language that penetrates the human heart.” Questions she is most interested in exploring in her poetry include being Black in America, belonging, the intersection between the struggles in the U.S. and the atrocities in the Sudan and South Sudan, and the killing of George Floyd. She wants to understand more about people in the U.S. and Maine, she said. 

“I’ve had to learn the history of the Black community here. I’m still trying to understand who I should speak for and when I should speak up,” Nguany Machar said.  “People in the Sudanese American community have amazing talent – as rappers, artists, musicians, writers, and poets – and this ability to express feelings and ideas through artistic work is contributing to building stronger communities.” While she is concerned about the conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan, she is also deeply interested in what people in the Black communities in the U.S. want and need. “Africa is a continent rich with resources and opportunities, but I also value my life here, “and I want to know and understand more about the history and current challenges here – in this country.” 

For information about viewing “Revolution from Afar,” contact Indigo Arts Alliance, 60 Cove St., Portland, ME 04104-3652, or Black Public Media at [email protected]g.