Literary Activism

Harriet Levin Millan

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


An interview with Sudanese refugee Eltigani Abualgasim.
By B. Davin Stengel

Recently recognized as one of the best cab drivers in Philadelphia — nominated by the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association — Eltigani Abualgasim used to be in a very different kind of transportation business, helping to deliver Red Cross messages across Sudan and reconnecting families torn apart by war.

“One of our main programs was for unaccompanied minors, who are called ‘Lost Boys’ here,” says Abualgasim. “We did a lot of missions to trace the relatives of these minors — in the mountains, in southern Sudan, through war zones … it was very difficult.”

A graduate of the University of Khartoum with a bachelor’s degree in geography and a diploma in economics and development, Abualgasim spent the 1990s working for the tracing department of the Sudanese Red Crescent Society, where he led a team charged with helping concerned family members locate missing loved ones displaced by violence. In 2000 he traveled to Saudi Arabia where he lived for three and a half years before securing a visa to come to the United States, settling in Philadelphia in 2004.

“I left Sudan … before the war in Darfur started,” he says. “I was forced. The policy of the government is to drain the country of opposition.”

While Abualgasim has some extended family in the Philadelphia area, he is the only one of his siblings currently living in the United States, and the crisis in Sudan continues to affect his brothers and sisters directly. In 2006 his older brother, Abualgasim Ahmed Abualgasim — a longtime resident of Saudi Arabia and an opponent of the Sudanese government — was arrested by Saudi Arabian authorities and sent to Sudan, where he remained incarcerated for six months without ever being charged with a crime.

“He gave a talk at the Sudanese Embassy in Saudi Arabia, and the next day he was deported,” says Abualgasim. “When they brought him to Sudan, they tried to assimilate him by offering him an appointment as a minister. He refused.”

Abualgasim’s brother was released this past March, thanks in large part to the advocacy efforts of Amnesty International and other collaborative organizations. One of Abualgasim’s sisters was less fortunate. She resided in the Kuttum area of northern Darfur — where Abualgasim’s family is originally from — and died recently after being unable to seek medical treatment for a heart condition.

Here in Philadelphia, the situation in Darfur is never far from Abualgasim’s mind. He is active in a number of organizations — including the Sudanese National Rally, whose primary goal is to raise awareness among Sudanese living in the U.S. about ongoing human-rights violations in Sudan — and serves as volunteer director for Darfur Alert Coalition, a Philadelphia-area coalition of Sudanese and Americans offering educational programs and coordinating advocacy initiatives on behalf of the oppressed in Darfur.

Abualgasim clearly takes pride in his job, but he knows he won’t be driving a cab forever. “I want to go back to school to start my master’s degree,” he says. When asked what he plans to study, he says matter-of-factly, “Peace and conflict resolution.”

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