The Stress of South Sudanese in Diaspora: A Narrative From my Personal Experience (Revised)

By Tongun Lo Loyuong

November 6, 2013 (SSNA) — In view of the tragic incident regarding the killing of three innocent civilians in Norway by an alleged South Sudanese asylum seeker, I feel compelled to put this unnecessary tragedy that could have been prevented, into a perspective. Such acts of uncontrollable emotional outburst and the commitment of violence in any form, for any reason justified or otherwise, and against whosoever, in particular against the innocent, must be condemned in the strongest of terms possible.

Yet South Sudanese are suffering in Diaspora and words cannot accurately explain our physical, emotional and psychological stress in Diaspora as I have experienced it firsthand. And I consider myself among one of the fortunate few South Sudanese who with a combination of hard work, resilience and determination, have managed to persist and climb that social ladder, and ultimately rub shoulders with the social elites in the countries that I have lived in both in the East and the West.

The East—and by East I mean most of the Middle Eastern countries—the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Lebanese and the like, suffer from what I call “inferiority complex.”

In Damascus for instance, one is often left smiling in disbelief when walking down the street and Syrian children crowding around you chanting “chocolata, chocolata,” while their women whisper to each other’s ears, about who knows what. One can only guess, but chances are the observation that is being exchanged by Middle Eastern women in such whispers, is often related to some dubious claims about a black man’s sexual organ! There is eschewed perception of the black man in these societies.

Unlike their women, the Syrian men much like their Lebanese counterparts and presumably the Egyptians too, are more vocal in passing their racial ruling on the black man. I have had to exercise self-restraint on numerous occasions in the face of racial discriminatory remarks that one often receives from random people in the streets in these societies because of skin color.

Some racial discrimination comments often come in the form of wordplay where what appears as an honest greeting may in fact be a smear observation aimed at reminding you of your skin pigmentation, such as the Syrian greeting phrase “shou lownak.” Depending on which syllables are stressed, this phrase can both mean how are you, or what is your color and more often than not it is the latter meaning that is being conveyed when one hears a “greeting” from random folks in the street, particularly by youths.

In Beirut’s streets, some men derogatory ask you what time is it, even when you are not wearing a watch to imply that you should look at your skin color. Racial discrimination in Lebanon has at times even morphed into physical abuse. There was a time when I was thrown and hit by an empty beer bottle from a moving car, while minding my own business walking down the street. Often, rotten eggs are hurled at you from balconies without any provocation save that your skin color is black.

Employment in these societies are overwhelmingly determined not by professional qualifications, but by skin color or citizenship—nepotism writs large. I have seen black men who hold college degrees, and who in normal circumstances would pursue a professional career in their field of expertise, but who were often condemned to working in the field of what the Lebanese called the “black man’s job,” referring mainly to the undignified task of cleaning toilets and doing dishes in restaurants and hotels or working as a ghafir (janitor), for residential complexes and offices. The same selection criteria for jobs apply in Syria, and Egypt where some of our South Sudanese brothers and other disfranchised foreign nationals, have been largely confined to the hard labor of construction work. How humiliating.

Our children and women too are not spared from inhumane racial slurs. The children often come home from school crying and feeling emotionally disturbed, for being verbally abused and called monkeys and what not by their “white” peers. Our women are made to work as (khadamat) housemaids and often under poor working conditions and abuses that may include working long hours without adequate return, as well as often being subjected to physical coercion, torture and sexual harassment, if not outright rape.

Seemingly, there are no laws against inhumane treatment of black people or Far East Asians in countries like Lebanon. Lebanese jails, for example are replete with South Sudanese and other foreign nationals who are often arbitrary imprisoned for disproportionately prolonged periods of time that did not match the petty crimes committed, mainly related to the violation or failure to acquire legal residential documents or status. I know this, because I have also received my share of arbitrary and long detention time in Lebanese jails for merely being an illegal alien and refugee without rights or status.

Surprisingly, along this line and contrary to what one would expect from the Arab countries, our northern Sudanese Arab brothers have also not been spared from the unjust treatment based on racial profiling. To the Lebanese authorities, Sudanese “Arabs,” Muslims or not, all the same, we are apportioned the same share of mistreatment. As a result due to our common sufferings, both South and Northern Sudanese have found themselves in a strong bond of solidarity and unity with each other. Likewise, with minor exceptions, South Sudanese in Diaspora in general do not interact with each other thinking across ethnic belonging lines. We are more united in exile than at home, and relate to each other as one South Sudanese family.

However, unlike the developing world, the inferiority complex in the East and countries like Lebanon look favorably toward the West and more developed world, and hence the usage of the term here. When you hold a Western European citizenship in Lebanon, for instance you are guaranteed a professional job, even if you have not completed college. The only setback is that your path must not cross the paths of extremist groups, like Hezbollah and others. On the social side, however, Lebanese women will flock you and entice you into marriage in order to get a slice of that Western passport in your possession.

South Sudanese are suffering in the East and often without any alternative of better prospects elsewhere. Few lucky ones were recognized as refugees or have paid their way into being accepted as refugees by UNHCR offices in the region, and have been resettled to third countries in the West with a seeming offer of a second chance to start afresh and rebuild their war-shattered lives. But the overwhelming majority has been unfortunate and failed to secure official recognition as refugees in the UNHCR offices. As a result they have nowhere to go and are still grinding it out in the Middle East and elsewhere in the region.

I happen to be one of the many unlucky ones who could not secure an official refugee status at the UNHCR offices in both Syria and Lebanon, despite my legitimate claim during the war years, to the right of being recognized as a refugee if only by virtue of being a South Sudanese. But I had to scrap my way out of the East to the West through determination to pursue education and generous unconditional scholarships that I received from some good willing academic institutions first in Lebanon and then in the U.S. In the Lebanese case, my scholarship to complete my bachelor’s degree was facilitated by a friend who was not even Lebanese. But his initial support opened the subsequent doors.

However, while I am grateful for receiving the second chance to climb up the social hierarchy and improve my social status through education, from my experience and contrary to the East, the tragedy of the West is that it suffers from what I will call “superiority complex.” In the U.S. racial discrimination is a commonplace. Is it conceivable that in my interactions, most African-Americans, for instance are more racist toward Africans than some of their white American fellows?

In an attempt to uncover the reasons behind this trend, I once raised the question to a random African-American elderly man in Baltimore, Maryland, as to why this is the case. His candid response was that most African-American communities in general, tend to favor whiter skin color. Most have been indoctrinated to believe that the whiter the color of your skin, the better. But also, he continued, many African-Americans tend to hold Africans responsible for their tragic enslavement history that contributed to their current misery of continuing to live as most see it as second class citizens in the U.S., even though they are American citizens.

The elderly man further noted that the story circulating around in most African-American households is that Africans hate them, and therefore, sold their African ancestors out as slaves to the White European slave master that ultimately landed them in their difficult lot in the U.S. throughout their history. Consequently, this may have contributed to the reciprocal hate perception and mistreatment of Africans at the hands of some African-Americans. In a word, Western superiority complex seemed to have driven a wedge between African and African-American peoples.

In terms of the plight of South Sudanese who have been resettled as refugees in Western countries, more generally, only few have succeeded in rebuilding their lives and improving their social status. Most of these are those who came younger, such as the Southern lost boys’ community of Sudan, because the young are easily adaptable to foreign cultural demands.

Else, the majority of South Sudanese have been written off as first generation, and the story of any first generation migrants is the same—it is not about them anymore, and as such they contend themselves with sacrificing their future for that of their children. Chances of them bettering their social status through the pursuit of education or professional career in their areas of interest are slim. Because of the Western superiority complex syndrome, only college degrees that have been acquired in Western academic institutions warrant consideration for a professional job.

Holding any degree from outside the Western confines means one is immediately relegated to pursue hard labor in factories, restaurants, mines etc., for livelihood. Of course, there are opportunities through taking loans from banks for instance, in order to pay and pursue higher education. But only a handful of South Sudanese in Diaspora have followed that route, and it is understandable why.

In the rigorous Western academic institutions, completing a college degree is no easy task. Earning a degree in the West demands full commitment as a student and hundreds of hours spent in the university library. But with the several mouths to feed in a South Sudanese household, most South Sudanese have found the commitment of being a full time college student hard to pursue. Some determined South Sudanese try to study part-time and work for the other half of the time. But while some have managed to ultimately graduate from college, others have either dropped out or are taking several years, sometimes decades to complete a mere four-year bachelor’s degree program.

Even so, Western superiority complex still negatively affects those South Sudanese who are Western educated in their job places. From my experience in the U.S., and currently in the European Nordic region regardless of Western education credentials I still got to be looked upon with sympathy, especially by those you have just been introduced to in professional conferences and public events. Often, most are surprised to see you in these kinds of elitist functions to begin with, and you can rest assured that before the end of the event curiosity about your who-abouts will be displayed.

The problem is not with being curious about a unique phenomenon, because curiosity is the foundation in any given quest for knowledge. What irritates me the most is when you tell your curious enquirer that you are from South Sudan, their first reaction is to make you feel sorry for yourself, and often rightly so because ours is a society to be pitied. But sometimes one does not want to be reminded and be made to feel like an inferior creature that must be exorcised with some urgent “make a difference” action. Sometimes I joke back by requesting a napkin to wipe my tears!

In addition, in most Western countries, but particularly more so in the Nordic countries, the superiority complex has been taken to a whole different level by the feminist and gender sensitization of the culture. Mere conversations have been rendered complicated let alone gestures of good will. There is simply too much gender and sexuality politics that one must learn to contend with in these cultures as well.

For instance in some of these countries, I have now learned to think twice before committing to assist anyone perceived to be in need of assistance, even if it is a woman that has just slipped in the icy and slippery roads of the extremely excruciating cold Nordic winters. Though alien to my upbringing, I have learned to turn the other way and mind my own business, because the last time I tried, my services were not only rejected, but I received the look of “here is another symbol of male dominance who thinks women are dependent on men to complete any given task.” Especially as a black man any unintentional utterance or gesture may be easily regarded as politically incorrect, however the term is defined and will most likely land you in trouble in these countries.

For similar reasons, I recently landed in trouble at workplace for failing to complete a task of—making a mere phone call (which was not even part of my job description as a policy analyst to be a personal assistant). But I agreed to make the phone call which was assigned to me by a senior female co-worker. However, it happened that I was in a meeting all day that day and did not come to my desk until after lunch. Upon my arrival to my desk, my co-worker who had been with me in some of those meetings immediately asked if I had placed the call to which I replied not yet. She started complaining vehemently, before I could even explain to her that I have been in meetings all morning and have just returned to my desk.

But when I did explain to her and then asked her “why did you not make the phone call yourself if it is that urgent,” she immediately rushed to my female boss and falsely accused me of insubordination to women in a company dominated by gender and sexuality politics, and where women make up the senior management and the majority of the staff and where I was the first and only black man to have ever worked there. In consequence, the two of us and another senior female colleague that was supportive of her ultimately ended up losing our jobs. The only difference is that they easily found replacements, but as for me, well you can only take a big wild guess, and it is been almost seven months now. The explanation I later received was that “I was not doing things the Swedish way,” whatever that means!

My reasoning is that as a black man coming from a patriarchal culture and living in these highly gendered and feminist sensitized cultures, I am a sitting duck for being perceived as representing patriarchal sentiments, even though I like to think of myself as an ally and an advocate of social justice and equality, including gender equality. But I have consistently found my world ever shrinking to the extent one feels being strangled, which as they say being placed between a rock and a hard place. But regardless of such excessive stress that South Sudanese may be unnecessarily experiencing in Diaspora, this does not under no uncertain terms justify snapping and resorting to hate, bitterness and violence. South Sudanese are equally suffering in the West. But what now is the alternative? Can our elite brothers in GoSS now see why we in Diaspora come across more frustrated in our free expression against current political malpractices in Juba?

One of the waves we rode during the liberation struggle was the hope that our suffering will one day come to pass when we have a country we can call home. This hope is now turning into despair when all opportunities for building a peaceful, united, equal, just and prosperous nation are being squandered by mis-governance in the Republic. Ideally, South Sudanese, including the fellow who committed this utterly reprehensible killing of innocent people in Norway should be making our way back home, now that we have our own country. Why should we still be made to seek asylums and continue to live in Diaspora? All we ask for from Kiir’s regime and whatever regime of the day is that we are tired and want to have a place we can call home, a place we can return to and help build. We are not asking to be rich, but merely to have access to basic rights, liberties, and services, such as security, rule of law, infrastructure, schools, hospitals and livelihoods. Are these too much to ask?

Tongun Lo Loyuong is reachable at [email protected]; and can be followed on twitter @TongunLoLoyuong. Numerous other food for thought and intellectual exercise on South Sudan’s issues can be found at: This article was first published by South Sudan Nation on April 10th, 2013.

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