Sudan, an Unexpected Haven for Syrian Refugees

Migrations, a Vanishing Horizon · With most other doors firmly closed to them, Syrians escaping the war have found a welcome respite in Sudan.

The river Nile running through Sudan’s capital Khartoum, where over 100,000 Syrians have arrived since the war began.
© Jenny Gustaffson

First out was Egypt, in the summer of 2013. Then came Jordan and Lebanon, in 2014 and early 2015, and finally Turkey, one year later. Even Algeria, a country that had insisted on maintaining a welcoming attitude towards those escaping the war, closed its doors to Syrians. Country after country shut their borders and imposed visa restrictions, effectively barring Syrian nationals from entering. Within a few years, almost every neighbouring country had closed its doors to refugees from Syria.

Except for one. Sudan, the large African nation forming a socio-cultural bridge between the Arabic-speaking north and linguistically diverse Sub Saharan south, made a decision: it would not restrict entry for Syrians. Borders would remain open, and Syrian nationals would be allowed to stay as they pleased on Sudanese soil. Until today, that remains the same: Sudan is one of few countries possible to enter with a Syrian passport.

“All other doors have been closed for us. There is a joke saying that you can only enter heaven now with a Syrian passport,” says Rawan a woman in her mid-thirties from Damascus who prefers to only use her first name.

Khartoum, such as Damas

She is sitting by a big window in the office of a travel agency in Khartoum’s Riyadh neighbourhood, a middle-class area with many shops and restaurants. It is her fourth month working in the office–and fourth month living in Khartoum. She found the position through an online job site, and got hired before she left Damascus.

“Most people were shocked when I said that I would move to Sudan. But that’s the kind of person I am, I want to take every single opportunity in life,” she says.

Rawan lives in an apartment not far from the office, in a building with several Syrian neighbours. The entire Riyadh area has transformed into a hub for Syrians in recent years, immediately noticeable for anyone who turns into one of its streets. Restaurants, many of them newly opened, bear names like Syrian Gate or Aleppo Sweets; a small gift shop is named after the Lebanese singer Fairuz, a barbershop after Palmyra, the ancient Syrian city. Supermarkets sell olive oil and mate, the Latin American drink consumed plentifully in many Syrian homes.

In the years that have passed since the war began in Syria in 2011, the community in Sudan has grown fast. More than 100,000 people have arrived to the country, settling down mostly in the capital Khartoum.

“But the real figure is probably higher, like 250,000 people or more,” says Mohammad Aljerkas, who is the founder of Dyar, an online magazine and platform giving advice to Syrians in Sudan.

Aljerkas started Dyar after arriving to Sudan seven years ago as a student, after realising that there were not a lot of resources for those arriving from Syria.

“There are many things you want to know when you come to a new country, and there was nothing then. So I started a Facebook page first, sharing links related to Syria and Sudan, and then a website after that,” he says.

Free access to education and health

When Aljerkas studied at a university in Khartoum, it was on the same terms as the local students. Syrians in Sudan get access to education and health care as if they were nationals of the country, and have the right to work and run businesses in their names. There are no restrictions on their movement either, because the community is not seen as—or granted the status of—refugees. Instead, they tend to be called visitors or guests.

“There is a lot of hospitality here, you feel welcome. It’s not like in other countries where you feel that you’re a burden as a refugee,” says Wisam Alnaser, who owns the travel agency where Rawan works.

“The hard thing is that there is no support from international organisations like the UN. In Lebanon and Jordan, Syrian families get support. We are trying to gather help for those who need it here, but it is hard,” he says.

For both Sudanese and Syrians, the economic situation has been difficult for a long period of time. It was a main catalyst of the revolutionary movement that finally led to the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir on 11 April.

Crisis and internal jolts

An economic crisis had been in the making in Sudan for long, originating partly in the US sanctions imposed in the 1990s and partly in the independence of South Sudan in 2011, when Sudan lost nearly three quarters of its oil. In 2018, it reached a point where the Sudanese pound had lost 85 percent of its value against the dollar and inflation reached one of the highest levels in the world. All the while, the regime of al-Bashir continued to allocate more than 70 percent of its spending to defence and security and less than 10 percent to health and education.

After four months of continuous demonstrations, sparked in December by sudden rise in bread prices, the nationwide protest movement finally managed to force the former president from power.

“This regime is not capable to run the country well. They are old and ignorant, because they surround themselves with uneducated people who will not challenge them,” says Muzan al-Neel, a Sudanese engineer engaged in the protest movement.

What awaits politically now remains to be seen. The economic situation, so far, is yet to improve. Even if prices are low for anyone with foreign currency to spend, those who earn in Sudanese pounds are struggling hard.

“Money here is suddenly worth nothing, you earn maybe the equivalent of 200 dollars per month. Outside of Sudan that is very little, says a young man from coastal Syria who came to Sudan like many other young Syrians, to avoid getting drafted into the army.

Accessing nationality

Another man, Hay, in his fifties, runs a popular Syrian restaurant in the centre of Khartoum. He says that his total turnover has dropped from 12,000 to 3,000 dollars per month since the crisis began.

‘The money doesn’t come in any more. I am waiting to see what will happen, if things don’t improve I am going to try to relocate to the Emirates,’ he says.

The reason Hay is able to consider the Gulf country as an option is that both him and his family hold Sudanese citizenship, since a couple of years back. The former government opened up the possibility for Syrians to apply for a Sudanese nationality, only six months after arriving in the country. According to news reports, 4,000 people had been granted citizenship in 2016, meaning that the final number is much higher today.

“My friend got his passport in 2018 and he was number 10,000 something. So at least 10,000 people have got the Sudanese citizenship,” says the young man from Syria.

For most people there has been one reason to apply for the Sudanese passport: it opens doors–if not many, then at least more than the Syrian one does. It is rather straightforward for Sudanese citizens to live and work in the Gulf, something that has become nearly impossible for Syrians after the onset of the war.

“I came here thinking of one thing to be honest, to get the passport. It is a chance and I don’t want to look back later in life and feel that I have missed it,” says Rawan.

When she first arrived to Sudan, her mother came with her; the two lived together in Syria and her mother did not want to stay alone. But she recently returned to Damascus. She missed life in Syria too much, says Rawan.

“Me I am doing good so far, I go to the gym and the cafés in Nile Street in the evening. But I had more activities in Syria. I was part of a rangers team, we always went camping and skiing,” she says.

Families scattered around the world

She is the youngest of her siblings, who like many Syrian families have been scattered in different places. Her elder sister and her children left for Algeria in the earlier days of the war, before Syrians had to get a visa to enter.

“I have not seen them since then. My sister cannot leave, not even visit somewhere, because if she leaves the country she cannot return. So it is not possible for us to meet,” says Rawan.

Many Syrian families are in similar situations in the world today, with members spread across different countries, often where it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to meet. For them, Sudan has become a place to go and see each other.

“It is cheaper to meet here than in Lebanon for instance. The visa is expensive there and prices for rent and food are high. You pay 100 dollars per night in a hotel, here you can rent a flat for one month for 300 dollars,” says the young man from coastal Syria.

His family is still in Syria, where he can go and visit for maximum 90 days, with a paper stating that he has a residency in another country. That is the requirement for anyone who otherwise would get drafted to the army.

Illegal passport trade

Exactly one year ago, Mohammad Alard took a flight to Khartoum from Istanbul where he has been living since 2014. Meeting him at the airport were his mother, father and the rest of his family. Visa restrictions had stopped them from visiting him in Turkey and him from seeing them in Saudi Arabia, where they resided until his father’s business went bankrupt after changes in the law for small businesses, and they came to Sudan.

‘When I came here it was the first time I saw them in five years. Now I am trying to get the citizenship in Turkey, but it’s hard. And my brother is trying to get one here in Sudan,’ he says.

Sudanese journalist Abdulmoniem Suleiman has documented how traffickers and others profit illegally from refugees living in Sudan. He says that there has been a growing illicit trade in passports, tailored specifically to Syrians, with links to the highest levels of government. According to his investigative work, there has also been an illicit market, where passports have been sold for much higher sums than the official price of 200 dollars if doing it the legal way.

“It’s a business, that’s why they are doing this. They can earn 10,000, even 15,000 dollars for a passport, because there is a market for it. It’s big business.”

One reason for why Sudan opened up for nationalisation of Syrians, Suleiman says, is that it provided a kind of respite for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, who have received criticism for not accepting refugees in their countries. Abdelwahab El Affendi, a Sudanese political commentator in Qatar, also links it to Sudan’s relationship with the Gulf.

“It has to do with the Syrians who are working in the Gulf, who don’t have valid passports any more and should be thrown out. So there has been an arrangement with Sudan about the citizenship issue,” he says.

“Sudan is playing a useful role these days. It was interesting to see that Omar al-Bashir was the first president to meet with Bashar al-Assad, I am sure that was done with the encouragement of the Saudis and the Emiratis. Immediately after, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus.”

El-Affendi says that Sudan in general has been hospitable—in terms of keeping their closing their borders—to refugees from neighbouring countries, like Chad, Ethiopia and Eritrea. There are also some 7,000 Yemenis in Sudan who have escaped the conflict in their country. In total, Sudan is hosting around 2 million refugees.

In 2016, Sudanese spokespersons were quoted saying that restrictions on Syrians would not be imposed ‘as long as the Nile is flowing,’ reaffirming the country’s stance to maintain an open door.

But with the overthrow of the former regime, many things are about to change in Sudan. The nationalisation policy of Syrians, says Suleiman, is most probably among them. “It will stop now, they cannot do it anymore. The policies of the old regime will change,” he says.

Sudan and Syria have historically had good relations, and maintained lenient policies on borders and visas. The first Syrian community in Sudan dates back more than one hundred years, to the Anglo-Egyptian conquest of 1898 when people from today’s Lebanon and Syria arrived along with the colonial forces of Herbert Kitchener. A man named Naoum Shoucair, born in Choueifat in today’s Lebanon, was the author of the first major history and geography book on Sudan, and served as the first president of the Syrian Club in Khartoum, which still is a popular meeting point for Syrians in the city. The late Edward Said, in his memoir Out of Place, writes about an uncle who was living in pre-World War I Khartoum.

“A kind of paradise”

Sudan had perhaps 7,000 Syrians before the crisis, mostly involved in trade and commerce. Many of the wartime arrivals have started new enterprises, including restaurants, fast food places and furniture shops.

Dyar, the website founded by Aljerkas, has published several articles about Syrian enterprises, including of a paper napkin manufacturer who is now the largest in Sudan, and the movie The Road to Paradise, which was filmed with a mixed Sudanese, Syrian and Lebanese crew (including Aljerkas as a producer in Sudan). “The title refers to how Sudan has become a kind of paradise for Syrians now,” he says.

In the future, Aljerkas probably plans to stay in Khartoum. He has made friends and built a professional network, and feels attached to the country. “Of course I still have love for Syria, my country. But it is possible to feel affection for more than one place,” he says. Many other Syrians have different thoughts, and some have already left Khartoum. The economic crisis is placing a serious strain on people, and some consider going back to Syria since the security situation appears to have improved. “We have more people now who fly Khartoum to Damascus than the other way around,” says Alnaser, at the travel agency.

Rawan, who has returned to her chair behind the desk in the office, says that her plan first of all is to try and get the citizenship — even if that seems difficult with the new political situation — and then reconsider her options. “I can’t say yet what I will do. But I know that I am not a tree. If I can’t move, I feel like a prisoner. I need to live and feel free,” she says.