Nearly 20 years of political strife and civil war ensure that images of death and displacement mark Western perceptions of Sudan. Indeed, the nation is known for lostness—the Lost Boys, 1,000 lives lost daily from war-related famine and disease, 4 million citizens forced to flee their homes and their farms. For those same 20 years, Ismail Abdalla has maintained a lifeline.
Abdalla, an associate professor of history at the College, helped form the Sudan-American Foundation for Education (SAFE) in 1985, an organization that has sent the equivalent of more than $4 million worth of educational equipment, books and supplies into his crippled homeland.
“We believe,” Abdalla said, “that instead of just food and shelter, if they take care of the head they can take care of themselves.”
Preserving Western knowledge
Abdalla sees himself neither as warrior, crusader nor even hero for his efforts during Sudan's dark days. He is merely a person who has stepped in to meet a need.
“Western knowledge nearly was lost in Sudan,” he explained, Since a military-Islamist coalition took power in 1989, the majority of funds for education were diverted toward military ends. Funds that remained were directed toward the East.
“The whole idea was to shut off Western influence and openness to science and technology and economics by depending totally on the Middle Eastern sources,” Abdalla said. “We thought that was short-sighted. Books about the Koran, and the prophet traditions are valuable, but they are not what students need.”
SAFE collects the books and materials from a variety of sources. After sending a large shipment of 10,000 donated books last year, the organization specifically thanked The Johns Hopkins Graduate Muslim Student Association, The George Washington University Bookstore and The Rotary Club of Parole (Annapolis), Md. Abdalla personally has solicited donations from the Williamsburg Regional Library, and, last semester, a William and Mary team led by Meredith Sclater ('07) transported nearly 600 volumes collected on campus to the SAFE shipment facility in Maryland. In Sudan, the books and supplies are distributed through Ahfad University, which works with librarians and educators throughout the country to make sure the volumes are utilized where they are needed.
“I think this is the best thing I've ever done for my people,” Abdalla said. “When you go there and see the faces of the people who are reading, who have found a book they never dreamed they would own, it is incredible.
“I get e-mails from time to time saying that without you I would never be able to study sociology, or psychology, or whatever-things that are absolutely critical to a university education.”
Prepared for better times
Today, Abdalla sees signs that the situation in Sudan is improving. At the beginning of 2005, final protocols toward a peace between the government in the northern part of the country and its adversaries in the southern part were being prepared for signatures. Meanwhile, the country's economy, bolstered by the export of crude oil, is growing—a rate of 7 percent was recorded for 2004. Despite continued insurgency in the western part of the nation—the area where members of Abdalla's family still live (he visits them at least every other year)—there is cause for cautious optimism.
“If you go to the capital, Khartoum, it is booming,” Abdalla said. “A lot of construction is going on. You are beginning to have traffic congestion. Five-star hotels are appearing.” Although the government is Islamic leaning, it is supporting a free market, he explained.
Abdalla hopes the efforts of SAFE during the past decades have positioned many of his countrymen to participate in the promise of a stable and growing Sudan.
“If peace prevails, which I hope, then the generation we've helped educate will be poised for taking off, and it will connect seriously with the West,” he said. “This effort, then, will have bridged the gap. Some of my fellow teachers in Sudan actually have called what we've done as intravenous—you know, you go to the hospital and they rush something into your veins to keep you alive.”