Different yet similar
Growing up in Sudan, I participated in several protests against President Omar al-Bashir and his dictatorial regime’s systematic oppression of civil liberties and political freedom.
Al-Bashir’s security forces regularly used rubber bullets, tear gas and even live ammunition to brutally disperse and, in some cases, kill protesters.
To my surprise, earlier this month, I saw a similar scene near the White House when I participated in the protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality.
I never thought such a thing could happen in a country like the United States. Police officers used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up crowds so that President Trump could make his way to St. John’s Church for a photo opportunity. This use of force combined with seeing military tanks on the streets of Washington, DC, and watching one video after another of police officers killing Black men in this country reminded me of the very reasons why I became a refugee in the first place.
When I arrived in Fargo in 2009 directly from the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya, I knew no one and nothing about the place. At the time I could only speak Arabic and two other Sudanese languages, in addition to some Swahili. All I had was a belief that everything was possible in America. Within five years of my arrival, I was able to earn a college degree, become a citizen, and start my profession working for US Senator Heidi Heitkamp, and eventually moved to Washington, DC, to work on international affairs.
Fargo is where I first experienced racial profiling by the police. I was driving on Broadway downtown when I was stopped by a white cop and ordered to get out of my car. The officer demanded I remain pushed against my car with my hands on my head and thoroughly searched me without explaining why he stopped me in the first place. After checking my record and asking me a few questions, he let me go. My friend who was in the car reacted: “This is racial profiling, man.” “Perhaps,” I replied. Although I grew up in a war-torn country, this altercation was certainly one of the scariest moments of my life.
As a naturalized citizen, I didn’t fully understand the depth of systematic racism in America until I started working in the field of international development, conflict resolution and human rights. My work afforded me the opportunity to compare and contrast systems of oppression in America to that of the countries I work on, including my birth country of Sudan.
For example, in Sudan, state institutions are intentionally built to favor individuals who come from certain tribal backgrounds and religious affiliations. If you belong to an “Arab” tribe, which automatically meant you’re Muslim, and happen to have a lighter skin color, then you don’t have much to worry about. The public order law enforcement police wouldn’t bother to go after you unless you do something really bad. On the other hand, if you’re of an African descent and happen to have a darker skin tone, you’re the police’s main target.
Similarly, I came to learn in this country that one’s skin color determines one’s relations with the police.
I’m very surprised by the critics of the Black Lives Matter movement. This criticism reflects a clear lack of understanding of how we as a country promote our foreign policy objectives abroad. Our government spends about $50 billion dollars per year in foreign aid. A good sum of this amount goes to non-governmental grassroots organizations that deploy similar tactics and strategies as the Black Lives Matter Movement to seek systematic change. I personally have worked on local capacity building programs that did just that.
As a foreign policy professional, I often wonder why America is willing to spend billions of dollars to promote democratic values abroad while it ignores its own structural flaws.
Despite all of its problems, I still believe America is where impossibilities are possible. The realization of the objectives of the Black Lives Matter movement is possible. It’s the right thing to do for our country. I know it is difficult to be hopeful in the face of uncertainty, but if not in America, where else in this world should we be optimistic?
Mohy Omer is a program officer for the Middle East and North Africa team at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. This letter was originally published by InForum on July 2, 2020.