Meet Aya Elmileik — Sudanese Minnesotan Al Jazeera Journalist Working to Document the #SudanUprising
Reporting by Lolla Nur, Freelance Community Journalist
Note: This interview took place on November 16, 2021. References to the Sudan protests reflect events up to this date. The interview was lightly edited for readability purposes.
Hi and salam Aya! Tell me about yourself. Where were you born, what do you do and where are you from?
I’m Sudanese American, I live in Doha, Qatar. I’m an audience development and engagement strategist with (the Qatar-based international news channel) Al Jazeera English.
I was born in Sudan and moved to Japan when I was five months old and my early childhood was spent between Japan and Sudan. I was immersed in Japanese culture, went to Japanese schools and Japanese was the first language I spoke. I moved to Minnesota in 2000.
Growing up [abroad], we were just Sudanese. Then we grew up in the US immersed in American culture, so it became Sudanese American. My identity changes depending on where I am. If I’m in Sudan I’m just a Sudanese who happens to live in the US, but to other Sudanese people I’ve noticed we just see each other as Sudanese.
Sudan is your blood. It doesn’t matter if you have dual citizenship, it doesn’t change your identity. But my background as an American is also significant to who I am today.
What was it like being Black/African in Japan?
I was probably one of very few people of color outside of the Japanese identity, but I don’t remember ever having issues being someone who looked different. I had a lot of friends who’d come over to my house and we’d go over to their house. We don’t remember having issues with racism. We didn’t know that concept existed. We knew we looked different but it didn’t play a factor in our everyday lives.
What is like living in Qatar now?
I always describe Qatar as the perfect place for me that brings together my two cultures in one place. I grew up visiting Qatar but never immersed myself in it. I never interacted with Qatari culture [until I moved there], and didn’t understand that there was an expat community. Only 20% [of the population] when I first moved to Qatar in 2014 was original Qataris (and according to the latest numbers, it’s about 11% now).
It’s a mesh of both worlds, a Muslim country [which makes me feel] even more comfortable. The country’s become very modernized, and English is more popular than the Arabic language.
Is there a Sudanese diaspora in Qatar?
There’s a huge Sudanese diaspora in Qatar! Even just my extended family is a lot. My family moved to Qatar almost 40 years ago. Qatar brought in expats, especially from Muslim countries to beef up their military because their population is so small. Their military includes Egyptians, Sudanese and Pakistanis, among other nationalities.
It’s been fun because I’ve never identified much with the Sudanese community in Minnesota, there was always a disconnect. So living in Qatar was the first time outside of my family and friends [where I felt] that I fit into Sudanese culture.
So, you have a really cool job — you’re also a journalist, and work at Al Jazeera English. What is your role there and how have you been able to use your multicultural background to shape narratives about Africa and Sudan?
I never saw myself as a writer. I went into Al Jazeera working with the social media team for Al Jazeera English’s online department and later got interested in writing. I worked with AlJazeera.com (the English channel website) and there wasn’t a strong focus on Sudan, in my opinion. There was an Eritrean Swedish reporter covering Sudan but she had left — and things were starting to boil [in the country] in 2018.
A few of my friends and colleagues were like, “Who do you know who could write?’ And I was like, ‘Why can’t I just do it?’ I never saw myself as that person, but I had the context, I knew the history and who to speak to. So I became the Sudan person the website relied on. Even if I wasn’t necessarily writing, I grew my profile as a Sudanese journalist, as someone who knew the history and ins and outs of the country.
Something I think about as an African diaspora journalist is making sure I’m maintaining objectivity on what’s happening in my home countries. I’m sure there are multiple viewpoints with the Sudan protests. I know you’re not an activist, but you likely have your own views.
How have you been able to accurately report on Sudan while maintaining journalistic integrity and accuracy?
I always go back to my father, who is objective. He’s able to look at things and say, ‘I understand this is how you feel and what you would want, but look at the bigger picture. How’d we get here? Who are the different characters in the situation? And what are we saying about them?’
He grew up in Sudan, no journalism background–but he loves history. He grew up in the 50s in the British colonial era. My father’s generation, we call them very smart because of the education they were offered. A lot of them studied abroad as well.
I also talk to political analysts who have been studying Sudan and look at different conversations to make sure what we’re saying is balanced. I’ve tried to find people on the ground to speak to, though the diaspora plays a big role. It’s not easy to cover something that affects you directly but I’m able to keep a balanced view.
Going back to identity, I’ve seen some Sudanese refer to themselves as both Black and Afro-Arab. I know there’s this whole debate about identity among Sudanese. How do you identify in that milieu of Black, African, (Afro) Arab, etc?
It’s complicated. Everyone in Sudan identifies differently depending on where you’re from and if you live in Sudan or not. As a diaspora we’ve become comfortable identifying as Black. I wouldn’t say that’s the same as [those who live] in Sudan. In some cases, a percentage [who live there] have come to terms with that and love to identify as Black but there’s context also [in relation to] South Sudanese, and whether you’re Muslim or non-Muslim.
In Sudan, people will talk about an African American person as “that Black person” as if “they’re different than us” but they’re the same, we’re literally all Black.
I identify as a Black person fully.
It’s a conversation we have with our parents all the time. The element of being raised in the US, whereas my parents have come to terms with the idea of Blackness with the Black Lives Matter movement. They understand it better, they understand it’s not a bad thing. It shouldn’t be a stigma.
So do elder generations in Sudan/from Sudan identify as Arab then?
They don’t identify as anything other than Sudanese, not even Arab. There’s a connection with the Arab community but there’s also a disconnect because the dialects are so different. The cultures are similar but there are so many differences. The way they [Arabs] see us and the way we see them is different.
Some [Sudanese] do identify as Arab. We moreso claim that we’re Muslim. I’ve never heard a Sudanese person saying “I’m Arab” or “my Arab identity.” It’s never significant for us. It’s more so the fact that we speak Arabic.
Gotcha. You mentioned Blackness within the context of Sudan splitting into Sudan and South Sudan (ie, two different countries). Would you say colorism or ethnicity plays a role in who identifies as Black vs who doesn’t?
There’s a colorism part of it. The colorism within Sudan is, ‘Oh we’re light skin because we have Arab or Egyptian or Turkish ancestry. We’re not like the South Sudanese who are fully African. We’re different because we’re mixed.’
Or superiority based on the fact that we’re not fully African, so it makes us different and superior — which is problematic.
Problematic indeed. So, now back to the Sudan democracy protests. In 2019, I remember Sudanese people and allies changing their profiles to the color blue and using social media to raise awareness. Are you still seeing that type of online virality for the Sudan 2021 protests happening right now?
The #BlueForSudan profile movement was unexpected and unprecedented. It was new, it felt different, like is this actually happening? It felt like what should have been happening with Ethiopia and different parts of the world.
I know right now people feel we’re not getting the same attention as we got last time (in 2019). Last time it was trendy and cool to change your picture to blue and be part of something different — and even (musician) Rihanna posted about it. [The country] was listed on the U.S. terror list. But Sudan is not a sexy story anymore. People who don’t identify with it unfortunately got bored of the same story.
It gets redundant because they think, ‘Nothing changed so what are we gonna do now? You went through a transitional period, so what else can we do now?’
You wrote an article in 2019 about the role of the Sudanese diaspora in supporting protestors. Why has the diaspora been so integral to the success of Sudan’s democracy movement?
The diaspora is significant right now because of the internet. Sudan is in complete black out, and some are using wifi but that’s rare. So the diaspora role is huge, we’re the only ones who can speak on [the protests] and get international attention. The biggest role of the diaspora is making sure the story stays alive. The second the story dies, that’s when dangers will occur and no accountability will be held.
What’s the importance of accountability and using social media to document and communicate what’s happening on the ground in Sudan?
Today (November 16, 2021) at least 16 people died in the Sudan protests. On Twitter, it’s important people share videos as traumatic as that might be, so we record everything that’s happening. There’s so many people collecting things so that there’s an archive for accountability .
What’s been happening has brought together this younger generation of Sudanese in a way that hasn’t been brought together before. We [youth] didn’t know that we’ve been through so many coups and revolutions as a country until [we] started researching.
There’s all these Tiktok, Twitter and Instagram influencers posting who make sure English and French speakers [in the diaspora] also understand the historical context and why it’s significant. [Through social media] the Sudanese community has been able to come together, from Australia, the US, Iceland and all places.
What has the role of art and artists been in Sudan’s democracy movement? Has the government been anti-art?
Art was a big part of the sit-in that took place in 2019. I didn’t have the opportunity to go in 2019 unfortunately but my friend who works with me filmed a lot of it and produced videos. The amount of art that was spread out across the sit in made everyone feel like, ‘Let’s just make this our home.’ The books people were reading, and the art that was there in all forms — whether it was music, graffiti art, performing. There’s a popular graffiti artist named Assil Diab who has made quite a splash, and cartoonist Khalid al Baih (whose art went viral also during the Arab Spring).
The government wasn’t necessarily anti-art but it’s anti-expression, anti-freedom of press, freedom of words. [It’s anti] expressing yourself freely without being reprimanded.
The iconic image of Alaa Salah during the 2019 Sudan revolution in her white thobe reciting poetry and chants is seared in my mind. What has the role of women been in the Sudanese revolutions throughout history?
In Sudan there’s a huge history of women who have made significant moves. Whether in education, the medical field… That’s also something for us to look back on, that women had a place before Omar al-Bashir took power, back when there was a form of democracy. Women were educators, activists, even politicians. They were respected.
The last 30 years, that was sort of wiped off. We were minimized and made to feel as if we didn’t have a place. That’s part of the biggest part of the revolution.
There’s so many women leading the marches, protecting people with their arms wide open, women of all ages whether my age or younger and my mother’s age or older. It’s been beautiful to see because naturally we’ve been accustomed to seeing women taking a backseat but now it’s, ‘No, we do have a place and a voice and we’ll show you.’
It’s also beautiful when you see men trying to protect the women but women saying, ‘No we’ve got this. We appreciate it, but we don’t need it.’
I’m so inspired by your story and the Sudanese people. Where do you see Sudan’s democracy movement going and what goals do you hope will be accomplished?
I’m trying to be optimistic, it’s developing everyday. What’s been made clear from the Sudanese people is that they will not revert back to the old days of military rule. They also are really hurt and feel betrayed by the fact that our revolution was stolen from us. All the work we did, the people who died on the June 3rd, 2019 [Khartoum] Massacre, all that feels like it was thrown away.
Sudanese people are saying we don’t want the transitional government, we gave you a chance with that and you betrayed us. The military had 18 months and then had to transition to a civilian entity, but they did not want democracy. That was the betrayal, and the people will continue to protest. I don’t see a stop until an actual change we’re asking for happens.