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Escaping Sudan’s years-long civil war was just the first hurdle to this American family’s ‘dream come true’

“Tears were streaming down my face,” El-Fadel Arbab told CBS News of his joyful reunion with his wife and two young sons. “I just wanted to cry from all the happiness.”

After 332 anxious days as a result of the war that has been raging in Sudan for a year now, the Sudanese-American’s worries, work and wait to be reunited with his family finally came to an end.

One day in late March, Arbab waited in the arrivals hall of Boston’s Logan International Airport, holding a poster decorated with red hearts and yellow smiley faces that he had cut out himself. In English and Arabic were the sentences: “We love you!” and “We’re glad you’re here!”

The security doors opened and three-year-old Ehab and seven-year-old Eyad, both dressed in blue suits and ties, entered the United States for the first time. Zienab Abaker, wearing a peach-colored head covering, smiled and hugged her husband.

El-Fadel Arbab greets his wife Zienab Abaker and their two sons, 3-year-old Ehab and 7-year-old Eyad, at Boston’s Logan International Airport in late March 2024 after arriving from Saudi Arabia.

Thanks to El Fadel Arbab

A nightmare, followed by “a dream come true”

Arbab’s family fled Sudan’s embattled capital Khartoum with a United Nations convoy just two weeks after the war broke out. They reached the port of Sudan on the country’s east coast, joining millions of others trying to escape the bloodshed as rival military and paramilitary commanders battled for control of the country.

A U.S. Navy ship took Abaker and her boys, along with 300 other refugees, east across the Red Sea to the port of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. But by then her husband Arbab, who worked in Portland, Maine, had lost contact with his family.

More than 800,000 people could flee the conflict in Sudan, the UN warns


“No Wi-Fi. No phone. We were checking to see if there was any news or anything,” he said.

Then during the final sprint he saw a photo of his wife and boys in one article on CBSNews.compart of a series of reports from our team sailed from Jeddah to Port Sudan and then back again on a Saudi Navy ship carrying refugees. The photo, taken by a Reuters photographer, shows Abaker and the boys being screened by a US soldier in Port Sudan. At least it was proof that they had reached the coast safely.

“I was just in tears,” he said. “It was like a dream come true.”

U.S. citizens arrive for evacuation from the port as clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese army continue, in Port Sudan, Sudan, April 30, 2023.
U.S. citizens arrive for evacuation from the port, amid ongoing clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese army, in Port Sudan, Sudan, April 30, 2023. At the table in yellow


He expected his wife and sons to arrive within weeks, so he quickly rented a two-bedroom apartment and furnished it with donations from the community where he has lived for the past two decades.

But his family’s journey was just beginning. They reached Saudi Arabia, but there they got stuck.

Although Arbab’s sons are American citizens by birth, his wife is not. The family had filed all the necessary paperwork for her to obtain a visa to enter the US before the outbreak of war, but it had not yet been issued.

Arbab jumped through U.S. immigration hurdle after hurdle, waving the photo of his family in Port Sudan at State Department officials in the U.S. and embassy officials in Saudi Arabia, while also working three jobs to support his family 6,000 miles away. maintain and pay for the new apartment in Maine.

Meanwhile, Abaker was stuck in a hotel, caring for her sons alone, not allowed to leave and in constant fear of being arrested and deported back to Sudan. The younger boy, traumatized by the conflict he had escaped, stayed awake at night and slept during the day.

“She is strong and patient,” Arbab said, “but had no room for happiness.”

Finally there was reason to smile.

‘The only happiness was when she got her passport. They say you get the visa and you go to the United States with your husband. Then she felt like she could be happy,” he recalls.

El-Fadel Arbab and Zienab Abaker stand with their children outside their home in Maine after being reunited nearly a year after Abaker fled the raging civil war in their native Sudan, only to find himself stuck in Saudi Arabia waiting for a US visa.

Thanks to El Fadel Arbab

Arbab said his family were the first Sudanese nationals to escape their limbo in Saudi Arabia and reach the US, for which he is extremely grateful. But he added that “dozens and dozens” of people are being held in similar circumstances.

War traps millions in ‘apocalyptic catastrophe’

Since the eruption on April 15, 2023, there has been no trace of the brutal conflict between Sudanese forces and the rival paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces. Before the conflict broke out on April 15, 2023, the rival generals leading these well-armed groups carried out an action. to jointly stage a coup against a fragile transitional government that had tried to steer Sudan towards democracy.

According to the United Nations, the war has killed 14,000 men, women and children since the war. More than 8.2 million people have been forced from their homes, while those who have been able to flee abroad and countless others seek whatever respite they can find in a country with little access to food, running water or health care .

“Khartoum has collapsed into a war zone over the past year and millions of Sudanese are still trapped there, effectively blockaded,” Alan Boswell, Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group think tank, told CBS News.

What you need to know about Sudan’s deadly civil war


“Millions of Sudanese are plunged into famine and could starve this year,” he said, calling it “the kind of apocalyptic catastrophe that seems like something only for the history books.”

On Monday, the grim one-year anniversary of the war in Sudan, France hosted an international conference to raise money for the war-torn country from Western countries and Gulf states.

Aid shortage as world ‘focuses on the new’

Speaking to CBS News from the sidelines of the conference, Boswell said the humanitarian mission was about ensuring both funding and security for Sudan – both of which, he pointed out, are seriously lacking. Although the UN estimates that $2.7 billion is urgently needed to help the people of Sudan, only $166 million has been received so far – just 6% of the total.

“Ideally, there would be an announcement of hundreds of millions more dollars committed for humanitarian aid in Sudan. But a big part of the problem is that the Sudanese military’s side in the war is actually blocking food aid in areas where they don’t live.” t control, that’s a big part of the country.”

The war in Sudan celebrates its one-year anniversary

Yasin Demirci/Anadolu/Getty

Late Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that another $2.1 billion in aid to Sudan had been pledged at the conference, but he did not provide an overview of who the donors were or a timeline on when the money might actually arrive on the ground. to help.

Arbab told CBS News from his home in Portland that, as far as he could tell, “as long as more wars start somewhere,” powerful Western governments will simply continue to focus on the new and forget the old.

“It did not go unnoticed that the only time the world really focused on the war in Sudan was evacuating its own citizens,” Boswell agreed. ‘Then interest in the war in Sudan quickly disappeared.’

But he warned that “the conflict may not remain within Sudan,” noting that the African nation is surrounded by other fragile states, many of which are also in the grip of conflict, “and that there is a fairly high risk that instability is spreading.”

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