Andrew South chats with Sudanese exile Raga Gibreel. It was the London Olympics in 2012, that made her appreciate how important sport could be in bringing communities together.
I met Raga in Folkestone to learn more about her own extraordinary journey and how she has taken on one of the most difficult of challenges, helping people in a war-torn country.
Constant civil war
Raga comes from Sudan – a country that has been devastated by almost constant civil war and which has led to the creation of the world’s newest nation, South Sudan. Sudan was in conflict between 1955 and 1972 and again from 1983 to 2005.
A further civil war has raged in South Sudan from 2013 until February this year. Millions of people were killed in the genocide, and millions more were displaced, sometimes several times over.
“The story is very similar to that of the rise of Hitler in Germany in the 1930s, when minority groups were persecuted,” explained Raga. “Except in Sudan’s case, it was the Islamist majority who persecuted Christians, basically for being the ‘wrong type of people’ who didn’t fit their ideal profile, language or religion.”
She continued: “The Government recruited children to fight their own people, as at least they were being fed and paid, because, in reality, there were no other job prospects. Some people had no religious connections and there was no ‘umbrella’ to protect them – they were educated to speak Arabic without a trace of any accent.
“However, there was no common interest, no clear vision – it was chaotic, as people lost any idea of a cause to fight for. Thousands of people were being killed, but it was not being reported to the Sudanese people – there was a great deal of internal oppression.
“It was a matter of day-to-day survival, as many people had lost their mobility [limbs] or their eyesight as a result of the conflict. The two countries essentially ‘swapped’ refugees with 200,000 moving from Sudan to South Sudan, and another 200,000 fleeing from South Sudan to Sudan, but the migration remained invisible.”
The YIDA Camp
The YIDA Camp (YIDA stands for Youth Initiative for Development in Africa) is 20 miles inside the South Sudanese border. It has become the main entry point for refugees from South Kordofan to the north in Sudan, and is now operated by the UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency.
“I didn’t feel strong enough to take on the Sudanese government at that time [it would still be too dangerous for her to go back to Sudan], but I decided to use language tools and method to unify and bring attention to the humanitarian situation in a way that would be easy to understand and connect to.”
Coming to the UK
Raga had studied at the Sudan University for Science and Technology and became a journalist for the Citizen newspaper in South Sudan, which helped her to understand the plight of the region’s people and sparked her passion to make a difference.
“I came to the UK in 2008 and in the same week, I was earning £5 an hour handing out leaflets at railway stations!” she says. “I then worked for Saga Homecare which gave me the opportunity to travel around the UK. I met some great people and learned so much about the British way of life from ordinary people. What it did confirm to me was that despite all our various backgrounds, we are just one species, but we need validation as humans. I was able to relate to the people I was caring for and that was my own validation. Life is too short for divisions, and I was constantly asking myself how I could make someone’s life better. I have worked every day I have been here and put much of my own money into the charity.”
Somehow, she also managed to fit in a course in agriculture at Reading University.
The Green Kordofan mission
In 2010, the Green Kordofan mission and website were launched to tell the story of the refugee problem – the people who have not only been affected by the conflict in Sudan and in particular in Darfur, but also the increasingly devastating effects of drought.
“People need to understand the story of Sudan – I find it difficult to hear some of these personal stories, while criminals are operating across the borders”Raga Gibreel
Many of those who have arrived from across The Channel have come from war-torn countries like Sudan, and who will continue to do so. “Young people are more adventurous, but not happy that they have had to flee from their native country,” Raga continued. “Many will have mental trauma when they are locked up, so they will be a challenge for the authorities – but we need to help them to make use of their lives. They are a resource to employ to help the economy.
“I fully understand concerns about resources, but imagine five people queuing at a waterhole one day, only to have a hundred or even a thousand queueing the next day – now that is real pressure on resources!”
The Green Kordofan team consists of an impressive group of campaigners, human rights activists and charity professionals, including Patron Olivia Warham MBE who is also is a director of ‘Waging Peace’ and currently chair of Article1, a charity that supports refugees from Sudan to build a meaningful life in the UK. She has written many articles about Sudan in the national press and has been a key inspiration for Raga in establishing the Green Kordofan organisation.
“This was a huge step for Raga to take when she came here,” Olivia told me from her Lincolnshire home. “She was a non-British refugee herself and yet she displayed a genuine tenacity and ability to know what she wanted to achieve.
“Most of the Sudanese we have worked with are incredibly brave, but in a quiet way, and have proved to be tremendously resilient. We were able to provide Raga with initial support and advice in various ways, even including helping her to open a bank account for the charity. But from those early days, she has gone from strength to strength, and I really have a lot of respect for her.”
Raga’s ability to speak passionately about her mission is clearly evident, and it is easy to see how she has garnered the support of influential individuals. One such is BAFTA-winning Folkestone actress, Jessica Hynes, who she describes as her ‘train buddy’ when they find themselves travelling up to London together.
It was at the Olympics in 2012, when the world descended on London, that made her appreciate how important sport could be in bringing communities together. “It was confirmation of the power of sport and its inspiration,” she said.
Under the Green Kordofan banner, Raga began to see how sport could inspire and help the lives of children in the Yida Camp. “At first, I was frightened of being photographed and being seen as the ‘front person’, and our vision, such as it was, was quite broad. But by 2014, it had become much clearer – it was about unifying people, building alliances and being clear about how to do it.”
In 2014, Green Kordofan had signed up 45 girls at Yida to its sports-inspired mission, which became 100 by the end of the year. And now there are 1000 youngsters regularly involved in competitive running, netball, football and even cycling, with bicycles having been donated by individuals and by Halfords in Folkestone.
“We currently have five employees at the camp, but within five years I want to have 10 full-time employees and 50 volunteers, with internships providing mentoring. We need to create a wholesome network of support and advice for girls and boys, especially about body image [FMG is still practised there] and many of them have been mentally and physically traumatised by the effects of war.”
- Raga’s own career in the UK has blossomed from her days as a carer for Saga. She has worked for Kent Refugee Help, a charity which provides support for refugees and migrants who find themselves in Kent and London prisons. She has also acted as an interpreter.
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