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'Since moving to Ireland I have been born again, I want to thank the country for that'

A Sudanese journalist and painter talks about fleeing his home country after receiving death threats.

Nasir Elsafi

I’M NASIR ELSAFI, a Sudanese journalist and painter. I came to Ireland about six months ago and live in a Direct Provision centre in Longford.

Before I left Sudan I worked with a number of human rights organisations that dealt with issues such as women’s rights and fighting illiteracy.

I decided to leave Sudan after death threats and repeated problems with authorities. Since the National Islamic Front took over the government via a coup in 1989, I have been critical of it.

Because of this, I was arrested a number of times. On the last occasion I was tortured for almost four months and my right leg was broken.

I was resisting their attempts to silence me but eventually I started getting death threats from some Islamist movements. I used to write for a number of newspapers but, after I was prevented from practicing journalism, I devoted my time to freelance jobs and painting.

I wrote a film script about a Christian priest who had great influence in contemporary Sudanese history. The Sudanese government’s security forces stopped the project. I then received phone calls telling me I would be killed. So I chose to leave my home.

I chose safety over staying there because I have a family, they were also being threatened. So we had no alternative but to leave. Sudanese authorities are against innovation and art. We moved to a few different places before all these factors pushed me to leave the country.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Video produced by Niamh Heery of Swansong Films

I am a Sunni Muslim. Sufism represents the moderate Islam that is followed by the majority of Sudanese people. It is an Islam of tolerance, not political Islam. The latter is the religion of the government and other jihadist movements such as ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabism. They belong to hostile Islam. Sudanese people have been brought up in a moderate environment that recognises and respects other cultures.

The International Criminal Court has accused President Omar al-Bashir of committing war crimes, murder and rape in Darfur.

His government suppresses freedom of speech and many journalists have been arrested. Some of my journalist colleagues have been flogged for carrying out their work. Under Islamic Sharia law in Sudan, if a woman goes out without a headscarf, or wearing trousers, she will be punished. Our country is full of violations against human rights.

I’m really afraid that the situation in Sudan is getting worse. The situation there is liable to explode because protesters are calling for the government to step down. The government is ready to bring war from provinces to the capital, Khartoum. There are arrests and death. It is a deepening crisis.

‘I studied Irish literature’

I chose to come to Ireland for a number of reasons. I had read about the country and knew that a lot of Sudanese doctors moved here. Ireland is a quiet country – artists and writers like quiet places. I had studied Irish literature, such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.

I also admired Ireland’s neutrality, the fact that it doesn’t intervene in international conflicts. Irish society is a peaceful and understanding society that is open to other cultures.

I knew about European society and values through my work. I have some problems with the language but I’m learning English and will become better at it with time.

Irish authorities gave me a warm welcome. They knew where I was coming from and how I had been treated. They listened to me and granted me residency here for six months. The way they welcomed me made me feel like I’m a human being. It was very different to how I had been treated in Sudan.

Since moving to Ireland I feel like I have been born again, people here are tolerant, progressive and understanding. Ireland has provided safety to me and others, I want to thank the country for that.

Some people come here from places of conflict. They don’t have any knowledge of Irish or European culture or society. If refugees and asylum seekers could be taught about this, it would help them understand more about their new home. Immigrants must respect the laws and values of the country which they move to – in Ireland, those laws and values are based on diversity and freedom.

As well as teaching them about the customs and history of the country, I believe they need to be allowed to work so they can fully integrate into society. These people have skills and energy and need an outlet.

Since I arrived here I have been focusing on my art, and teaching other people at the Direct Provision centre how to paint. Painting can be used to help refugees and asylum seekers integrate with the wider community, and it gives them the opportunity to express their emotions. I have participated in a few exhibitions in Longford and Dublin. I’m thankful to the organisers for asking me to get involved.

The themes I explore in my work are peace and tolerance. Art can connect people from
different ethnic origins, it builds bridges and narrows the distance between different cultures. It is the only common language we all have.

Video produced by Niamh Heery of Swansong Films

Supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund and the Tony Ryan Trust

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Nasir Elsafi

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