By Siraj Bajwa
The BIRE (Black Immigrants and Refugee Equity) Program Story Series is a storytelling effort accompanying the BIRE program aiming to highlight and share the diverse and unique experiences of Black American Muslim immigrants through text, photos, and videos. The series’ goal is to humanize the Black American Muslim immigrant story and simultaneously discover the needs of various Black American immigrant communities to address those needs.
Amna Elsayed is a Sudanese American Muslim immigrant with a Doctorate in Pharmacy from the University of California, San Francisco. She is the founder and Executive Director of the Sudanese American Professional Society (SAPS), a non-profit organization dedicated to providing tools and knowledge for the empowerment and professional development of the Sudanese American community. She spends her free time with family and friends, trying new foods and enjoying old ones, like Salata Aswad, a Sudanese dish consisting of cooked eggplant mixed with yogurt and seasoned with black pepper. Elsayed’s story follows her immigration to America and her journey of giving back to her community by creating SAPS to give Sudanese Americans the resources they need to thrive.
Amna Elsayed gleefully glides through the front yard of her family home, filled with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. The young girl, determined, is searching for sticks to make dolls, an activity that occupied much of the time of children in the Sudanese village of Al-Jazirah.
Elsayed’s home is her grandmother’s large, bustling hub of family. Constantly surrounded by relatives, Elsayed is raised by an entire, tight-knit village in every sense of the word.
“A lot of villages are founded by one grandfather, and then everybody in the village is related, and they’re all family. They all know you. Growing up, I could go out anytime I wanted. The kids ran everywhere, and there was never really any danger. If anybody sees you and you need help, they know you’re related to them somehow, some way. It felt very safe. You knew everybody. When you go to the store, the guy at the store knew you.”
Many families in Sudan mirrored the dynamics of Elsayed’s, which included a father working abroad and a mother at home raising the children. In her case, Elsayed’s father worked in Saudi Arabia. He eventually got the opportunity to immigrate to the United States. A common sentiment among the Sudanese people was, “If you want a better life, you don’t stay in Sudan.” After settling in America, Elsayed’s father brought his family, including fourth grader Elsayed, to Torrance, California.
“I remember thinking when we were coming to the United States, ‘I don’t want to come here.’ I think a lot of people say, ‘Oh, you’re going to America, you’re so lucky.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I don’t wanna go to America.’ I remember crying a lot when I first came here.”
Elsayed found an important factor that caused her immigration to be a reluctant one was her solid Sudanese core identity. She held tightly onto her culture and language, hesitant to accept America as her new home.
“Sudan was all I knew, so it was a complete culture shock. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t understand the culture, I had no idea what was going on—and then I started school. I felt like such an outsider. They would pull me aside and literally show me a picture of a cat because how are you supposed to teach English, the alphabet, and such basic things to somebody who’s in fourth grade? There was just so much that I didn’t know about the culture here, and I think part of me didn’t even want to learn it because I was just trying to hold onto my Sudanese identity.”
“When I share my story, I’m sharing everybody’s story from Sudan. It’s just having the world learn about us because oftentimes, we’re so forgotten.”Amna Elsayed
When people found out Elsayed was Sudanese, strange questions always followed that further alienated her. Questions like “Oh, so, like, do you get to school on like an elephant?” and “Do you have cars?” Still, Elsayed made sure to share her Sudanese identity with everyone she met.
“I make sure everybody knows I’m Sudanese. If you meet anyone who knows me, they’ll know that I am Sudanese. They’ll be like, ‘Oh, you’re the only person from Sudan I’ve ever met.’ I don’t think I’ve ever really identified as African American or Black. I’m Sudanese American because I think African American or Black American are such general terms. We’re so diverse. There are so many different cultures encompassed through that. For me, I want people to meet somebody who is Sudanese. To know that this is a person from Sudan because then when I share my story, I’m sharing everybody’s story from Sudan. It’s just having the world learn about us because oftentimes, we’re so forgotten. Every time a war happens, there’s no news about us. There’s none of that. For me, it’s kind of my own small way of making sure that we’re represented and that people know that this is who I am.”
It wasn’t until the seventh grade, after facing repeated ridicule for her accent for years, that Elsayed made the decision to wholeheartedly learn English. After dedicating herself to mastering English, she was able to leave English as a Second Language classes and her accent behind, ultimately beginning the path towards accepting America as her new home just as she was finishing middle school and transitioning to the universe of public American high school.
Entering a new level of education posed new obstacles for Elsayed, the primary one being her lack of knowledge of college preparation. While born and raised Americans may have regular exposure to the importance of Advanced Placement classes, the SATs, and extracurriculars, Elsayed did not. She didn’t know members of her community who had completed high school and entered college, making college preparation a frighteningly foreign endeavor.
“For the first time, standing out is going to work in my favor. The fact that I was true to my identity for so long, now I can use that.”Amna Elsayed
“In Sudan, extracurriculars weren’t required. My parents didn’t know any of that because in Sudan, you just take an exam, and whatever number you get, that’s what college you matched into. They didn’t care about extracurriculars, volunteer hours, there were no SATs. Those things were not familiar to my parents, and I think for me, I was probably one of the oldest kids in the Sudanese community. I had nobody who was in front of me who would tell me all these things. So, I remember high school was pretty much just stumbling my way through, trying to figure things out.”
Elsayed gives her gratitude to her past teachers who saw something special in her and walked her through college preparation in high school, filling the gap between her and her classmates. They explained what she needed to do, wrote letters of recommendation for her, and advised her on which organizations she should join. Still, for the most part, she had to embark on this journey alone.
Confronting the personal statement was a unique phase in the application process for Elsayed. While she once again had to start from scratch for something her classmates had been reminded of for years, she realized, “For the first time, standing out is going to work in my favor. The fact that I was true to my identity for so long, now I can use that.”
After doing extensive research as well as constructing and submitting a strong application, Elsayed was admitted to one of the most competitive universities in the country: the University of Southern California (USC).
For many immigrants and children of immigrants, healthcare presents itself as one of the few viable, reliable careers, but for Elsayed, pharmacy became a calling. The summer after Elsayed matriculated at USC, she visited her family back in Sudan and discovered a severe need for medical and pharmaceutical services. As a high school graduate, she already held a level of authority in the village as the “American Girl.” The residents of her village had already begun to call her a doctor and ask her for advice on their medications.
“They would see me, and they’re like, ‘I have this medicine, how do I take it?’ I would start googling things and looking things up for them. Throughout the process, I learned that, oh my God, people will take medications that have been expired for a long time, or they would share medicine, as one neighbor would be like, ‘Oh, I have this, I went to the doctor the other day for the same thing. And they gave me this, you should just take it.’”
The lack of awareness of safe drug use in her community made Elsayed realize that pursuing an education in pharmacy could allow her to give back to her people. She thought that maybe she could return to Sudan and open a pharmacy or educate people.
University provided many more opportunities and resources for Elsayed to utilize in her career exploration and graduate school preparation. The Muslim Student Association allowed her to network with other Muslims with similar career goals. After once again putting together and submitting a strong application, Elsayed was accepted to one of the nation’s most competitive pharmacy schools: the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
Elsayed’s initial challenge with UCSF was convincing her parents to allow her to live away from home. In her culture, women are expected to live at their family’s house. Moving to another city and living on your own was unheard of and a venture into the unknown. Eventually, both Elsayed and her parents concluded that attending pharmacy school at UCSF was an opportunity that could not be missed, and she moved to San Francisco, which would be her home for the next four years.
Higher education also changed Elsayed’s understanding of her religion. Growing up in Sudan, in her totally Muslim village, culture and religion were one and the same. In college, she came face-to-face with the reality that much of what she associated with Islam and its teachings were rooted in Sudanese culture rather than scripture. The American setting accentuated this experience by highlighting Elsayed’s Muslim identity as an entity separate from ethnicity, with its own implications and repercussions.
Even though her years in pharmacy school were consumed by her studies, Elsayed began to reflect on her story. She had started without the ability to speak the English language, and now, here she was at one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in America. She had reached a point at which she could begin guiding the youth of her community to educational success.
“With my community, I was seeing a lot of people who were staying in community college for four or five years or who didn’t know what they were doing, no idea how to make it through the educational system here. I decided, ‘I need to start something.’”
Elsayed shared her concerns and ideas with her community, but it wasn’t until the end of pharmacy school and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that one of her mom’s friends reached out and connected her with two others who she thought could aid Elsayed’s mission. Together, they formed an organization that would become exactly what Elsayed needed as a young Sudanese American immigrant student in America: The Sudanese American Professional Society (SAPS).
The first six months of the project were spent solidifying its mission and vision to make it a sustainable, structured, and organized establishment. When SAPS went public, it received an outpouring of support from the Sudanese American community. Parents of high school and college students were especially excited about the idea: While they were trying their best to help their kids succeed academically and professionally, their educational system was so wildly different from their kids’ that SAPS became a beacon of hope. Elsayed was a familiar member of their community, one who spoke their language and could relate to their children, ready to mentor their youth and share her experiences. She virtually became a big sister to the Sudanese American community.
SAPS began providing a wide variety of education and professional resources for Sudanese American youth, not only in Southern California but throughout the United States. Over the past three years, they’ve hosted workshops on how to apply for financial aid, how to improve your LinkedIn profile, informational sessions on how to write a personal statement and build a resume, interview preparation sessions, a mentorship program, and more.
“We’re really trying to create a community where people feel like not only can they ask their questions, but they feel, ‘If I am going through this, there’s someone else in the community who’s been through it as well, who’s going into that field, who can help me out.’ Those of us who have already done it, we’re trying to make it easier for those who are going through it now.”
Elsayed finds the most urgent need in her community is access to education and scholarships.
“I know for a lot of immigrants, a big thing is, ‘How do you pay for school?’ A lot of people who come here work low-income jobs, so they can’t help their kids out when they go to college. So, a lot of these kids end up opting not to go to college because they would rather work and earn some money than actually go to school, which defeats the purpose of why their parents came here in the first place—a better life for their kids. It’s just this cycle over and over again. We know that there are scholarships out there.”
One of SAPS’ board members received thousands of dollars in scholarships, getting his master’s program and housing paid for. Scholarships exist, but lack of awareness about them and fear of the unknown prevents the Sudanese American community from accessing them.
“I think educating people that these are safe programs that you can use is important, and I think what helps them is word of mouth. Having someone from their own community who’s tried it, who says, ‘I’ve worked with CAIR [Council on American-Islamic Relations]’ or ‘I’ve worked with these organizations that work with these programs, and they’re safe. This is how you fill out the application, and this is how you do it.’”
SAPS has become an established nonprofit organization, and its board is currently working on creating SAPS-specific scholarships in addition to fundraising. They’ve participated in resource fairs, including a Community Resource Fair hosted by CAIR-LA and the Islamic Society of Orange County.
“I definitely see a change now in the generation that’s after me. There’s a lot of us in the Sudanese community who have made it, who have finished school, who are professionals now, and a lot of us have that desire to say, ‘This is how you do it.’ There’s definitely going to be a change in the next generations where it’s going to be easy. We want to make sure the next generation does higher than what we did so that we are always making progress.”
Siraj Bajwa is a Communications Intern at CAIR-LA. He is a second-year Literary Journalism major at the University of California, Irvine. In his free time, he enjoys writing, reading, taking walks in nature, reflecting on the Quran, and spending time with his family.