An extraordinary story of the first Sudanese to be granted Asylum in the UK
Rabie Hassanein El-Sayed – The first Sudanese to be granted Asylum in the UK
At the monthly meeting of Stratford’s Amnesty International Group on Wednesday 13th June, Abeer El-Sayed, who lives in the town, gave a fascinating talk about the experiences of her father Rabie Hassanein El-Sayed who was to become the first refugee from Sudan to be granted asylum in the UK.
Between 1898 and 1955 Sudan was effectively a British colony. However, the north and the south Sudan were administered as separate provinces – a policy which was to prove disastrous. When Sudan became independent in 1955, many southerners felt betrayed because governmental institutions were dominated by the Arabic speakers of the north. The politicians and civil servants of the south had been trained in English and of the 800 posts vacated by the British, only 4 were given to southerners. As a consequence there followed 17 years of bloody civil war – a period in which thousands of northern-born professionals working in the south were massacred.
Rabie Hassanein El-Sayed was born in 1940, and as a teenager he was one of the leaders of the Youth Wing of the Democratic Unionist Party which had campaigned for independence from Britain and the establishment of a federal state in which there was to be no discrimination between north and south and in which the civil rights and liberties of all the people would be respected. In 1969 General Nimerie led a successful military coup and immediately abolished parliament and all political parties. Rabie was one of many political activists to be rounded up and subjected to a show trial. He was sentenced to death by hanging, but on appeal the sentence was commuted to one of 10 years imprisonment. Although he was in fact released after two years he had been subjected to torture, and the kidney failure he suffered in later life was, according to his doctors, attributable to that torture.
On his release from prison, Rabie made the decision to seek refuge in the UK, bringing his wife and two very young children with him. Rabie was a fluent English speaker and following the completion of his post-graduate studies at Nottingham University, worked to provide for his family, but also continued as a political activist, travelling widely to promote democracy in north Africa. The model he always advocated was that of Britain. He was immensely impressed by a democratic system where all could vote and, should the people will it, governments could be changed smoothly and without bloodshed. As a man of great energy, idealism and determination, Rabie established a wide-reputation as a writer and political activist. In 1977 Rabie was invited to take up asylum by the British Government to help facilitate his campaigning for democracy. However, things were a great deal more difficult for his wife. With her indefatigable husband doing so much travelling, she often felt very isolated – a stranger in a strange land. The Sudanese regime would not allow her to return to visit her family and they were not allowed to visit her.
In 1985 General Nimeiri’s regime was overthrown and a coalition of political parties emerged to form a government. Rabie was invited to return to take up a ministerial post. However, by this time he was experiencing serious health problems of a kind which could not have been treated in Sudan. Instead he accepted a post as Cultural Attache to the Sudanese Embassy. This was in recognition for the many years of unstinting service to the cause of democracy in Sudan. This new position was also immensely gratifying for his wife, because she now was able to associate with numbers of other wives from the same background as herself. Unfortunately, this period of democracy lasted only 3 years for it was replaced by the tyranny of yet another military coup. Rabie, of course, lost his government position, but he did not lose his campaigning zeal, for he went back to the exhaustive and exhausting business of arguing for democracy in whichever forum he could find. And despite needing a kidney transplant he continued in this way until his untimely death in 2000. It is at least one mark of credit to the thoroughly undemocratic Sudanese regime that they allowed Rabie’s last wish – to be buried next to his grandfather in the village where he had been born.