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People fleeing Sudan face uncertain futures in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and beyond

A man is assisted by Saudi commandos as he gets off a tugboat near Port Sudan and onto a Saudi warship that will travel across the Red Sea to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. May ‎2, ‎2023.
Aya Batrawy/NPR
A man is assisted by Saudi commandos as he gets off a tugboat near Port Sudan and onto a Saudi warship that will travel across the Red Sea to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. May ‎2, ‎2023.
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When fighting broke out on April 15 in Sudan's capital between the country's armed forces and tens of thousands of militia fighters loyal to a rival general, Khartoum's residents had to make a quick and painful choice: Stay or leave?

For those who chose to leave Sudan, most headed north and crossed into Egypt. For those holding foreign passports, many headed east to Port Sudan, where naval vessels carried people across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia. Thousands of others have crossed into Chad, South Sudan and other neighboring African countries. In total, more than 350,000 people have fled Sudan since the fighting began around six weeks ago.

Lives changed overnight. There was no time to obtain passports for newborns or renew expired passports. There was no time to request visas or pick up passports from embassies that abruptly shuttered and airlifted diplomats out. There was no time to withdraw money from the bank. There was no time to wait for parents, siblings, nephews and nieces to sort their affairs.

Over the course of two weeks in late April and May, NPR's Dubai-based correspondent Aya Batrawy traveled to four cities where people from Sudan have sought safety and refuge. Here are brief dispatches from each.

Port Sudan, Sudan

Soon after fighting broke out in Khartoum, the city of Port Sudan — more than 500 miles away — was thronged by thousands of people trying to leave the country. Most who took this route out were foreigners or Sudanese with second passports from other countries. (Port Sudan is now also a hub for humanitarian aid flights).

Makeshift tents and the lights from Port Sudan can be seen from a tugboat as it approaches the city, where thousands of foreigners sought refuge and evacuations. May 2, 2023.
/ Aya Batrawy/NPR
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Aya Batrawy/NPR
Makeshift tents and the lights from Port Sudan can be seen from a tugboat as it approaches the city, where thousands of foreigners sought refuge and evacuations. May 2, 2023.

From there, it's a roughly 12-hour journey across the Red Sea to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. To observe the evacuation effort of foreigners from Sudan, I made the round-trip journey, starting in Saudi Arabia, aboard a Saudi naval vessel called the Al-Jubail.

We approached Port Sudan around midnight in a tugboat since the warship was too big to dock.

At the port, it was quiet. Families — women and children — waited patiently in line, exhausted and dragging whatever luggage and personal items they could fit in a suitcase and handbags. Sudanese soldiers patrolled the port, which was well-lit, unlike other parts of the country facing electricity cuts.

A Saudi officer, seated on a plastic chair on the sidewalk, checked people's passports against a piece of paper bearing a handwritten list of names. Another Saudi officer briskly searched people's bags. Saudi commandos were on hand to help children, people with disabilities and seniors with their footing as they carried their luggage onto tugboats.

A Saudi officer checks the names of evacuees against a handwritten list in Port Sudan before they board boats and cross the Red Sea to the safety of Saudi Arabia. May 2, 2023.
/ Aya Batrawy/NPR
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Aya Batrawy/NPR
A Saudi officer checks the names of evacuees against a handwritten list in Port Sudan before they board boats and cross the Red Sea to the safety of Saudi Arabia. May 2, 2023.

U.S. Embassy officials stood off to the side, monitoring the evacuation of around 200 Americans departing that night, many of them Sudanese dual nationals. Other Sudanese families, some with Saudi nationality, and a handful of Chinese workers were also among the evacuees.

Sulafa Abdelrahman, with her daughter and three grandchildren, was heading toward a tugboat to take them to a Saudi warship waiting in the distance. It was one of two Saudi naval vessels evacuating people that evening.

Tired but smiling, Abdelrahman said: "We are hopeful, God willing."

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Saudi ships and military flights have evacuated around 8,500 people from Port Sudan.

Female Saudi officers handed out flowers to people and bags of candy to children as they disembarked from the ships and boarded buses in Jeddah.

An Indian evacuee from Port Sudan disembarks from an Indian warship in Jeddah's main commercial port. Saudi officers stand ready to welcome evacuees from Sudan with Saudi flags. April 30, 2023.
/ Aya Batrawy/NPR
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Aya Batrawy/NPR
An Indian evacuee from Port Sudan disembarks from an Indian warship in Jeddah's main commercial port. Saudi officers stand ready to welcome evacuees from Sudan with Saudi flags. April 30, 2023.

For the kingdom, this was an opportunity to showcase to the media gathered at the ports Saudi Arabia's leading role in evacuation efforts — and its foreign policy approach as a mediator in Sudan and beyond.

Among the evacuees there is grief, as well as relief at being in Saudi Arabia. Many have left behind their homes, family and friends, not knowing if they will ever return or see them again.

"It's pretty tough," says Mohammed Kodak, a Sudanese-British father of two at the Jeddah port. "Even saying goodbye to people is pretty tough. I left both my mother and father, and my brother."

Seated a few rows behind him on a bus at the port is Ghalia Satti. Tears stream down her face. The mother of four had been living in Sudan for over a decade after moving there from the U.S.

Now, she's returning to the U.S. with her teenagers. They'll stay with her sister. She's in shock at how quickly her life has unraveled.

"Thank God we are safe, but we are scared that the people that we love, we left them there, and we don't know if we can meet them again or not," she says, referring to her husband and father.

This route to leave Sudan was not open to all, though. Saudi Arabia offered evacuees short-term visas and does not host refugees. Most Sudanese who do not carry foreign passports have had to make harder journeys across borders — like Egypt's.

Aswan, Egypt

Boats are docked along the banks of the Nile Rive in Aswan, Egypt. Colorful homes with domed roofs are characteristic of Nubian culture, which spans this part of Egypt and across the border into northern Sudan. May 6, 2023.
/ Aya Batrawy/NPR
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Aya Batrawy/NPR
Boats are docked along the banks of the Nile Rive in Aswan, Egypt. Colorful homes with domed roofs are characteristic of Nubian culture, which spans this part of Egypt and across the border into northern Sudan. May 6, 2023.

This ancient city along the Nile is a popular tourist destination, but it's also become one of the first stops in Egypt for thousands of Sudanese fleeing the conflict since mid-April.

Ibrahim Mudasir, whose father is from Sudan and mother is Egyptian, came to Aswan from Cairo to help people arriving from Sudan procure train and bus tickets, and local SIM cards.

"When things happen in Sudan, it touches Egypt because of Sudan's proximity to Egypt's strategic red lines," he said, referring to the national security risks posed to Egypt by instability in Sudan.

"It's blood that flows between the two countries, not just the Nile River," he said, referring to shared Nubian tribal links.

In towns and villages across the province of Aswan, homes have domed roofs and walls are painted in colorful patterns characteristic of Nubian culture. Sudanese music, with its blend of African drum beats and soulful Arabic singing, plays loudly on Nile boats.

A boy rests by a mobile SIM card seller in Kar Kar, a key rest stop and bus station in Aswan for thousands of Sudanese after they've crossed into Egypt. May 7, 2023.
/ Aya Batrawy/NPR
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Aya Batrawy/NPR
A boy rests by a mobile SIM card seller in Kar Kar, a key rest stop and bus station in Aswan for thousands of Sudanese after they've crossed into Egypt. May 7, 2023.

Volunteers lead much of the effort to help Sudanese in Aswan. Sameh Hassan, a travel operator living in the beach town of Sharm el-Sheikh, came to Aswan to help with things big and small — like passing out water bottles and helping people find apartments to rent. He says he felt a need to help in any way he could because Egypt and Sudan are so close, both geographically as well as culturally.

At the sparse Kar Kar rest stop in Aswan, dozens of Sudanese buses are parked. It's as far as they're allowed to go after crossing into Egypt.

For the weary Sudanese families who've reached Kar Kar, it's often after a long and difficult journey that's included dodging shelling and gunfire in Khartoum's suburbs, passing through multiple army and paramilitary checkpoints and spending days waiting in Sudan at the border, with few services.

Some of the evacuees have arrived with wounds from the fighting. Local authorities say Egypt is providing free hospital care in Aswan to Sudanese in need, for now.

At Kar Kar, volunteers with local charities pass out hot meals of Egyptian dishes like koshary, packed with rice, pasta and lentils. They've also installed showers in the Kar Kar bathrooms, brought mobile medical clinics to offer checkups and expanded snack and juice stands.

The welcome at Kar Kar, however, does not extend to allowing Sudanese to camp out here. It's each person's responsibility to find their own accommodation in Egypt.

A classroom in a Sudanese school in Cairo has been transformed into a temporary shelter for migrants fleeing the conflict. A prayer mat and a woman's belongings are pictured near the mattress. May 5, 2023.
/ Aya Batrawy/NPR
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Aya Batrawy/NPR
A classroom in a Sudanese school in Cairo has been transformed into a temporary shelter for migrants fleeing the conflict. A prayer mat and a woman's belongings are pictured near the mattress. May 5, 2023.

Cairo, Egypt

Egypt's relative proximity to Khartoum compared to South Sudan, Chad and other border countries has made the country the top destination for Sudanese fleeing the conflict. According to Egypt's Foreign Ministry and the United Nations, more than 150,000 people have crossed into Egypt from Sudan since the fighting began, though there are reportedly some visa restrictions on Sudanese males of a certain age.

Egypt is already home to some 4 million Sudanese migrants, according to the International Organization of Migration.

Among the newcomers is Sheza Breima, who fled with her husband, mother, sister and newborn baby, Rafid. It took them six days, waiting at the border, before they were authorized to enter Egypt because her son, who was just a week old when the fighting broke out, didn't yet have a passport.

With no time to withdraw cash from the bank, she had to sell some of her gold jewelry to make the journey into Egypt. The family is now in a rented apartment in Cairo, where they watch Arabic news channels broadcasting images of the fighting back home.

Anwar Dafala and his family stand in a Sudanese school in Cairo, where his wife and three children are sleeping until they can find accommodation. They eat meals distributed by Egyptian volunteers. May 5, 2023.
/ Aya Batrawy/NPR
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Aya Batrawy/NPR
Anwar Dafala and his family stand in a Sudanese school in Cairo, where his wife and three children are sleeping until they can find accommodation. They eat meals distributed by Egyptian volunteers. May 5, 2023.

Before the fighting, Breima was a trauma counselor with the United Nations, working with displaced people in Sudan. The idea that she may now be a refugee herself and may need support buying diapers and formula for her baby is hard to comprehend, she says.

"I mean, I'm not that person yet. I mean, let me cry if I think about it," she says.

There are others in need of much more. A privately run Sudanese school in a rundown building in a poor neighborhood of Cairo is serving as a temporary shelter for a handful of migrants from Sudan. There are a few mattresses on the ground in what are normally classrooms.

I meet a family of five, the youngest child still in diapers. The father, Anwar Dafala, tells me he has no income. He was earning by the day in Sudan. He shows me a doctor's report from a clinic in Cairo that says he needs an MRI for swelling in his stomach that's made him unable to stand on his feet for very long. He can't afford the scan.

He can apply and register as a refugee with the U.N. refugee agency and get some assistance. But most Sudanese in Egypt are not officially registered as refugees and enter on visitor visas that can be extended.

They've entered a country in the midst of an economic crisis, with food inflation around 60%. The fridge in this school is bare: no eggs, no dairy, no meats. Families staying here make do with water, bread and fava beans delivered by Egyptian volunteers.

For families like Dafala's, fleeing Sudan and reaching Cairo marks the start of a new set of challenges and uncertainties.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.