Nada Elsayed, 26
Born: Saudi Arabia
Lives: Washington D.C.
Nominated by: Rebecka Jonsson
Nada Elsayed is Sudanese, though she was born, and spent the first sixteen years of her life, in Saudi Arabia. It was during these years that Nada experienced first hand how difficult life can be when you don’t ‘fit in.’
Witnessing her father’s unjust treatment as an economic immigrant and always feeling like an outsider as a darker skinned Sudanese in a middle eastern country, Nada came to appreciate the hardships felt the world over by those searching for somewhere to belong.
After leaving Saudi Arabia at fifteen, Nada went on to study Political Science at the American University in Cairo, before interning, volunteering and working her way through numerous non profits including: CARE, A.I.E.S.E.C. Kenya, the U.N.H.C.R. and the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University.
Right now, Nada is living in the United States where she consults on issues related to Sudan and helps to bring the voice of Sudanese youth to U.S. foreign policy. She’s also in the process of refocussing her career to pursue medicine which she hopes to utilise one day with Doctors without Borders.
Nada is no stranger to cultural misunderstanding: in Saudi she was not considered a citizen, in Sudan she was considered a repatriate, in Egypt only a visitor and now in the U.S., as a muslim who chooses to cover her hair, Nada has had to field questions and accusations about being ‘oppressed’ by her religion.
Nada believes that people are intimidated by what they don’t know and she hopes, through her work, to fill the gaps in these conversations between cultures and help those on the fringes in a meaningful way.
She is softly spoken but firm, warm but wary of getting caught up in stereotypes or assumptions, a truly unique voice on Friday Best. Her best advice: be yourself and don’t try to fit in…you lose a part of yourself when you do that.
What do you respond with when people ask, ‘Where are you from?’
Well yeah, that is a tricky question. I never really know what to say. I don’t really have a clear-cut notion of home like everyone does. ‘Back home’ is just where my parents are at the moment and maybe in the future where I have my own family. My parents are Sudanese so I’m Sudanese and though I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, I hardly associate myself with it now.
After Saudi I came to the United States to do my first year of college then moved to Egypt where I continued my education at the American University in Cairo.
Sudan fits a little bit in the equation, I only spent ten months there in total and I still had that dilemma of connecting and belonging. So, home is all over I guess. That’s how me and Rebecka connect, we call ourselves ‘third culture kids’ or ‘global citizens.’ [Laughs]
What are your memories of growing up in Saudi? Birth to age sixteen is a pretty significant amount of time not to connect to a place?
Well, of course, there are the good and bad memories from Saudi. My dreams and ambitions were created there actually. I had amazing teachers that pushed me to cultivate some of the talents and skills that I have today. My English teacher in middle school is who made me believe in my writing abilities and my years in elementary school were some of the best years of my life.
However, in Saudi you don’t get citizenship even if you are born there so I was never considered a Saudi national, which plays a part in my homelessness. I also went to international schools so that was also a barrier from Saudi culture. I would say it was like I lived in a country within a country, so it was hard to assimilate.
It was…the subtle racism in school I experienced as a Sudanese with darker skin than everyone else. I guess we just couldn’t really fit in to a certain extent and you always felt like you stood out and didn’t belong in that country.
You mentioned your dreams and ambitions were created in Saudi. What does that mean?
Saudi wasn’t a completely just system so if you’re an immigrant, you don’t really have rights. When foreigners come into the country, they have to be under a Saudi sponsor. I believe it’s changed a little bit now but the sponsor used to hold your passport and documents and was basically in charge of your life in the country. Some people may have had very pleasant experiences in Saudi but that is just what I have seen growing up.
My dad suffered a lot in that sense, you know, and that’s why I became interested in human rights advocacy and the justice system.
So growing up and being aware of this kind of injustice is essentially what led you down the path that you’re on now?
Definitely. It was that and the sort of subtle racism in school I experienced as a Sudanese with darker skin than everyone else. I guess we just couldn’t really fit in to a certain extent and you always felt like you stood out and didn’t belong in that country.
There are so many parts of your career that I’d like to talk about but I think maybe a good way into it would be to ask you about any professional highlights. Is there a particular experience, a particular country you worked in, or person you worked with, that stands out so far?
I can think of a moment that defined what I want to do now, that showed what I’m really passionate about. When I worked for the U.N.H.C.R. in Khartoum, in Sudan—and I’ve got my own grievances about the U.N. and big organisations, because I’m more of a grassroots person—I was a protection intern and I worked with Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees.
I was in charge of doing protection interviews and seeing what people wanted and then going inside and saying, ‘Hey, this person wants this and that.’ It just felt like these people had all these demands that the U.N. wasn’t able to meet.
Then, on my watch, one of the refugees died. He had a brain tumour and they were supposed to resettle him into another country where he would get healthcare but it takes a long time and I was running back and forth trying to find a solution for him. But in the time it took the U.N. to find a solution, his sister had already had to smuggle him to Nairobi to have surgery. He went into a coma and he died at fifteen.
This is why I want to move into the medical field. Because it was hard to watch and not do anything and just be stuck with bureaucracy.
When you find home…you might be stagnant for a little bit, you might not look for opportunities, you might not move forward. For me, every place that I’ve lived in, I’ve discovered a part of myself that I didn’t know.
It’s interesting that you had this experience in Sudan but you’ve never connected with it at all as ‘home.’ Why do you think that is?
My dad is very patriotic and he is always talking about Sudan, the love for Sudan and how things were. But when my sisters and me went back to Sudan, it did not quite look or feel anything like how my dad had described it.
Things have changed and it’s hard to find that same sense of community that used to be there. You can no longer just walk into someone’s house like in the old days. Of course, there are places in Sudan that have still kept their authenticity but Khartoum has become highly urbanised, so the attitudes have changed a bit.
I will always be rooted somehow in Sudan and have family to visit there but being able to see the injustices of the government, because that was what I specialised in, was one reason I couldn’t connect, and also because we were considered repatriates. I just couldn’t really figure out what Sudan was to me by the time I left.
Do you think, this notion of not belonging or belonging to many places has been a blessing or a curse?
I think it’s both actually. A blessing in the sense that when you find home you’re comfortable and then you might be stagnant for a little bit, you might not look for opportunities, you might not move forward. For me, every place that I’ve lived in, I’ve discovered a part of myself that I didn’t know.
Now I’ve decided to go into the medical field and I wouldn’t have come to that conclusion at all if I had had a home and had everything mapped out for me.
It is a curse though in the sense that there’s a certain lack of stability. I self diagnose myself as having A.D.H.D. because I always have to leave. I only have six months in a place and then I just get jittery and fidgety and have to move on.
People look at me and think, Oh, you’re oppressed. Why are you covering your hair? You’re in America.
Have you had any mentors or role models throughout your journey?
In every place that I have been to I have connected with that one person that helped me in relation to that one place, so I guess I have many mentors scattered around the world but the one constant has been my father. My mother has helped too in many ways.
Can you tell us a little about your parents?
Well, like I said, it was hard for my dad in Saudi but he never made us feel like it was hard. As children you want to feel safe so he provided that but also made us aware that there are injustices in the world and that when we grew up we were going to have to figure out a way to deal with them.
He’s been the one person who’s really believed in me when I didn’t really believe in myself. I knew I had a mission, a goal, from when I was a little kid but it didn’t always translate in the right way. He was always the one that made me make the most out of what I had and what I wanted to do with my life.
My mother has also always been there with advice and emotional support when I needed it. So while my dad provided mental support, my mother has helped pick me up and provided the discipline that I needed.
Going back to this idea of injustice that your father made you aware of, is it still something that you experience in any way? As a young woman? As a ‘third culture kid’?
I would say sometimes people tend to be afraid of what they don’t know. For me I feel like I’ve struggled as a person to make it where I am today. I never really thought of it as a struggle because I’m a woman. But I’ve recently started covering my hair for my religion, as an act of submitting to God, and I feel like that’s when the woman part came into the equation for me. People look at me and think, Oh, you’re oppressed. Why are you covering your hair? You’re in America. I find it interesting.
The struggle is really when women are used as barter tokens for political and cultural ideologies. How about as a woman I make my own decisions based on what I believe is right for my own self? It is really that simple. Yet, women have to adhere to certain societal norms and are told how to dress and what to do, if they’re exposing too much or too little, if they are too fat or too thin, too light-skinned or too dark. Our lives should not be dictated by what other people think of us or by politics or culture.
I would like to see a breakthrough for women in that we are just considered as a fellow human being without being wrapped up in all these complexities.
So where do you see yourself in ten years time then?
I see myself as a doctor, I hope. It’s going to be a long journey because I’m starting again to go into the medical field. I really want to do Doctors Without Borders and travel around and give back.
And do you aspire to having a family?
Definitely. I don’t really know how to fit that in sometimes but I’ve just come to the conclusion that I’m going to let it be and if it fits in, it’ll fit in. But it would be nice to have a family, of course, especially since I am on my own and that would sort of be my home.
Something we ask all our Friday Besters is, what should we be talking more about? What do you think is going unsaid that is important?
I think we might lack a bit of empathy. Its hard for us to relate to other people especially now in a very globalised world. Down the street from you might be somebody from a different country, or different faith, or different background.
People here in the U.S. talk a lot about tolerance, but I don’t really like the word tolerance, I think we should just communicate more, try to find common ground, connect with each other as human beings.
And one final question, is there any advice that you would give to the young women who will be reading this article in a few weeks time?
I would say, find your passion, live by your passion, be yourself and don’t try to fit in. That’s the number one thing that I’ve learned in my life. I’ve always tried to fit in but you lose a part of yourself when you do that. You should be who you are and show people who you are, by being yourself essentially.
Things I Love
Meditation and contemplation
Essential things that keep me happy and balanced.