In mid-April, fighting broke out in Sudan between the Sudanese military and a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), upending the lives of many Sudanese citizens and resulting in a humanitarian crisis. In response to the conflict, Sudanese students and faculty at U of T have organized to support their communities as they also struggle to support their families back home. 

One newly created group, the Sudan Solidarity Collective, has called on the university to simplify access to resources for Sudanese students and increase funding. In interviews with The Varsity, the group also highlighted the university’s lack of response to the Sudanese conflict compared to its reaction to the war in Ukraine. 

The conflict

The conflict started on April 15, between the Sudanese military — led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan — and the RSF, led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. The military leaders had previously worked together in 2021 to overthrow a joint civilian-military government, establishing a military government. The fighting in April began following disputes over how to integrate the RSF and the military, and which force would retain control over soldiers and weapons. 

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project report that nearly 7,500 people died between the start of the conflict and September 8. The conflict has also spawned a humanitarian crisis, with the United Nations (UN) reporting that more than 20 million people in Sudan currently face “high levels of acute food insecurity.” According to the International Organization for Migration, the conflict has displaced more than 57.1 million people, with the majority displaced within Sudan and some fleeing to neighboring countries. 

Since May 2023, the Saudi Arabian government has facilitated indirect peace talks between the parties, hoping to establish a ceasefire that would allow humanitarian aid to reach affected residents. On August 27, Dagalo released the paramilitary’s plan, proposing new negotiations and seeking an end to the war, which al-Burhan rejected in a speech to his soldiers. 

In an interview with The Varsity, U of T anthropology and African studies professor Nisrin Elamin highlighted the devastating effects of the conflict on Sudanese people in the diaspora. “Pretty much everybody in Sudan that I know has not received a salary or income since April 15,” she said. She noted that many students who previously relied on their families in Sudan for financial support must now provide for their family members, forcing them to work more or take time off from school.

The Sudanese Solidarity Collective

To support those affected by the current crisis in Sudan, a group of U of T students and faculty established the Sudan Solidarity Collective. Elamin — a member of the collective — told The Varsity that, after a May 15 workshop held by the Sudanese Students’ Union (SSU), she and around five to seven Sudanese students began meeting regularly, which led to them eventually creating the collective.

In an email to The Varsity, Elamin wrote that the collective aims to hold events aimed at fostering healing and providing education for members of the Sudanese diaspora. Some initiatives it hopes to run include helping resettle Sudanese refugees who have recently arrived in Canada, creating art, and holding political education workshops. The collective has asked the university to provide financial support so it can hire someone — a Sudanese person or someone trained in war-related trauma — to facilitate monthly mental health gatherings, but it had not received any funding as of September 8.

The collective also hopes to create a Sudan Solidarity Fund that would finance local nonmilitary organizations in Sudan. So far, the group has donated to an association of tea vendors, a farmer’s union, and neighbourhood-based resistance committees. The Darfur Diaspora Association — a group that has supported grassroots initiatives and relief efforts in the Darfur region of Sudan since 2006 — has helped fund the collective and has offered organizational support.

Complicated processes

Members of the collective have met repeatedly with the university administration. Leena Badri — a U of T alumna and member of the collective — told The Varsity that the university has been “very willing” to speak with the collective, yet U of T responds to many of the collective’s requests by arguing that it already provide the resources it’s requesting. For Badri, some supports remain insufficient or difficult to access. 

In a statement to The Varsity, U of T Vice-President, International Joseph Wong wrote that the university operates the Scholars and Students at Risk Fellowships and Award Program, which offer funding to undergraduate and graduate students who sought refugee status in the past five years or whose studies have been impacted by conflict or political changes in their home countries. The university also offers emergency grants through the University Registrar’s Office and the School of Graduate Studies. “We continue to look at other mechanisms to support our diverse University community during global crises,” he wrote.

Elamin noted that U of T hasn’t displayed “a lack of empathy” in their meetings. However, she wishes the university would simplify access to services. “[Bureaucratic] processes can be really intimidating; they can often [be] the hurdles to accessing the kind of support and care that people need,” she said. 

She mentioned how students face problems navigating the petition process, and questioned why the university could not create a simple form where Sudanese students could indicate what accommodations they needed instead of going through the petition process.

Elamin noted that some of the university’s resources are also lacking. She said that some Sudanese students who applied to U of T have had to defer their studies because their funding package was insufficient.

“If you want to access emergency funds, it’s primarily to finance your own studies. But in the case of most Sudanese, they’re having to also support their families,” she said. Elamin noted that the conception of family in Sudan differs from conceptions of an individualistic, nuclear family that may be more common in Canada.

Double standards

When members of the collective brought up the funding that U of T invested in helping Ukrainian students, administrators told them that a Ukrainian Canadian graduate donated a large amount of money, which the university matched. 

“We don’t have wealthy Canadian donors, at least as far as I know, and even if we did have somebody who might be a little bit better off, they’re going to be putting those resources into supporting people in Sudan,” Elamin said. “[But] if [the university] were able to match those funds, why not provide the same funds [directly]?” 

She also noted that she’s offered to speak with potential donors about the situation in Sudan, but the university has not taken her up on the offer.

Elamin called on U of T President Meric Gertler to issue a statement in response to the conflict, which he did in response to the Ukraine war. Wong released a statement solely on the U of T Global website, which, as Elamin pointed out, limited its circulation and visibility. Regardless, she said that the statement “doesn’t hold the same kind of weight as when it comes to the president’s office. 

“[A presidential statement] would ease the burden of students having to explain why they’re petitioning for time off or accommodations,” she added

Black faculty speak out

On June 2, 26 Black faculty, in conjunction with Scholar Strike Canada — a labour action organization protesting anti-Black and anti-Indigenous police brutality — sent an open letter to the office of the president. 

The letter echoed Elamin’s sentiment, noting that Wong’s statement did not reach many U of T’s students, staff, and faculty. It called on the administration “to say and do much more,” asking the university to provide students with free legal support to help their family members leave Sudan, to give tuition waivers to Sudanese students impacted by the war, and to offer access to mental health workers who specialize in supporting survivors of war or people from Black and African communities. 

Gertler sent a letter responding to the faculty members’ open letter on June 8, sharing his “heartfelt condolences and shared grief over this deepening crisis” and noting the efforts of community members to support and advocate for Sudanese students, faculty, and staff. He wrote that U of T would amplify the message on social media and referred to the services discussed in Wong’s statement. 

Elamin characterized the university’s response to the open letter as “disappointing,” noting that Gertler had still not released a public statement.

Other student efforts

Elamin also highlighted the work of the Sudanese Students Union, a U of T student group that aims to foster community among Sudanese students. On August 20, the SSU hosted a picnic at Christie Pits Park, with all proceeds going towards a fundraiser the union runs in partnership with the Sudanese Doctors Union of Canada. As of September 17, the fundraiser has raised more than $9,400 for emergency medical relief in Sudan. 

According to Elamin, many students in the collective are also part of the SSU. 

“Those students are working tirelessly to fill these gaps, but they are undergraduate students who have a whole course of study,” she said. “For them to have to take on that kind of labour is also unfair to them.”