He left a wealthy family in South Sudan to study in Egypt, where he fell in love and started a family. But racism has kept Jema an outsider both in and outside of his home.
They met as students and were an unlikely couple: Jema N. is originally from South Sudan and Miray was born and raised in Ezbet El-Nakhl, not far from Ain Shams in southern Egypt. Although they are both Christians, Jema’s skin color has kept him an outsider in Egypt for a decade.
“I changed my sect for her,” says Jema who studied at the Faculty of Commerce at Ain Shams University. He is the only child from a well-off family, which, according to him, is a very rare situation in South Sudan. At university, he was mostly alone where everyday he faced silent cynicism in his colleagues’ eyes, and dealt with offensive comments about his race and religion. “I was alone most of the time because there was no one else from South Sudan,” he says. “Back then, we were still fighting for our rights.”
He was treated no better by his Sudanese colleagues: “They used to insult me about my skin color and my religion every time there was any political event,” he recalls. “Sudanese people think they are better than us because their skin is lighter than ours. All I wanted was to finish my studies with as few problems as possible, but then I met Miray.”
The black Catholic
“I was very surprised with Jema’s manners, patience and disregard of his colleagues’ blatant jokes,” remembers Miray about her husband. “I was in his class and I knew him from my Christian colleagues who used to call him ‘the black Catholic’. Everyone was jeering at him, but he was polite, introverted and silent.
His eyes, however, revealed that he was a young man who suffered even when he passed by people. I was curious to meet him, which was not typical of me. When he spoke to me, his eyes were looking everywhere, afraid of what people would say and of being verbally or physically assaulted. He talked to me like a little child learning how to speak. I did not want to laugh at his accent lest I hurt his feelings. I, however, told him he needed lessons to lose his accent. He laughed. His laugh was kind. We were in our senior year. We fell in love quickly. I started learning a lot of things about South Sudan and also about our (Egyptians’) racism against people with dark skin. As for me, I fancied them and I think American movies affected me because I love Denzel Washington and I find him very handsome, unlike my parents who did not see dark-skinned people beautiful.”
Jema is grateful to the American Hollywood star: “I give credit to Denzel Washington for the love of my life. My life changed because of her. I wanted to leave Egypt after university, but then I decided to stay here to marry her and start a family. Things, however, were not that simple.”
Discrimination at home and work
Jema faced trouble while looking for a job in Cairo. He was denied employment by tens of small and large companies based on his skin color, despite his good qualifications and his fluency in both English and French. Finally, a small construction company in Ain Shams employed him, where he still works today.
Yet, the discrimination he received at work could not compare to the humiliation he faced from Miray’s family. “They acted very superior and kept insulting me to the point where I almost left the house and ran away,” he said. Still, Miray intervened and insisted on marrying him. “My mother used to ask me ‘why would you marry a slave?’” Miray recalled. “I argued with her about her attitude contradicting her religion. When I told her that she was being racist, she said he was not an Orthodox.”
Jema became Catholic. “I am not religious anyway,” he says about agreeing to convert.
They got married in a small party that only brought together Jema’s mother as well as a few people from Miray’s family who, according to the couple, did not smile at all. Years into their marriage, however, the situation changed and Jema became closer to her family.
“My husband is one of the kindest and noblest people ever,” says Miray. “He supported my father during a financial crisis and patiently endured my family’s nonsense. It was difficult for them to like him, but it happened eventually.”
Although Jema lives happily with his loving wife, his days outside of the home continue to prove challenging. He gets harassed daily by everyone, starting with the children in the streets who insult him and run away, to the adults who mock at him and denigrate him.
Jema’s greatest worries now are for his two children. They are a minority within a minority, and hardly a day passes without one of them coming home from school crying after being bullied by the other children. Once, his youngest son had an incident in first grade. When the Islamic religion class started and his son left with other Christian pupils to another class as usual, the teacher looked at him and said: “And you are also Christian? This adds anger to anger.”
Jema says that when he came to Egypt, he was aware of what he was going to face; but he is especially disturbed by the treatment his children face. “I have grown more worried since the murder of Jibraeel Tout, a South Sudanese teacher,” says Jema. “How can my kids live like this?”