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Mind the gap

Associate Professor Amal Madibbo in Sudan.

By Allison Myers
Story appears in U Magazine, Spring/Summer 2014 

Sitting in her warm, quiet office high above campus in the Social Sciences building, Amal Madibbo, is a world away from the home she once knew. The blinds are drawn and the constant hum of circulating air muffles any sound that attempts to sneak in from the hall. It is a remarkably peaceful way to study the effects of war.

“I wanted to take advantage of my position as professor, researcher and Sudanese-Canadian to do something about the conflict in my country,” says Madibbo, who came to work at the University of Calgary as an associate professor in the department of sociology seven years ago. “I wanted to shed light on it and help find solutions.”

Madibbo saw an opportunity for an interesting partnership during her annual trip back to Sudan. She volunteers with schools in war-torn Darfur, where there are walls but no desks, leaving children to sit on the floor. She also spends time teaching in refugee camps, where the classrooms are the shadows of the trees.

“I go there and I find the situation very difficult,” she says. “I see thousands of children, women and elders living in refugee camps. Some may live there their whole life. I see this kind of suffering and you wonder how long it can go on? So myself, as someone who had privileges and education, and now a good life and a good job, I keep asking myself what I can do to help?”

Getting Involved

For the past five years, Madibbo has spent part of every summer helping train future researchers at the University of Khartoum and Omdurman Islamic University. She gets them involved in projects that look at the impact of the conflict on Sudanese youth or has them examine what people in Canada are doing to assist.

“I wanted to help build connections between Canada and Sudan, so I thought it would be a good idea if the research teams could work together,” she says.

New Technologies

The research is conducted largely through interviews and observations in the Khartoum region and Darfur, prompting Madibbo to turn to an increasingly popular option for collaborative projects: the Internet. The teams now communicate using email and Skype. It’s not the same as meeting face-to-face, but for second-year PhD student Mariama Zaami, the benefits are plentiful. Zaami’s own sociology research aims to understand the challenges young African immigrants face when they immigrate to Calgary.

“Now that we are working with people in Sudan, I’m able to relate that back to what I’m studying,” says Zaami, who is originally from Ghana. “They give me first-hand information on the conflict and how it’s affecting youth. That will help me better understand the situation for the young people who emigrated here.”

Facing Challenges

According to Statistics Canada, Calgary is home to one-fifth of Canada’s Sudanese immigrant community. Madibbo can understand the challenges these newcomers face in this city.

“At first, it was difficult,” she says of her move from Toronto. “I’m used to adjusting to different cultures, but Calgary was more challenging. The idea of diversity here wasn’t what I expected it to be.”

In that, Madibbo saw even more research potential. Much has been done on the immigrant experience for those moving to cities like Montreal and Toronto, where there is a more diverse population.

But she says Calgary is becoming a popular Canadian destination for people from Sudan and other African countries and that more needs to be done to understand the challenges they face in making this their new home.

The Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan

Amal Madibbo isn’t solely focused on researching the issues Sudanese immigrants face. Much of her free time is dedicated to volunteering with the community, too. She’s especially interested in helping the younger generation of newcomers, including the former child soldiers known as the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan.

Even as grown men and women living half way around the world, the Lost Boys and Girls struggle with the trauma of their youth. It manifests itself in fears of personal safety or mistrust in law enforcement. Madibbo meets with them, attends community functions and gives talks to help them integrate into their new community. 

Friends of South Sudan Group 

Madibbo is a member of the Friends of South Sudan Group, a local group that seeks to ease the tensions that resurface within the community. Another one of her initiatives is bringing the Nuer Community Association, a South Sudan organization, together with QuickDraw Animation Society, a local non-governmental organization that helps aboriginal youth. 

The goal is to develop training programs, but she says the real benefit will come from sharing experiences with others whose community is facing its own troubles.