From Sudan to SoCal

Trevor Sochocki | Daily Trojan
Crossing continents · Sophomore Hatim Eldawi realized that classrooms in American universities were different from those in Sudan.

On a Thursday afternoon, Hatim Eldawi glided through USC on a tiny black skateboard. He was wearing a denim jacket, skinny jeans and charcoal grey Vans — an outfit that differed dramatically from the wardrobe he brought with him when he moved to Los Angeles.

The 19-year-old came to college with suitcases full of collared shirts and dress pants, standard uniform for his high school in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city. His friends at USC poked fun at his formal attire, which stuck out amid the sea of sandals and tank-tops most students wear on USC’s sunny campus. Still, other things surprised him even more about his new environment.

In Sudan, students who dared  to curse in class would be sent to the principal’s office — a norm he realized did not apply in American universities. When a classmate used profanity during lecture, Eldawi said the professor laughed and responded with an expletive of his own.

Eldawi’s peers appeared equally curious about his North African culture. Fellow students asked him if he slept with lions and rode a camel to school, if he descended from a royal family or if he had come to the United States as a refugee. Though Eldawi chuckled as he recalled some of these questions, the sophomore business administration major said he was disappointed by the sheltered worldview exhibited by many USC students.

“It made me feel so different,” Eldawi said. “Like an alien.”

To many friends and acquaintances, he’s known as “Sudan guy,” a nickname he carries with pride, but one that has become increasingly difficult to break out of. 

One week into his administration, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that indefinitely suspended the resettlement of Syrian refugees and temporarily barred people from seven nations, including Sudan, from entering the country. The sweeping policy stunned Eldawi, who wondered what the Sudanese people had done to deserve such condemnation from the U.S. government.

On Monday, Trump approved a revised version of the original travel ban, which created chaos at airports nationwide and was blocked by federal courts. But the order’s overarching message remains the same, and reflects broader trends Eldawi has observed about USC — and American culture in general.

“It’s a norm at USC to use labels to define people,” Eldawi said.

Eldawi has always had an uneasy relationship with labels — they fail to capture the complexity of his lived experiences, he said. The middle child of three brothers, he was born in San Jose, Calif., to Sudanese parents. The family relocated to Dubai, The United Arab Emirates, when Eldawi was eight, before moving to Sudan five years later. Tall and long-limbed with caramel skin and contemplative dark eyes, Eldawi regards his identity as a function of time and place.

As a kindergarten student in San Jose, Eldawi spoke with an Arabic tongue that distinguished him from his English-speaking peers. In Dubai, his African heritage defined him, and in Khartoum, Eldawi’s lighter complexion and American passport gave him a privileged status that many in the sprawling, dust-choked city could only dream of.

Coming to USC forced him to search for belonging yet again — as an American-born black Muslim who had spent most of his formative years in Africa. He acquired a new wardrobe of T-shirts, shorts and sneakers and learned casual Southern California slang. He joined a fraternity, an involvement that initially made him uneasy, but one that he has come to embrace.

“I felt like I had to re-assimilate when I came to USC,” Eldawi said. “Nobody understood where I came from.”

Eldawi now shares a room in the Kappa Sigma house with his good friend and fraternity brother Mike Gurayah. The two met on orientation day and immediately bonded over their shared Muslim faith. Gurayah, a sophomore majoring in business administration, described his roommate as “one of the nicest guys you will ever meet.” He praised Eldawi’s selflessness and generosity of spirit.

“Once he sees someone sad, even if he doesn’t know you, he’ll go up to talk to you and get to know what you’re feeling,” Gurayah said. “That’s just the type of person Hatim is — always willing to help someone else.”

Gurayah said Eldawi offers him advice about everything from academics to personal relationships. He often comes home to a made-up bed and clean desk — favors Eldawi completes without asking for anything in return.

Just as Eldawi had begun to find his place at USC, Trump won the election — an outcome that upset him deeply, and one that he said reflected exclusionary sentiments pervasive in the United States. Although the President’s rhetoric has distanced him further from American culture, he said prejudices against Muslims existed long before Trump took office.

“The ban was fuel added to the fire [against the Muslim community],” Eldawi said.

Despite his American passport, Eldawi fears Trump’s policy has typecasted him as an outsider in his country of birth. But he said he never felt very American anyway — when people ask him where he’s from, he defines himself as Sudanese.

Upon graduation, he intends to return to Sudan, where he hopes to start a business that will create economic opportunity for more people in the North African nation. He’s grateful for the opportunity to attend USC, and said the greatest long-term impact of the executive order will be impeding access to higher education.

“If anything we should further encourage students to come here and study,” Eldawi said. “The quality of education [in Sudan] is nothing compared to here.”