Dr. Mohammad Nasr will never forget the day he was forced to leave a man to die.
A kidney specialist in Khartoum, Sudan, Nasr was preparing a patient for dialysis. But there was a problem. The patient was Christian and the hard-line Islamist government had just declared holy war against Christians in the south of the country. Someone called the security forces. When they arrived, Nasr, a Muslim, begged to finish his task. They took him away and he spent a month behind bars.
“They beat me with a plastic hose. Can you believe that?” he says. Nasr was never charged with a crime. He knew then he had to leave Sudan.
Of the nearly a million and a half refugees who settled in the United States over the last decade, 15 percent are Muslim. Fleeing war, political oppression, and religious persecution, they come from many countries — Bosnia, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, among others. They are scattered across the country in traditional immigrant hubs like Los Angeles and New York and also in smaller Midwestern cities like Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
Iowa, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has one of the highest per capita concentrations of Muslim refugees in the nation. The earliest to arrive were Bosnians escaping war during the 1990s.
Now, Muslim refugees from Sudan are some of the newest Iowans. While most Sudanese in Iowa speak Arabic and believe in an unyielding generosity, they differ from each other in their views of America, Islam and themselves.
Mohammad Nasr’s house in Coralville sits in a landscape of cookie-cutter townhouses and curving cul-de-sac streets that roll away to the horizon like a post modern Grant Wood painting. A white Chrysler minivan with a Sudanese flag bumper sticker is parked in the driveway.
Inside the house, children tumble through the living room while in the kitchen Nasr’s wife, Igbal Osan, makes instant coffee and slices pound cake. Somewhere else in the house there is a muffled thump and the sound of more children laughing. The 52-year-old Nasr, a researcher at the transplant unit of the Veterans Administration hospital in Iowa City, sinks into a leather sofa and folds his hands across his ample belly.
“We are here because we said you must not use Islam to kill people,” he says explaining how in 1989 radical conservative Muslims led by Omar al-Bashir overthrew the Sudanese government and imposed a particularly harsh interpretation of Shari ‘a law — the Muslim principles of jurisprudence. Nasr says the radicals enforced laws under which non-Muslims had no rights.
“Before 1989, you could see Christians with Muslims. Living together,” he says. “After 1989, it changed.” By calling for holy war against the mostly Christian and animist south, the Sudanese government introduced a religious justification to an ongoing civil war that, according to the United Nations, killed nearly a million and a half Sudanese between 1983 and 1995.
In the mid-1990s, the small group of radicals inspired by National Islamic Front leader Hassan al-Turabi turned on Sudanese Muslims as well.
“Within the Muslim people, they began to separate,” Nasr says. “Those without Arabic blood didn’t have any rights.” He also blames the clerics and imams who took advantage of people’s trust.
“According to their view of Islam, you must obey the imam,” Nasr says. “Anything that comes from the imam you have to obey without thinking. If they say go and kill the people in the south of Sudan, you have to go and kill them.”