Sudan: Rebuilding 'home' when there's no way back
Nineteen-year-old Aziza Mohammed Izak was about to start her final year of secondary school in Khartoum, eager to move on to university. She loved English, but especially she wanted to get a degree in psychology, to help troubled kids overcome trauma.
Instead, Aziza is living her own anguish after Sudan’s war upended her life this year, forcing her to leave her home in the capital and everything she knew.
“We cannot return but we can’t stay living like this,” Aziza tells me from the eastern city of Port Sudan where she found shelter, tears welling up in her eyes. “Yet there’s nowhere else for us to go.”
The hard questions Aziza is asking herself today - about where to call home - are being echoed by millions of Sudanese, since conflict erupted in the Horn of Africa country six months ago.
Their homeland is experiencing one of the world’s biggest humanitarian catastrophes in recent history. More than 20 million people face acute hunger; 5.8 million have sought refuge inside and outside Sudan’s borders.
Aziza tells me her story from a cramped university dormitory in Port Sudan that now houses roughly a thousand war-displaced Sudanese. We are sitting on a simple iron bunkbed, in a small room she shares with her mom and several other women.
When the clashes broke out in the capital on 15 April, she and her mother sold everything they owned to buy a bus ticket to this city hundreds of kilometers away; a place where they knew nobody.
“We have nothing to our name – no house, no food, no money,” Aziza tells me. “Our life’s memories have been destroyed.”
Years to rebuild
In Khartoum, generational homes have been lost to the fighting; the memories of entire families turned to rubble. The trauma from gunshots and shelling that have wreaked havoc across Sudan will similarly take generations to heal.
It could also take years for the World Food Programme (WFP) and other humanitarian organizations to rebuild infrastructure and regain access, so we can assist the many vulnerable people who need our support.
Last year alone, we reached over 9 million Sudanese with food, cash and nutritional assistance, aimed not just at feeding mouths but in allowing people to improve their livelihoods and build more resilient futures. But with limited access due to the fighting, and scarcer resources, we have reached just 3 million so far this year – only about one-third of last year’s figure.
For now, our priority is to save as many lives as we can amid immense challenges, by ensuring people do not go hungry or slip into fatal levels of malnutrition.
Listening to stories like Aziza’s, and witnessing firsthand Sudan’s tragedy unfolding, is heartbreaking. This is the place where I’ve felt the most at home for years. I met my German husband in Khartoum - where I’ve been stationed since 2020, as WFP Sudan's Head of Communications.
In February - two months before the war broke out - we celebrated a traditional Sudanese Jerteik wedding ceremony in the capital. I understand Aziza’s pain in knowing that we cannot return there, at least not anytime soon.
The conflict has robbed so many people of what they care about: even small things, like samar or deep evening conversations in living rooms about everything under the sky.
A home-cooked meal
I met Aziza last month, when I went back to Sudan for the first time since the conflict erupted. Like those of other organizations, WFP employees - both international and national - were forced to relocate when it became too dangerous to work.
I was full of anticipation and nostalgia as our plane touched down in Port Sudan, WFP’s new operational hub in the country. It was part of the WFP-operated UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS), one of the few airlines still flying into the country.
Driving into the city, I was initially surprised and comforted by the seeming normality: the usual bustle of vendors selling fruits and vegetables at the market; tea ladies brewing chai or coffee on the side of the road; men returning from afternoon prayer in their traditional robes or jalabias.
But as we got closer to the center, I noticed Port Sudan’s dusty streets were much more crowded than before. The city was full of traffic and new faces— a stark reminder of so many Sudanese like Aziza who left everything behind to trek hundreds of kilometers to safety.
It’s now been months since Aziza bade farewell to her old life. Slowly she and her mother are starting to adjust.
She remembers happier times: dancing with her friends to hip-hop videos on YouTube, or sitting on the banks of the Nile River that cuts through Khartoum.
As we chat in her dorm room, I show her and her mother pictures on my phone of my Sudanese wedding celebration. We bond over feeling both grateful for the life we had and the heartache of missing it.
“I love Khartoum and I would kiss the earth if I could go back” to a country in peace, Aziza says, describing dreams of returning to “a warm house filled with love.” Then she describes her last memories of the city: watching people die in the streets as she fled.
Still, on the day we meet, there is a joyful atmosphere at the shelter. WFP is distributing food assistance, including Sudan’s main staple, sorghum, along with lentils and oil.
Children, especially, are excited. Aziza often takes care of them - even if it’s not in the way she imagined.
“We are so happy to receive this food from WFP,” Aziza says, describing traditional dishes she and others will make. “Now we can have a home-cooked meal with our favorite dishes and don’t need to go sleep hungry.”
The food may also help her to find the strength to rebuild a home and future here. For now, she says, that’s enough.
WFP's emergency response to the Sudan Crisis has been made possible through contributions from our donors, notably Canada, Cyprus, Czech Republic, European Commission (ECHO), France, Germany, Japan, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Switzerland, UN Central Emergency Relief Fund, and USA, who have allocated new funds since the war in Sudan broke out.