‘Black Lives Matter is the end of silence on racism’

Sudanese university student Nagm Arbab says black people and migrant workers in Malta have been living in fear since the murder of Lassana Cisse in 2019

Nagm Arbab left home at 17 to reach Malta. He now studies industrial electronics at the University of Malta. Photo courtesy: Michael Paris Photography
Nagm Arbab left home at 17 to reach Malta. He now studies industrial electronics at the University of Malta. Photo courtesy: Michael Paris Photography

In January 2014, then 17-year-old Nagm Arbab fled Sudan in search of safety, as the situation in his home country escalated to the point where he had no choice other than to leave.

Up until that point, he was living in “sort of” peace with his family.

“I had a normal life like many other teenagers – I would go to school, hang out with friends. But then the situation in Sudan began to deteriorate, forcing me to leave my family and village,” says the 23-year-old man, one of several black activists present at the Black Lives Matter rally in Valletta last Monday, held in memory of Lassana Cisse, shot in a drive-by shooting by two soldiers in 2019.

Today, Arbab studies industrial electronics at the University of Malta. When he is not studying, he works as an electrician. But at such a young age, this man’s journey to safety has been rife with danger.

“First I went to another place in Sudan that was considered safe, but eventually even the situation in that village deteriorated. At that point, I felt I had no choice but to leave my country altogether,” he says.

From Sudan, Arbab crossed into Chad and then the Sahara desert, setting course for Libya, where he stayed for seven months in the hope that the country was on its way to regain stability from the civil conflict that ousted Muammar Gaddafi. “It was in chaos, and because I once again had no choice, I crossed the Mediterranean and arrived in Malta on 21 July 2014. I still remember the day.”

For the teenage Arbab, detainment at the Safi closed detention centre was hard. “I can say I am more fortunate than others because I was given opportunities. I think I had it easier than other migrants and refugees. But I still faced difficulties when it came to integrating, as well as navigating a new country. Which I think is normal, and something many people who move countries go through.”

After being released from detention, Arbab was quick to understand the lack of organised community relations for Sudanese migrants, when he saw migrants bringing food or cigarettes to migrants in detention. “I wanted to help migrants the same way they had helped me, but there was no organisation to help bring the Sudanese together as a community, where we could gather. Until that point you had to approach people individually, meeting at their place or in public. So I thought there was a need for us to have a place we could gather and collaborate.”

His Facebook page called out for Sudanese migrants to come together and share experiences, and find a place to “have some peace of mind and rest after a hard day’s work.” The Sudanese Migrant Association would soon take shape.

Today, as the SMA’s vice-president, Arbab is active as ever in the anti-racist manifestations that connect many Maltese and non-Maltese alike, such as last Monday’s Black Lives Matter demonstration.

“I think after personally witnessing racism here in Malta, you can say we are more similar in some cases to America than most people realise. We suffer from a lot of micro-aggressions. I’ve witnessed racist behaviours – some intentional, others perhaps not – and in my opinion, no government body comes out to speak clearly about racism or address the reality of what is going on. People tend to avoid the situation or use it for political gain,” Arbab said.

And despite countless cases of racism and even violence reported to the SMA, Arbab says none of the victims get justice. “Things have become harder, and racism has become clearer, with public hate speech growing – platforms such as Facebook have played a role in that… to the point where the Hal Far centre has become less safe. Before Lassana was murdered, there was a hit-and-run outside the open centre of a 17-year-old boy from Chad. He was left unconscious on the side of the road,” he says of May Malimi, who was left unconscious on the side of Triq il-Ġebel in Hal Far with a fractured collarbone, after being run over by a car.

Arbab says the death of Ivorian national Lassana Cisse shook the Sudanese community. “There was a lot of fear – fear that it could happen to them. Some people thought they weren’t safe anymore and started limiting their activity during the night and only going out if necessary. Some even began going out in groups of two, so that if something happened to them the other would know. People have calmed down slightly since then.”

Now Arbab says the Black Lives Matter movement may have sparked a new voice for migrants and the anti-racist movement, a new sign of courage for communities to no longer remain silent in the face of hate and racism.

“We live in a community together – if someone is oppressed, and the other remains silent, the oppressed group will only grow more restless and will lead to a negative response from that group.

“Malta is a small island. If we ignore the problem of racism here, it will only get worse and can escalate quickly.”

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