Navigating Crisis: A Journey from Sudan to Safety

When Yasir Zaidan embarked on his research journey to Sudan, he never anticipated that the peaceful pursuit of knowledge would be disrupted by the chaos of war. As conflict erupted in April 2023, his experience transformed into a harrowing tale of survival and resilience, illustrating the unpredictable nature of global events and their far-reaching impacts.

The war in Sudan erupted in April 2023 after an attempted coup by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Clashes broke out following failed efforts to integrate the RSF into the army as part of a broader reform agenda following President Omar al-Bashir’s ousting in 2019. The struggle for control, aggravated by international pressure and fears of weakened influence, boiled over into violent clashes, resulting in a devastating humanitarian crisis with thousands killed and millions displaced.

As the war in Sudan unfolded with escalating intensity, its repercussions were felt far beyond the nation’s borders, impacting lives even in distant corners of the globe. For one University of Washington (UW) Seattle graduate student, whose journey was abruptly disrupted by the eruption of conflict, the experience became a harrowing testament to the unpredictability of global events and travel. Meet Yasir Zaidan, whose pursuit of knowledge on port cities led him to Sudan.

Yasir Zaidan

Yasir’s journey to the University of Washington began in 2020 amidst the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a PhD student in International Studies with the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, he embarked on a unique research endeavor focused on port cities and their interactions with global investment projects. With a prestigious fellowship from the Social Science Research Council, Yasir’s path led him back to his homeland of Sudan, where he intended to conduct critical field research on port development dynamics. However, his plans took an unforeseen turn as the eruption of war in Sudan in April 2023 disrupted his academic pursuits and necessitated his evacuation.

Even a place that you really, really know, could, in a matter of one night change dramatically into a very risky place.
Yasir Zaidan

The Evacuation

Yasir’s evacuation journey from Sudan was a testament to the unforeseen challenges of conflict and the resilience needed to navigate them. Reflecting on his initial optimism about Sudan’s political transition, Yasir remarked, “Sudan was going through a democratic transition… I kind of had a sense of what’s going on.” However, as violence escalated, he found himself caught off guard, admitting, “Even a place that you really, really know, could, in a matter of one night change dramatically into a very risky place.” 

With the support of Ben Sommers, Director of Global Travel Health and Safety in the UW Office of Global Affairs, Yasir received crucial guidance on sheltering safely amidst the chaos, though his initial hopes of a swift return to normalcy were dashed as the conflict persisted.

With power cuts and water shortages plaguing his home, Yasir sought refuge first at his uncle’s, then at his grandmother’s house, facing ongoing risks from militia presence and communication breakdowns. Describing the chaotic evacuation process, Yasir recalled, “My evacuation was not very straightforward… It was really chaotic.” 

The evacuation process was long and hard, spanning two weeks of uncertainty and constant adaptation. Ultimately, Yasir and his family departed from his grandmother’s house to join an evacuation convoy in southern Khartoum, navigating multiple militia checkpoints along the way. From there, Yasir and his family traveled to Port Sudan where they boarded a U.S. Navy ship that brought them to safety in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Their journey was filled with tension and uncertainty, but the presence of family members proved to be invaluable.

Despite the relief of escaping immediate danger, Yasir now had to grapple with what to do next. His grandparents, deeply attached to their home, initially chose to stay behind despite the risks, but ultimately evacuated to safety in Egypt. After trying to figure out next steps in Saudi Arabia, Yasir’s wife Sameera decided to join her extended family in Egypt. Throughout the ordeal, the unwavering support and guidance from Yasir’s advisor, Daniel Hoffman, Director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, the Global Travel Health and Safety team in the UW Office of Global Affairs and the international travel insurance company provided a lifeline in navigating the complex evacuation process. 

One Year Later

Yasir’s harrowing experience of evacuating from Sudan has profoundly reshaped his perspective on life and research. Surviving the dangers of war has given him a newfound appreciation for basic necessities like food, water, and safety, which he once took for granted. This ordeal has also deepened his empathy for others suffering from conflict around the world, as he now intimately understands how destructive and life-changing war can be. Yasir feels a profound sense of gratitude each day for being alive and in a safe place, recognizing the preciousness of security and stability.

Reflecting on his evacuation, Yasir emphasizes the critical importance of preparation, adaptability, international travel insurance, and safety protocols for students conducting global research. His experience underscored how important it is to register international travel with the UW in order to access emergency support services while overseas. Despite the challenges, the evacuation resulted in unexpected opportunities to continue his graduate research in new ways.

Yasir reinforces this sentiment by saying, “—it’s always good to be prepared because when it happens, nobody’s going to know, so it’s going to come in handy to save your life basically.”

Back in Seattle and continuing his PhD research, Yasir is committed to sharing his story to educate future UW global travelers about the importance of being prepared for emergencies while abroad, hoping to impart lessons that could safeguard others in similar situations.

Originally published June 2024