Ice melts on US-Sudan relations, providing new opportunities

It was over 27 years in the making. When the White House removed Sudan from the "State Sponsors of Terrorism" list in December 2020, ZAHARA for Education was ready.

ZAHARA was founded by MIT technology and policy master's student Ilham Ali and Harvard University alumna Sahar Omer to expand educational opportunities between Sudan and the United States. Earlier this year, the organization partnered with MIT-Africa, an MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program, to launch the first-ever Global Teaching Labs (GTL) workshop for young leaders in Sudan. GTL is a long-running MISTI program that places over 300 students per year as teachers in high schools around the world.

"ZAHARA approached the MIT-Africa Program as a passionate and well-organized group," says MIT-Africa Program Managing Director Ari Jacobovits. "It was clear that now was the time to engage with Sudan in a new and exciting way."

An MIT-led workshop connecting young leaders in the U.S. and Sudan received hundreds of applications from high school and college students eager to take part. Members of the ZAHARA for Education group selected their first cohort of 50 students, some of whom are pictured here. Photo courtesy of MIT News.

Sudan-U.S. relations have recently entered a new chapter of cooperation. For decades, the two nations were frequently at odds over Middle East policy and Sudan's civil unrest. A significant development occurred in July 2011, when South Sudan voted to break away from Sudan and establish a new country with a capital in Juba. During 2018 and 2019, Sudan's youth-led peaceful revolution set an example for change in the country and has motivated its citizens to work toward a new era of peace and prosperity, long term.

Guided by Sudan's changing geopolitical landscape, ZAHARA focused the lab on "being agents of change in a changing world" and led sessions on topics ranging from change-making strategies to the climate crisis to democracy and governance. 

"We chose to broadly focus on the idea of 'making change as Sudanese youth' to help empower our students and fellow generation to be thoughtful leaders in their communities," Ali says. "Our main goal was to have a diverse class of students in terms of age, backgrounds, and disciplines, and to equip them with the tools to break down problems they see around them, as well as piece together innovative solutions. In picking our class topics, we relied on the strengths of the teaching team, who all have a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the various subjects presented."

Joining Ali as lead instructors were Abdalla Osman, a senior studying mechanical engineering, and Shakes Dlamini, an SM candidate in the Technology and Policy program. The program received hundreds of applications from high school and college students eager to take part. Ali, Osman, Dlamini, and other members of the ZAHARA team then made the difficult decision of selecting their first cohort of 50 students.

"We were incredibly surprised by the amount of traction the initiative gathered on social media," Osman says. "The application was live for only a couple of weeks, and in that time, we received over 400 applicants. We realized students all over Sudan were sharing the application with each other and encouraging each other to apply, and we were inspired by the excitement that each applicant showed. It was definitely a challenge to trim down the list of applicants to 50 students."

Hailing from Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Dlamini saw an opportunity to be involved with GTL in Sudan as a chance to hone his educational efforts back home.

"It was an honor to be part of the ZAHARA team. I care deeply about expanding opportunities to young people in Africa; hence joining the team was a no-brainer for me," Dlamini says. "This is the kind of work I have been involved in with The Knowledge Institute since its founding in 2013. Working with the students and learning about their ideas and accomplishments was also inspiring for me, as it demonstrated to me the value of such programs to youth. I am looking forward to taking part in more MIT-Africa programs and working with groups like ZAHARA."

After two intensive weeks of lectures from the lead instructors and guests, the program culminated with a poster session where student teams tackled some of the country's biggest issues. Student groups proposed innovative solutions such as bioswales to lower pollution in the Nile River, solar energy to ease transport woes in the capital, and interactive teaching methods to improve secondary school experiences around the country.

Another group pitched a nationwide flood alert system in the wake of the devastating regional flooding throughout 2020, the team's driving motivation for pursuing the project. "Flooding in Sudan is a huge concern that threatens our welfare. In knowing that every minute counts when lives are on the line, our flood warning system was the perfect choice," shares the team of five. "Working virtually as a team was a challenge, but we felt rewarded by the value our project has in potentially saving many lives and possessions." Though based in different states in Sudan, members of the organization collaborated effectively to produce a robust project vision.

Awab Rhamtalla, a student at the University of Khartoum from Jabal Awlia, was excited to participate in the inaugural program. "The reason I joined the GTL program was because I knew some things can't be found on Google. Rich experience, tailored advice, wonderful colleagues, and awesome instructors are the reasons people go to places like MIT, and the ZAHARA team brought these things to our doorstep," shares Rhamtalla. "To say that I am grateful for every day of the program would be an understatement. I can only hope to pay tribute to these two weeks by passing their message forward."

Professor Elfatih Eltahir, a faculty member in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, had an opportunity to observe the poster session. “The ZAHARA team did an excellent job in planning and execution of their online course. I was impressed by the quality of the presentations by young Sudanese participants,” says Eltahir. "In particular, the presentation of the project reimagining how high school students can be taught differently in Sudan was very good, and offered a concrete example for the success and impact of this GTL-Sudan activity."

MIT-Africa Faculty Director Evan Lieberman also joined for one session of the class. "I was impressed by the level of engagement on the part of the Sudanese students. Despite the challenges of remote teaching and learning, it was clear that this was a productive educational opportunity."

Jacobovits and the ZAHARA team hope to build on the success of the remote GTL to launch an in-person program in the future post-Covid.

"Our main mission is to expand educational opportunities between the United States and Sudan," Ali says. "We hope to host GTL in Sudan annually and have students from MIT visit the country once travel resumes. ZAHARA is also continuing to work on several innovative ways to bring students from the U.S. and Sudan together and to provide educational opportunities for youth, in particular."