Ashraf Awad: From Sudan to Saudi… Finding Freedom in America

Ashraf Awad Elkarim is a Saudi-born American college student from Chicago, Illinois. In his story, he shares why he considers himself lucky to have the wonderful opportunity of living in a country that grants him freedom, yet the challenges he faces in building his life. He is currently working with the Zakat Foundation of America.


Living in Saudi Arabia seemed much easier than life in America feels now. We were doing much better financially, and I was content with life there. It was not beyond our reach to have a good lifestyle in Saudi. In fact, it was so easy that almost nobody from the middle class had to think about joining the workforce before graduating from college.

Surprisingly, things changed upon my arrival in the U.S. in 2013. America seemed different in many respects than I had imagined. Having led the good and comfortable life of a middle class family in Saudi, America felt really strained for us.  Here, life in general is not as easy as I had thought it would be. Many people have to work two jobs to make their ends meet. Moreover, the experience of materialism here has not sat well with me because life, back home, was very simple and modest. However, none of these constraints and differences have stopped us from staying here because we cherish the freedom and many opportunities that we had dreamed for ourselves. Some other barriers that I face living in the suburbs of Chicago is transportation. It is something that is new to me, for I did not have that back home. Here, I use the Pace bus system. It is convenient, but sometimes a struggle. The buses do not always come on time, or sometimes come earlier than what is schedule. Sometimes getting to work can be little bit of a task, but I consider myself lucky to have a job.

We also miss our home and our strong community bond. The experience of a communal life where you live by collective, socially accepted norms and have many around you to share happy and sad moments in life contrast starkly to an individualistic society like America. This has been challenging. Yet, the downside of strong community bonds like ours is that you have to conform to certain norms and practices. Those who try to stand out, in any way, are ostracized, regardless of their intentions, by society. I believe restricting people’s freedom and choices is wrong because that’s simply not what Islam stands for. Instead, it teaches tolerance and respect for others’ opinions and beliefs.

Every now and then I miss my motherland. In my country, everyone was living in compact communities. Many of us all follow the same things, do the same types of work, and pray in the same mosque. If  anyone would try to stand out, in any way, one immediately becomes an outcast regardless of their good intentions. Some neighbors will attack you for trying to stand out by not following what’s deemed right. I saw this as wrong because that’s simply not what Islam stands for. Instead, it teaches respect and tolerance for others’ opinions and beliefs.

My parents wanted what was best for my siblings and I. I am incredibly proud of my mom for being an employee of the U.S. embassy for several years now. Thanks to the government, we were granted the privilege to move here, with the help of a green card. Even though she could have brought us here earlier, my mother wanted to make sure we understood our deep roots as Sudanese Muslims. She brought us here to have best of both worlds. Now I am able to start a new future here in America. I am able to have the best of both worlds, as I hold onto my roots and genuinely value my evolving identity.

I have been fortunate enough to go to one of the best community colleges in Illinois. However, I did have some fears before starting school, worrying about people judging me on my religion or origin. I talk with a heavy accent, and I am not afraid to say where I am from. Everyone of my loved ones would tell me I should be careful because I am a black Muslim in the U.S. and people would probably treat me with prejudice. Nevertheless, thus far I have only been in one or two situations where  I have felt like I was being treated with prejudice. Overall though I have felt at peace here. I am still discerning whether to stay in America after my studies, but given all the opportunities that have come my way, I could see myself settling here.

The greatest challenge in America has been realizing how endless the possibilities are in this life. And at any given point you can completely change your life in a new direction. I recognized a freedom that never existed, neither in Sudan nor in Saudi Arabia for me.

I am currently working for the Zakat Foundation of America, a Muslim humanitarian, non-profit organization that seeks to help distressed communities around the world. In working this job, I feel like I am able to make a difference in the lives of other people.  I know that when I do good, I feel motivated to become something greater than myself.

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