The “confused foundation” of a childhood divided between Saudi Arabia and Sudan followed by “years of transformation, engagement and re-integration in the Sudanese cultural and social life” have given Asma Ismail a passion for her Sudanese homeland and a unique set of insights into the power of individual initiative.
The 26-year-old civil society activist is a co-founder of the Gesr Center, a NED grantee that trains young activists to promote democratic values at the grassroots in Sudan and in the national media. The Center’s training sessions and practical workshops reach young writers, aspiring journalists, citizen election monitors, and many others. Participants in Gesr programs go on to contribute original content to the Center’s popular bi-monthly publication, the NED-supported Youth Agenda, and have become leaders in their communities.
But Asma’s civil society roots go back further; while studying political science at Al Zaeim Al Azhari University, she conducted monthly forums for students on youth issues and good governance. These forums helped build her organizing skills and gave her insight into the power of open discussion and training in democratic principles. As she writes on her blog, “[real] leaders attempt to put values in the center and the heart of people’s interest.” Leadership training paired with democratic values has become a hallmark of Asma’s work.
After graduation she went to work as a political analyst for the Institute for the Development of Civil Society (IDCS), a NED grantee based at Sharg El Neil College in Khartoum. The non-partisan IDCS has educated thousands of Sudanese in violence prevention and peace building, and was proactive in supporting the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) that ended the country’s brutal, 20-year civil war.
Sudan’s April 2010 elections were a key component of the CPA, and Asma facilitated IDCS and other workshops on Electoral Violence Prevention, leadership, and transitional justice in the months leading up to the elections.
Most recently, she threw herself into the successfully crowd-funded film project Our Sudan, which raised over $20,000 online. The film tells the story of a generation of young Sudanese men and women who came of age in a tumultuous and uncertain era, and calls on young Sudanese to “dream new dreams, the dreams of our generation.” Our Sudan was to debut at TEDxKhartoum in May 2013 when the Sudanese government unexpectedly – and without explanation – shut the conference down. The film instead made an online debut, and in less than three weeks, had garnered almost 40,000 views and sparked a storm of conversation among young Sudanese.
As Asma observes, Sudan faces numerous challenges, but “there is no one alternative” for leadership in the country, “there are 30 million alternatives, if only they can look up with their hearts.”