Dua Saleh came to the United States when she was five years old with her mother and two younger siblings. Although they identify as Sudanese, they lived during the Darfur War in a refugee camp in Eritrea. For most of her life, Saleh grew up in the Rondo neighborhood of Saint Paul.
Now a sophomore at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, she has immersed herself in a myriad of social justice organizations like Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), NAACP St. Paul Youth, and Save the Kids Augsburg Chapter. She began her commitment to activism in high school, strongly driven by her own history.
In an interview that explored the roots of her activism, Saleh described her own struggles with her Sudanese American identity. “I don’t really have that many roots to my tribal ancestors,” said Saleh. “I know [that] I’m of the Tunjur tribe because of my paternal side — that’s how I identify — but I don’t know much about it. There was a little bit of [identity loss in] losing the ability to speak Arabic fluently.”
Despite the difficulties her identity brought, she acknowledged the benefits of growing up in a supportive community like Rondo.
“I think my favorite part about being raised in the Rondo community is [the people’s] ability to share with others,” Saleh said. “The people who I was surrounded by were so willing to speak to me, to mentor me, to engage with me in ways that were beneficial to my development as a person, and as an ‘activist,’ if that makes sense. I learned a lot about structuring plans in terms of organizing either events or other activities related to social justice.
“I also learned about the rich history of Rondo community, and how the community in and of itself has been marginalized for such a long time,” Saleh continued. “Like they put the highway in the middle of the Rondo community and it split [the community] completely apart. A bunch of the historical artifacts that should have been preserved — like they had a railway through it that was taken away and a bunch of the buildings were torn down.
“I learned to appreciate historical elements of understanding your environments — not just, like, being in it, but learning about its history and understanding the nuances in everything that surrounds you.”
KFAI’s Truth to Tell interviewed Saleh and Jason Sole in January. Sole is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University. Saleh expressed some of her thoughts on the criminal justice system and mentioned her younger brother. For Saleh, family serves as an important influence on her activism.
“I guess the family dynamic that I lived in seems stereotypical at face value: single mother [who] raised three kids alone,” she explained. “But growing up I was more responsible for taking care of my mother as well as my brother and sister [who are both younger]. So again, at face value it’s very stereotypical, like the older sister takes care of everything and cleans the house, etc. But I learned a lot from them as well just by observing and hearing from them.
“Like I learned a lot about my brother and the things that he’s had to deal with just because of Ferguson, which led to a lot of conversations between me and my sister and brother,” Saleh said. “And [my sister’s] been profiled within her school. One time she was playing with a stick, and she got sent to the principal’s office because they said that she posed an imminent threat… Yeah, that was ridiculous…” Saleh said shaking her head.
“Learning from my family and understanding the dynamics that they’ve had to go through and [what] they are dealing with currently have influenced everything that I’ve done,” Saleh continued. “Also just being raised as a low-income African immigrant kid with a single mother — that tremendously led to my motivation right now, like I have to do this…because there’s no other option for me.
“If it wasn’t for NAACP I would probably be working at Holiday Inn or something. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with that, but I have to do this so I can provide for my family, so that later on they don’t have to deal with this…”
Saleh hopes to study abroad in Namibia, one of the few African programs offered at Augsburg. She became interested in studying in Namibia after she took a course as a freshman on the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela, where they examined “the anti-apartheid movement and how that worked within South Africa.”
Saleh wants to go explore Sudan with her family someday. “It’s very self-indulgent,” she says smiling, “but I really want to go back. I’m just enchanted by Sudan. It’s gorgeous. I love the people, and the culture is neat.”
Behind her role in local organizations, Dua Saleh carries her own experiences as a Sudanese American, guilty pleasures (like Shonda Rhimes shows), and favorite foods (like khudra, a Sudanese dish). Saleh’s easy smile and deep connection to family add to her passion for social justice, never forgetting her roots and the home she hopes to return to someday soon.
Thanks to Andrea Weyer and the Macalester University Cultural and Media Studies Department for sharing this story with us.