“At the end of the day, it’s about who we are and where we come from,” Rania Salem, founder of ‘NubiYouth’ community organization, tells Egyptian Streets.
“I truly believe that being true to yourself and understanding who you are lies in knowing who your ancestors were, what they went through, and how they thought and lived.”
While the Nile is considered to be a very important source of life for many Egyptians, it is also a symbol of identity and pride for many Nubians, which helped fuel an ancient Nubian civilization that can be traced as far back as 2000 BCE — one of the earliest civilizations in ancient Northeastern Africa. “Everything that roams in it [the Nile], we consider angels,” a Nubian villager in Aswan famously said.
Today, many Nubians live miles away from their source of life, home and pride, as only 20 percent of Nubians now live in Aswan, according to a UPR report in 2019. Feeling disconnected, disadvantaged and dispersed around the world, attempts to revive Nubian heritage and uplift the community have been on the rise, with applications like the ‘Nubi’ mobile application, which utlizies technology to preserve the Nubian language as well as ‘Nubia Tube’ outlet aimed to preserve the Nubian language and identity.
To lose a language is to lose more than just a native tongue. To lose a language is also to lose the voices, the cultures, the memories, and the many ways of expression that hold a community together. Twenty-five year old Rania Salem, founder of ‘NubiYouth’ community organization, centers the value of protecting culture, language and heritage, and empowers them through community-driven outreach projects and fostering connection with Nubians from different parts of the world. In a world where indigenous communities are among the most disadvantaged and face negative stereotypes and discrimination, Nubi Youth provides a space for growth, belonging and connection.
Growing up in Northern Virginia in the United States, which Salem notes hosts the second or third largest Nubian community outside of Egypt, Salem realized early on the impacts an identity crisis can have on youth.
“We have a really big community here, and we’re in fact very close to everyone here, but a lot of us can also face an identity crisis because you grow up with four very distinct identities: you’re American, Nubian, Egyptian, and also Black. Growing up, the only place where I really felt like I belonged and was comfortable being around with was my family and my Nubian community,” Salem tells Egyptian Streets.
“Identity crises can be very dangerous for people, and I’ve seen a lot of youth become lost and drop out or engage in drugs because they don’t have a community to support them, and I think that reconnecting with your community and celebrating your culture can be so powerful.”
In such surroundings, Salem developed a sense of compassion and an instinctive desire to help others in her community; pushing her to pursue her degree in international development at George Mason University.
For decades, the Nubian community has been struggling to return to their home villages in Aswan, following their mass exodus and displacement in 1964 to enable the construction of the Aswan High Dam . Dashing their hopes of return, over half a million Nubians were relocated and displaced, Salem explains, which implanted a loss of identity and language that is still felt and experienced by many Nubian families today.
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“My family didn’t speak Nubian, and even when we continue celebrate our culture or history today, there’s always the missing piece of not being able to go back (Aswan) and connect and experience the Nubian way of life and just fully be around it and understand it,” Salem says.
“So this is definitely part of the dam’s legacy, which is trying to reconnect with our tradition and culture in our very own different ways.”
On the surface level, Salem knew her Nubian heritage and identity. Despite spending years learning about her heritage and culture through her studies and personal experiences, it wasn’t until she visited Aswan that she was able to connect with her identity on a deeper level.
“When I began to see friends and family members speak Nubian inside their homes, and are able to communicate with their parents in Nubian, I was inspired to go visit Aswan and truly experience the beauty of being there and interacting with the community,” Salem says.
“I talked to the people and saw just how beautiful and magnificent and it was, but at the same time, it was also very sad to see the lack of potential and opportunities that exist for them, such as sound infrastructures, schools, and medical facilities.”
Salem realized that learning the Nubian language is not merely about preserving the past, but also about finding love and belonging in the present, and immersing in the beauty of the Nubian culture for future generations to come.
“They do not teach Nubian in their schools, and even kids over there (Aswan) don’t feel the need to learn Nubian because it’s not popular and so they see no benefit to it – it’s not going to get you a job, and you’re not going to be able to assimilate into Egypt or Cairo, and it’s just really sad because I truly believe that the beauty of Egypt lies in its indigenous populations, and it should be our goal to celebrate that and highlight it,” Salem explains.
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Returning back to the US, Salem wanted to translate her experiences in Aswan to other communities abroad, and to create deeper and meaningful connections to help younger generations navigate the difficulties she originally faced. This, in return, helped bring to life NubiYouth.
“Because we didn’t really have anyone to help us with our college or job applications, jobs, or introduce us to the many opportunities that are out there, we had to figure it all out by ourselves, and that’s definitely because our parents were figuring out how they were going to navigate the USA themselves,” Salem notes.
“We want to be able to offer what we learned and provide mentors, financial assistance or whatever is needed to guide them and offer resources for them. The aim of Nubi Youth is to build a stronger community, and this happens when we empower the youth and ensure that they can lead successful lives and be contributing members of their families, schools, and workplaces.”
What is particularly unique about Nubi Youth is that it also focuses on creating a global network for all Nubian communities around the world, allowing the formation of strong bonds between the global communities and the indigenous community in Aswan. “Social media helped us partner with so many people in Egypt and Europe as well. It definitely showed us that the struggles of the Nubian community are global, and everyone’s kind of looking for someone to relate to on a global level,” Salem adds.
For Salem, building a strong community goes beyond just mere economic empowerment. It is also important to cultivate values of compassion, love and understanding, and create an open space for people to discuss taboo topics and empower them to tackle injustices within their own communities.
“Only we understand the struggles that we face as a community, and so we make sure to organize educational events that have an aspect of fun too, just to make sure everyone comes back and wants to stay connected, and truly be involved in everything that we do,” Salem says.
“We’re living in an evolving world, and we have to be able to move forward and not allow cultural taboos to keep us behind, such as issues in mental health or women’s rights, and so I think it is definitely important to use our platform to educate everybody.”
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Understanding the value of strong family connections and unity, NubiYouth organizes a variety of events that intertwines Nubian culture through dance and music; bringing together families and youth of all ages to socialize and engage in enjoyable activities while helping Nubian youth to learn more about their history and their language. Alongside these events, NubiYouth also organizes events to fundraise and support Nubian initiatives as well as programmes to help youth continue their education.
“Our fundraisers have helped many families to finance their children’s education. But even more importantly, we focus on raising awareness on the many career opportunities that exist and empowering youth and their families to pursue the career they want, because there’s a lot of pressure to pursue careers in STEM, when there’s a lot of potential in the arts field as well where they can flourish,” she adds.
Yet Salem believes supporting indigenous communities shouldn’t merely stem from those within the community itself; it is also the responsibility of governments and policy makers.
In October 2016, the Egyptian government allocated swathes of the community’s ancestral lands for real estate investment and massive development projects, which undermines the constitutionally protected Nubian right of return. In response, protesters launched demonstrations in the area and staged a sit-in at the Toshka land reclamation project.
Later in 2019, Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi ordered the Egyptian government to address the challenges that Nubians face due to the construction of the two dams, including the Aswan Low Dam in 1902 and the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. The Egyptian cabinet formed a committee headed by the Ministry of Justice to determine those entitled for compensation. It was reported that agricultural lands and houses will be granted as compensation to those who were affected by the construction of the Aswan Dam.
However, the legacies of the dams extend beyond the government’s promises to offer compensation.
“There’s no real compensation to what happened. People died and lost a lot of their family members, and I just don’t know how one can fix such a big issue,” Salem says, “instead of having our potential being invested into our community, a lot of is wasted on just trying to find a new way of life outside, and then this cycle continues.”
For many young Nubians like Salem, who are living in different parts of the world, their dreams of returning back to their homeland is what rekindles the hope to connect and reunite the community globally, creating networks of links with Nubians from all around the world.
“We want to come together as a greater community on a global level, and we’ve already been connecting family members from different parts of the world through our platform,” Salem says, “to create a strong community, I think beyond than just having basic rights like education and a job, it is really about having love, understanding and respect for each other.”
To follow NubiYouth’s work or see how you can get involved, follow their Instagram page here.