El-Fadel Arbab of Portland, whose wife and two boys are caught in the crossfire of the conflict in Sudan. Friday, April 25, 2023. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

El-Fadel Arbab heard fear and sadness in his wife’s voice when her heartbreaking call finally came through Tuesday morning.

Zinab Sailh Abakar and their two sons, ages 7 and 3, are caught between warring factions in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, where a violent power struggle between two top generals has devolved into a massive humanitarian crisis.

Associated Press

“A round of artillery hit a neighbor’s house and two people were killed,” said Arbab, 39, of Portland. “People are fleeing everywhere, but she’s not able to go. They’re running out of food and they have no running water. My children are crying. They say, ‘Daddy, where are you?’ ”

El-Fadel Arbab, right, who lives in Portland, and his wife, Zinab Sailh Abakar, who is trying to flee the conflict in Khartoum, Sudan, with the couple’s two young sons. Photo courtesy of El-Fadel Arbab

Arbab, one of about 2,000 Mainers who have ties to Sudan, is struggling to comfort his family from afar and hoping to find a way to get them to safety, perhaps to the United States.

Since fighting began on April 15, food, water, medical care, electricity, cellphone and internet service have become scarce or cut off altogether. Negotiated cease-fires have failed repeatedly.

El-Hadi Adam, founder of the Sudanese Community of Maine, said circumstances have never been worse in Sudan, a country of 45 million people in northeast Africa that is one of the poorest places on earth, regularly plagued by drought, famine and war, and reliant on foreign aid.


“It’s not only in Khartoum – it’s everywhere,” said Adam, 51. “This is the worse situation ever in Sudan because there’s no way for people to leave, and there’s no food, no water, no communication. It’s very bad.”

Adam said a cousin’s husband, who was a member of the Sudanese Army, was killed Sunday, leaving behind a wife and four children.

“Now, I don’t know where they are because the phones are not working,” said Adam, who lives in Portland and works in facilities management at Southern Maine Community College.

El-Hadi Adam of Portland, founder and former president of the Sudanese Community of Maine, said a cousin’s husband died during recent fighting in his homeland and that members of his family have fled the capital city of Khartoum. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

He sent money to three of his sisters who lived in Khartoum so they could flee the capital with their husbands and children.

“They are now 10 hours away from Khartoum, in a different city, away from the fighting,” he said.

Adam and Arbab are close friends, having arrived in Maine in 2000 and 2004, respectively, and they are now U.S. citizens.


Members of the Sudanese Community of Maine, El-Hadi Adam, left, and El-Fadel Arbab are worried about family members caught in the conflict back in their homeland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Adam and his wife have two children, who are students at Deering High School and King Middle School, he said.

Arbab has been striving to bring his family to Portland since 2020, he said. He and his wife were wed overseas in 2015 in a marriage arranged by their families in Sudan. Their two sons have passports as U.S. citizens, but his wife’s immigration documents have yet to come through.

Ehab Arbab, age 3, riding a bicycle that was a gift from his uncle. Photo courtesy of El-Fadel Arbab

He works three jobs – two as a delivery driver and one at Bayside Bowl – to support his family and prepare a home for them in Maine.

“I work hard, seven days a week, to bring my family here and one day give them the American dream,” he said.


When Arbab’s wife called Tuesday morning, he was standing in the Portland office of U.S. Sen. Angus King. He was there seeking the independent senator’s help in getting his family out of Sudan.


They’re staying a few blocks from the American Embassy in Khartoum, he said, but it has been closed for a few days. U.S. special operations forces carried out a precarious evacuation of embassy staff on Sunday, sweeping in and out of the capital without firing a shot and with helicopters on the ground for less than an hour, the Associated Press reported.

King’s staff told Arbab they would help him however they could.

“They said they are working very hard to make sure all American citizens get out of Khartoum,” Arbab said.

Eyad Arbab, age 7, in the police costume his father bought him because he wants to be a police officer in the U.S. when he grows up. Photo courtesy of El-Fadel Arbab

King’s staff declined to comment on Arbab’s request, calling it a confidential interaction with a constituent. “We try to provide a safe, supportive, confidential space for everyone who walks in the door,” spokesperson Matthew Felling said.

U.S. officials said Monday that the government is now indirectly helping private American citizens leave Khartoum by connecting them to countries’ convoys, finding transportation and using reconnaissance assets to determine safe routes, AP reported.

Arbab said he cannot rest until he knows his family is safe.

“I’m here and I’m safe, but I cannot sleep,” he said. “I’m up night and day.”

Arbab survived a genocide in Darfur, the western region of Sudan, so he knows how to deal with a crisis, he said.

“But my wife and kids, they don’t know what to do in this situation,” Arbab said. “As a father, I wish I could have wings to fly there and protect them from anyone who would hurt them.”

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