The days fly by, and, looking back, they start to flow in to each other, as one long day that started when we landed in Goz Beida and will end in two more days. Refugees have been seeking us out, arriving one by one and often quietly waiting until they catch our eye to pull us to the side.
“I have a letter I’d like you to take with you.” They are letters to friends they do not know in “America.” I put quotations around America because the America they are sending their letters to is not just the physical place we will be going back to in a few days. The “America” in the minds of the refugees, I believe, is more of a concept, an idea. “America” is friendship without having met, and it is standing on the side of those that are seeking peace and justice, for no other reason than, it is the right thing to do. As the days flow by on this trip, I often feel conflicted about the expectations refugees have for “America.” America, the real one (or the many real ones) is friendship and solidarity, but it is also impatient and with a short attention span. It is the student movement going all out in advocacy for Darfur, but it is also the government, at times bumbling its way through diplomacy and at other times focusing on other priorities, where there are higher American interests. As the days flow by, I have to stop myself and get in the moment. I can usually do this by taking a minute to look at one individual face and one set of eyes of one child, out of the thousands we see during the day.
We were given these beautiful color pencil drawings yesterday during our tour of the only secondary school in camp Djabal. The artist told us of his long and dangerous journey to the camp Djabal. For me, his pieces speak of one man’s curiosity and fascination with life. He told us that the large tree in one of the drawings was of the same kind under which Darfuris meet to discuss village matters. These trees hold a sacred place in Darfuri culture and they hope to one day return to them.
We always ask the people we meet what they miss about Darfur. The refugees have given a diversity of answers that pant a beautiful picture of a calm and peaceful life of agrarians and villagers. They speak about their fields, the herds that the boys watched over during the days, and the marketplace where they traded what they grew. Many remember growing Millet or corn, tomatoes, okra, and watermelon.
This year Darfuris have managed to grow a bit of these things outside the refugee camp. There was a lot of rain, which only ended about three weeks ago. We have attempted to visit our friends Achta and Adef several times, but both are away at gardens. Achta leaves each morning to work a field that is close to the camp and continues to watch the children while Adef travels very far and won’t be back for a while.
When we asked what they miss most about Darfur, the adults and older teenagers give the same answer mangoes and guavas. They don’t have fruit trees here and up until this year I hadn’t seen any watermelon. Now it grows on their roofs and fences! From what they describe, Darfuris had both fields near their homes, and fruit trees littered through the village. They were sustainable and what they did not use, they traded or sold in the market.
Unfortunately, one answer we are getting more and more is that they don’t remember what Darfur was like. This is mostly from teenagers who fled when they were seven, eight, or even ten. Their memories of Darfur, after seven long years of living in a camp, are lost.
The camp is full of children under 10 who are too young to remember more than being tied to their mothers backs during the journey to Chad. What will their life be like in the future? Will they only learn to farm far from their homeland or will they have a chance to return and learn the traditional ways to survive sustainably in this harsh environment? For the sake of humanity, I hope its the latter.
I was about to write, “It seems so long ago that I was planning for the first i-ACT Expedition,” but, it WAS so long ago! It was 2005! Out here, UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and NGOs call our trips, “missions.” It sounds romantic and dangerous. Looking back through our nine missions, there have been so many moments that have felt like Mission Impossible!
Using the word in its more common use, our mission from the start has been, to put a face on the numbers. Yesterday, during the Live Refugee Town Hall Meeting, it felt a bit surreal to know that people half-way around the world — anywhere in the world with an internet connection, actually — were listening and interacting with refugees that have been living in something of a limbo for over seven years.
The people in the camps have very strong opinions about what is happening in their country and what is happening in the camps. They have strong feelings about their present and their future. From the conversations during the Town Hall, so many things jump out at me.
One of the camp leaders spoke about how everything happening around the referendum in the South was bringing instability to Darfur, but that he still believed in the right of the Southern Sudanese to have their independence. He said that the people of the South are friends of Darfur.
Education. Education was the topic that came up the most. Darfuris value education, and they see it as the only link to a positive future.
Maybe the strongest answer and opinion came from a young woman who is in secondary school. She talked about how men in the camp just do not want girls to get their education, but that they want to continue studying and learning. She said that the mothers always push them to stay in school, but the fathers say that education does nothing for them. She wants to be a doctor.
Looking back from 2005, when we were trying to figure out how to “put a face on the numbers,” to yesterday, where Darfuris were able to speak live and directly to the world, I feel good and bad. It’s so rewarding to be doing this work and knowing that it’s exactly what I need to be doing, but it is also frustrating and disappointing that we are coming to these same camps. The people have not been able to go home, and there are so many issues that need to be resolved.