Dates: November 20 to December 2, 2012
Locations: Djabal and Goz Amer, Eastern Chad
i-ACT14 is all about Little Ripples, a program building early childhood education in Darfuri refugee camps.
1. Only the refugees are always here.
Thousands of staff working for humanitarian agencies and the UN Refugee Agency have come and gone through the camps. Not one remains that is still around from my first trip in 2005. The refugees, they’re still here, only more of them.
2. Life can get harder, and families can get stronger.
Guisma’s mother, Achta, received me with warmth and affection. She sat with me and had her children come greet me, all of them smiling. She gave me a gift for Katie-Jay. There was a group of women sitting on other mats at her home, and more were coming with food. Achta’s mother died last week, and they were mourning in community.
3. I don’t want to hear this again: “They’re better than they were before they came here.”
That’s not necessarily true because you can’t measure freedom. Besides that, “before” should not be the standard by which we measure.
4. From a distance, even the desert is beautiful, rich, and inviting.
Walking next to those that live there gives you a less romantic perspective, but it might still be beautiful, rich, and inviting.
5. Real Madrid vs. Barcelona divides the universe.
6. Ideas, concepts, and plans can be very exciting.
Meeting the actual little ripples that are the motivation and reason for all the work makes it all not be work anymore.
7. I don’t always care what studies say.
Eastern Chad is a rough, harsh environment. It’s hot, dusty, and I am always thirsty. I don’t care how many studies say it’s bad for you, I love and miss my DIET soda with lots of ice (coke or pepsi, does not matter). If there was one of those 7-11 soda and ice machines out in the refugee camps, my work rate might double during the trips, and I’d be so much more happy.
8. It is invaluable to be able to wake up every morning knowing you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing.
9. If Umda Tarbosh lived in my neighborhood, we would be friends.
And I would take him out for burgers or tacos as often as possible, so I could hear more of his stories and how he sees the world.
10. Beautiful is beautiful.
There is a big moon over Eastern Chad tonight. It’s beautiful, but it also gives so much light that you can’t see too many stars. They often fill the entire sky, with the Milky Way’s heavy brushstroke from one horizon to another. Back home in Los Angeles, that sky does not exist.
We are back in the little town of Goz Beida, and we only have one more visit to camp Djabal, and then we start our journey home. Yesterday was a travel day, with the usual “hurry up and wait” routine that is the norm here. It was a quick little jump from Kou Kou’s dirt runway to Goz Beida’s dirt runway. The South African co-pilot of the flight looked tired but still with a sense of humor. He could not think of where we were flying to until someone whispered “Goz Beida,” but he then said, “Don’t be surprised if we end up in Cape Town.” To finish his pre-flight instructions he said, “Let’s go home.”
We got to town at three, but we were still able to get a car and head to Djabal for a short visit. We arrived to watch a foot race between a number of women and girls at the soccer field. They run in their normal dresses and scarves, but they can still fly. The finish line was a wall of people into which the runners would pretty much slam.
I said goodbye to everyone in Goz Amer yesterday, and next it’s goodbye’s to Djabal. This time, though, I’ll be coming back a lot sooner and more often, and my refugee friends know that I will. In the camps, everything moves at a different pace. They have a different sense of time, but I notice more and more an urgency of wanting to break lose and be able to dream of moving in a space and time outside of the refugee camps and leave that label, refugee, behind.
Let’s go home.
Katie-Jay and I have a new baby, and her name is Leila. She is named after a refugee girl I met in 2007. Leila, the refugee, had the most beautiful smile, and I can guarantee that you would immediately fall in love with her the moment you meet her.
I first saw her briefly on a quick stop at her refugee camp home, Gaga, on our way to another camp. On a second visit a few days later, we got off of the car and asked a little boy, “Leila?” He smiled, pointed, and started walking. After just a few minutes of following the boy, he stops and and points, “Leila!” Here comes Leila walking fast, while at the same time trying to put on her dress, with her arm stuck not quite making it through the sleeve. I don’t believe Leila said a single word while I was with her, but her smile did not stop.
Gabriel walks the refugee camp with a camp leader. They scout sites for the Little Ripples centers and meet some future LR students along the way.
We left Los Angeles on Monday. It feels so long ago, and the distance even longer. It is now Friday night, and I am back in eastern Chad in a little village called Goz Beida. I have lost count of how many times I’ve been here. It’s as remote as it can get, and the only reason anyone comes out here is to visit refugees. I do sometimes have those moments of, “How did I get here?”
Meeting up with Rahma is always special. I know that I will be somehow connected to him for the rest of my life. Anyone that has met him, even just through video, can see how special he is. He is far from perfect, like anyone of us, but he is full of curiosity and charisma that tends to make even his flaws look good. He wants to grow and explore, and he will not settle.
Rahma tells me that some refugees have been going to some place, I’m not sure where, that is believe to have gold. I ask him, “Is there gold?” He shakes his head in his very Rahma-confident way, “No. Very little.” Rahma is wiser than many older and more educated men around him. But he’s also young and playful, with the greatest sense of humor.
When I’m walking around with Rahma and friends, then I know how I got here. It makes sense. I have to be here. I feel the same with Guisma, Adam, Umda, Yakoub, Buseina, and so many more. I do miss my family, and it hurts to be away for weeks. I wish there was a way to be over here but never leave home.
If I asked you to name the only two countries in the world that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, what countries would you name? If you want to first do a quick read, even just skimming, of the fifty-four articles in this document of the United Nations, maybe that might help. You’ll find that it talks about very basic right, recognizing that “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
The answer: Somalia and the United States of America.
Yes, the USA is in the company of a failed state on this issue. I am sure that there are complex political issues that I might not fully comprehend. But, somehow, all other countries on earth were able to work through their own challenges to recognize the special rights that children have.
We have seen over and over again that words written on paper do not translate to action and real life. Children’s rights are abused in every country, and especially sad is to see how the most vulnerable of the vulnerable are the greatest victims when it comes to war. The official recognition of basic human rights is, though, an important first step.
I am now on my 14th trip to Darfuri refugee camps in Eastern Chad. When I see the thousands of kids in the camps, I think of my own children and how expectations and standards are so different for each–and all by luck of birth. I will be out here for two weeks, and I’m sad that I will be away from my new baby girl, wondering how much bigger she will be and how many new things she’ll be doing. As I get ready to visit camp Djabal again, having last been there in June, I worry whether some of the babies I met will still be alive!
Today, November 20th, is Universal Children’s Day. To celebrate, please give your kids hugs and take them out for a treat and to have fun. To celebrate some more, please ask President Obama to push through the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.