Why Darfur? I can’t even guess how many times I’ve been asked this question over the last six years. When I first started becoming an advocate for peace in Darfur, there was not this united front by activists, and we really didn’t know exactly what we were doing, or at least I didn’t. I do know that I heard about Darfur, and I felt a need to act, even if in a small way.
“Why Darfur? Why you?” I was asked this by a congressman in DC. Without thinking, my immediate answered was, “Because I’m a father.” That’s my own best answer, but I think everyone has a best answer.
Are you a student, like the kids we’ve been visiting the past days in the camp? Shouldn’t the young people of Darfur have a right to a future just like you, beyond the confines of a refugee camp?
Are you a young woman or a girl? Think about Rouda, who was taking care of her frail grandmother all by herself, at age twelve. Her grandmother died, and — at thirteen — Rouda was married off. Her family first gave her to her grandma, to help grandma and to also be one less mouth to feed, given their limited rations. Then the grandmother dies, and she is given to a man.
Compassion. Compassion is not about feeling sorry for someone. It’s about sharing in the passion, the good and the bad, experiencing their joy and their suffering, and then letting that motivate your actions.
Sorry for being preachy. My mom always told me I would have been a good preacher (not that I agree). But, after days spending time with the kids in the camp, I wish I knew the answer, the exact answer, on how to get others to care about situations like Darfur and the real people that are behind the numbers. Are we all human?
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.
I went for a run today, laps on a dirt track. Each lap is about 20 seconds, and the track is surrounded by tall walls with barbed wire. The UNHCR compound feels secure, but I’m not sure how safe these walls actually are, if armed men really wanted to get in. There is no armed security force on this side of the walls.
I asked our friend, a teacher named Suleiman, how refugees felt about the the UN protection force pulling out completely from Eastern Chad, and he said, “Very bad.” Suleiman says that refugees feel safe inside of the camp. Outside is a different story. They fear banditry and the movement of rebels, which has been a regular thing since the camps opened about seven years ago.
The task of patrolling the border area has been taken over by Chadian and Sudanese forces, and refugees don’t exactly feel a sense of security in knowing that.
It feels strange to spend a day in a refugee camp–sharing stories, visiting families, and seeing daily life unfold, while remaining in a state of suspended animation–to then return to a compound with tall walls and barbed wire.
My run was short, maybe about 25 minutes. There was a white-of-the-fingernail moon in the darkening sky, and the mountain that’s not too far from one of the walls looked beautiful, painted orange in the after-sunset light.
4:00am – I woke up way too early and could not go back to sleep. The alarm was set for 5:15 am, so that we could be check-out, out by the door, and ready for pick up by UNHCR driver by 6:00am. But, I woke up at 4:00am!
6:00am – We have checked-out of the hotel and are standing outside the front door, where it feels cool and crisp, and we’re feeling good. We get to fly to the East, to Abeche! A glance at our luggage, it looks ridiculous. It is more than we’ve ever brought. We have almost 300 t-shirts, soccer balls, and volley balls for the kids in the camps, besides our equipment and very little in personals. UNHCR has reserved us some cargo room on the plane, so that the donated sports material can get to the camps. It was all donated by my son’s soccer club, Manhattan Beach Sand & Surf, and we’re so much looking forward to playing with the refugee children. By the way, I miss my kids already, Mimi and Gabo.
6:15am – A driver arrives. I ask him, “To the airport,” and he says, “Yes, to the airport.” We load our mountain of luggage, and he calls on his radio that he has the three passengers and is on his way to the airport. We’re feeling good.
6:30am – The streets are empty, on the way to the airport. The driver does not stop at the regular spot we’re usually taken to, the international terminal. He drives on to this new, smaller terminal, where we’re dropped off. We get in line and advance our mountain of luggage in stages. When we finally get to where an airline staff is checking documents, he says, I believe (since I don’t speak the language), that we’re not on this flight. He later comes and gets our documents and within a minute comes back to tell us that we’re at the wrong terminal! I start calling everyone I know, getting a hold of Victorien, Amous, and Delphine. Amous comes to the rescue in about 5 minutes and takes us to the right terminal.
6:45 – Amous takes us to the front of the line, has his friends check us in, our mountain of luggage gratefully taken from us to go as cargo, and now we’re really feeling good. One way or another, it seems like every step of our journeys here ends up with some excitement.
8:00am – We’re on the plane to Abeche, high over the Chadian desert. James is reading his kindle. KTJ is reading “Doctor Zhivago.” And I’m reading “Science is Culture.”
I don’t know about the others’ readings, but mine is fascinating. I just read a conversation between a biologist and a graphic designer. Surprisingly, their jobs have many similarities, with them both trying to create elegant designs, and asking themselves if what they create is new. Does its form and style come out of its functions, and do they work together? Does it serve a purpose, and is it good?
They talked about the challenge of “fishing in the same river,” so that too many of the designs end up being similar or even the same.
It made me wonder if we’re doing the right thing. Do our efforts to address mass atrocities and the results of violence have beauty and usefulness in their design? Are we all doing too much of the same thing, fishing in the same river?
Let me know what you think. What are we NOT doing? How can we be creative in designing new solutions to the problem? I would really appreciate your thoughts and ideas.
It was nice to see Yuen-Lin (YL) and Eric (E) live on our computers last night. We tested the three way communication using the equipment we’ll be using out in the refugee camps. It was quick and pretty simple. Out here, there’s no high speed internet. There’s no medium speed internet. There’s slow and slower. To be able get on a video conference with someone halfway across the world is, in reality, no simple task. Except that our tech team makes it easy for out here, even if we don’t exactly understand how they do it.
I remember when I first spoke with YL, using basic technology – a phone. He called me from Malaysia, where he was spending some time with his family. I told him how we wanted to come out to Eastern Chad, spend time in the camps with the refugees, and, oh by the way, we wanted to upload video from the middle of the desert, where there is no infrastructure at all. After hearing me, YL said, “Hmm…I see. It is not my area of expertise, but I will find a way to do it. I’m in.”
Back then, technology was not close to what we have right now, and it’s still quite a challenge to do what we do. We’re just lucky to have YL and E and our team.
Oh, I also have to thank VSee Lab, who provides the video conferencing software. It’s amazing that we can stream video through such low bandwidth! Thanks also to Eric Talman at SatellitePhoneStore.com, who has been great to work with for our satellite service. And, since I’m in thanking mode, thanks to the great team at the Darfur Dream Team office in DC! We are involved in a complex program, and they are managing so many parts of it, but it’s nothing but a pleasure to work together with them on this very basic concept, connecting people to people.
It’s definitely all about teamwork!