A day in the capital does a job on you. Fighting the jetlag and tiredness from having spent 24hrs making the journey here, we then spent a whole day doing final touches on permits, getting a cell phone (actually, service for two cell numbers — always good to have a backup!), and exchanging money. A small stack of one-hundred dollar bills turned us in to millionaires in Chadian money!
We’re ready to head to the east! It’s going to be another whole-day type of a thing. Oh, it’s also going to be Thanksgiving Day. We won’t have any turkey out here. There won’t be mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing, and all those great desserts. I’m actually starting my 1,000 calorie Chad diet, made up of tuna, nuts, and granola bars. I have a few little containers of peanut-butter, so I might go over just a bit on some days.
I’ll miss the food, but I’ll miss my family a lot more. Being away from my son and daughter is so hard, and each day I feel it a little more. After six straight i-ACT Expeditions together, this is now my second one without KTJ. I miss her. For the few of you that don’t know, she’s not only my coworker — she is also my wife.
It’s a privilege to be out here, though, and my teammates are also giving up so much to be here with me. We have a cool Expedition crew. Jeremiah is coming back to Chad, having been with me and KTJ on that trip when we got caught in the middle of a rebel takeover of the capital. It’s Jordan’s first trip, but she seems ready for any adventure. Meghan is with us for the first part of the trip. She’s from the Darfur Dream Team office, and it’ll be great to introduce her to all the kids and teachers in the camps, whom she knows from our social network, Pazocalo, peace public square.
OK, getting closer to the camps!
Today I met Mia Farrow — not the actress, the refugee Mia Farrow. She can’t be more than four years old. Her older sister, another beautiful girl just as Mia, is Susan — yes, like Susan Rice. They are both daughters of one of the camp’s Umbdas, or camp leaders. Umbda has seven children, and today I will ask him what the names are for the other five. I can’t wait!
We met Umda on our last trip, and it was great to see him again. He told me, “You said you would return.” We have heard this multiple times at the different camps we have visited on our now tenth i-ACT Expedition. You said you would return. A couple of trips ago, we made it back to camp Konoungou after not being able to visit for longer than we expected. We went to visit Fatne, an older woman that we had spent time with and who really connected with KTJ. When we sat with her in her home, she touched KTJ’s arm and told her, “You said you would return, and you did. You did,” and she repeated this a few times.
The Darfuris have a strong sense of community and they are ready to extend their community to include new friends — and the family and friends of the new friends. I believe that the coming back for a second visit really cements that relationship. They then know that you and your community are sincere. Mia Farrow, the actress, has been out here many, many times. Susan Rice has visited Darfur and been consistent in her message about the need for peace, protection, and justice for its people. They come back.
Somehow, the international community as whole has not returned. Umda tells us about what he has been hearing of conditions inside of Darfur, the horrible new destruction that is happening in many areas, with tens of thousands displaced every month this year. He said that expecting peace in Darfur is like “reaching for the stars.” He wants to keep reaching.
Before leaving for the day, I want to get close to little Mia Farrow, but she runs quickly to her mother and then peeks from behind to see if I’m still coming. Since I know I will be going to the camp for the next five days, I don’t push it. But, I will carry little Mia before this trip is over. If it just does not happen, we’ll return — and you with us.
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 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.
The people of Djabal are so beautiful and welcoming. Each time we return I feel more and more at home in this community. People remember my name and they ask about Yuen Lin, Ian, and Eric, all of whom spent many days in this camp. They always thank those who have come before and hope for their return. I truly believe that some of their hope for a better tomorrow comes from knowing that people in America, and around the world, care.
I smiled most of the day from the shear joy of seeing our friends again. They are not as shy as when I first met them. Bashir and Bashar came running up to me, looked me straight in the eyes, and smiled widely. Rahma found Gabriel within an hour of us being in the camp, and came dressed in a suit and vest to school. Selma, whom I met on my very first visit to Djabal, is now 17 and is studying secondary school. She used to be the only girl in a class of 20, which has grown to 40 and now has 7 girls including her sister Busayna.
Although reconnecting with our friends is exciting and joyful, the camp seems different. It seems to be shifting to a more permanent state. Where dried sticks once stood as the only fence, long green vines and gourds reinforce the privacy of homes. There are very few sheets of plastic left and even fewer tents. Cement buildings are replacing mud structures. Many Darfuris have gardens outside the camp where they grow food to supplement what they are given by the NGOs.
This shift, although it may provide some stability on an individual basis for the short term, is sad to me. They are still just surviving, and as humans I believe they deserve more. They deserve to thrive as a culture. Their wisdom and traditions are part of all humanities history and they deserve to be part of its future; to be productive members of our community. Darfuris, like all of us, have the right to live fulfilling lives. This is what I hope for our friends here and why I continue to connect them with you.
“It’s only through interaction that we learn.” Oscar is an animated and charismatic individual, but that is not what struck me most about him, Delphine, and other HCR (in Chad the ‘UN’ is dropped and they are known as ‘Hache-C-R’) workers in N’Djamena. It was their desire to connect people, and to be connected to the people they are there to serve and a provide a life for.
Oscar’s statement strikes at the heart of i-ACTs mission. It is why we are here and continue to come. It is why we believe in the Darfur Dream Team Sister Schools Program. Through interactions we become part of another person’s life. We form mutually beneficial relationship, and we become a part of their community.
“It’s not just survival, but it’s about providing a right to a future. A fair chance.” Delphine, External Relations for UNHCR Chad, explained why she is in Chad, and works with the UN Refugee Agency. We also discussed how important connecting people from other sides of the world is so important. She too believes that by creating these personal relationships, we are empowering the youth to develop a life long commitment to promoting peace and avoiding war, ultimately reducing the number of people displaced because of violence.
It’s refreshing when we meet people who also believe so passionately in creating personal relationships. This expedition to Chad has so many potentials. As we get closer to reaching the camps, I feel more confident that this trip will be a successful one. And that we will be able to implement technology, and build relationships like never before.