It is often in the absurd that poignant insights are provided. In his new movie, Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen’s character responds to a question regarding his social involvement: “Darfur is old news…what about Darfive.” He is commenting on our need to move on to what is fashionable and that human tragedies go in and out like the latest clothing designs. Painful as it might be, the suffering of the Darfuri people has not ended like an episode of a television drama. It has been a six-year long human catastrophe, and sadly there is no end in sight.
I just returned home to the Bay Area after spending 10 days in Eastern Chad, observing Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in Darfuri refugee camps. There are no Jews there, but there are millions of humans struggling to survive. Having lived my life as a middle class American, I will never be able to communicate what life as a Darfuri refugee entails. I can only tell you what I have just seen.
I’ve seen hundreds of children under the age of six born in the camps, whose only experience of life so far is one of poverty, food rations and houses made of sheets and mud. I’ve seen women being wheeled miles back to the camps on wooden platforms over pitted roads, just hours after giving birth in an aid clinic. I’ve seen families building dirt shells around UN tents to protect themselves from ravaging heat, wind, and rain.
Since my first trip to the area in 2004, the camps now look like a village but a village without freedom, security, education or jobs. Because the people have had no choice but to live this way for so many years, things have normalized in a sense—if I can even connect such devastation and loss to anything normal.
Since 2003, four hundred thousand Darfuri people have lost their lives. Three million have lost their homes and all that a home represents. For me, as a rabbi, there could be no better place to welcome in a new year. Here, I am reminded of the brightness of human compassion and connection. These are people often forgotten, living in the remotest part of the earth. They are surviving because of their resilience, their courage, and their refusal to give up hope. Somehow they go on with minimal food, water and shelter. Their battle is not a political one; they are simply victims of ethnic cleansing, of genocide. They wonder: Does the civilized world care? Have we been left to die?
I believe that our lives are inextricably linked. As long as we are allowing people to suffer this way, not just in Darfur, but in so many places in this world, our lives cannot really flourish. Indeed, we can take great pride in so many human accomplishments. Yet in terms of how human beings treat each other, perhaps all we can feel is embarrassment.
What can we do in our own communities to help? We can first remember the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote from his Birmingham jail cell: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we allow such cruelty to take place anywhere in the world, might we also allow it here, in our home? We are known as Americans for being being a community with a social conscience; does that conscience only extend to our immediate local concerns? If we can’t find ways to help, who will?
There is much that can be done. We can provide financial support and aid. We can send letters and simple reminders to let them know we care. We can educate ourselves and stay informed. We can keep the plight of the Darfuri people on the minds of our families and friends. We can urge our country’s leaders to do more. The tragedy of Rwanda did not need to unfold as it did; we failed to put pressure on the White House to act.
Darfur has been called the first genocide of the 21st century. What a horrific attribution with an implication that there will be others. Are we doomed to have others? I believe not, if we can find the courage to see that human dignity and human rights are worth our sustained support. It is time now to end the suffering of Darfur, lest we have Darfive, six and seven.
Ultimately, it is about the world we leave our children. When our grandchildren ask us, what did you do to help the Darfuri people, will we be embarrassed or will be able to say that we did everything within our power to help.
Like many holidays, the Jewish New Year is meant to shake us to our core and to remind us of our personal responsibility to be engaged global citizens. Nowhere on earth could this message have been more deeply felt than sitting with the Darfuri refugees.
Our ability to respond and to care is immense—limited only by our own fears and doubts. The people of Darfur are waiting for us to be bold, imaginative and do whatever we can to help restore their lives.
Lee Bycel is Executive Director of the Redford Center, based in Berkeley, CA. The Redford Center inspires positive social and environmental change through the arts, education and civil discourse. He raised $100,000 for humanitarian aid prior to his recent trip.