Visiting Darfur Camps Brings Home Need

It was Sukkot without a lulav or etrog, but with a vibrancy and authenticity etched into our memories.

We stood on Sukkot amid the Darfur refugee camps in eastern Chad along the Sudanese border: two prominent Reform rabbis, Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas and Rabbi Rick Jacobs of Westchester Reform Temple in New York; John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who is deeply knowledgeable about Africa, and Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which organized the trip and does such effective development work worldwide.

Together we traveled to assess the needs of these camps and the quarter-million refugees who fled the terror and persecution in Darfur to these camps. (Almost 2 million more people remain in camps within Darfur itself.)

Their stories were riveting and wrenching: Janjaweed terrorists sweeping down without warning, killing, raping and branding women and burning villages to the ground.

Pictures drawn in the camps by traumatized children depict the Sudanese government helicopter gunships that flew support missions for the Janjaweed, whose goal was clear: to rid large areas of Darfur of these tribes.

It was this ethnic cleansing, and the slaughter of more than a quarter-million people, that led the U.S. Congress and President Bush to declare Darfur a genocide.

In the face of such tragedy, one would expect refugee camps of bleakness and despair. It’s a tribute to the resilient spirit of the people of Darfur, and the dedication and talents of the nongovernmental humanitarian groups serving them, that the camps aren’t bleak or desperate.

Among the tents and huts that stretch across the barren landscape for miles, the refugees have planted and built. Among the first things erected in the camps, even before the thatch huts and mud-brick homes, were freestanding, sukkah-like structures.

Topped with thatch, they provide shelter from the hot sun and a place to eat (and sometimes cook) outside. Like the ancient Israelites traveling though the wilderness, here was a modern-day people fleeing oppression, whose first act often was to erect such structures.

Standing in them on Sukkot linked these oppressed people with millennia of Jewish history.

The NGOs, coordinated through the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, do a remarkable job in providing food, water, sanitation, medical care and education.

They all work against incredible odds: Chad is one of the poorest nations on earth. Outside the capital there are no paved roads, no central electricity, no running water.

The medical facilities run by the International Medical Corps are the most basic, yet we saw skeleton-thin children being saved by emergency feeding programs, children being vaccinated and community health workers teaching people how to identify illnesses and find help.

Such steps have, remarkably, driven the infant mortality rates down below Third World norms. Still, there is never enough, and every contribution saves lives, every gift improves the quality of life for so many.

I remember vividly a group of mothers and 30 small children on blankets, playing for hours with one single elaborate dollhouse that someone had sent.

It doesn’t take much to help. If, for example, the International Medical Corps can get funding for a sterile basic operating room that allows for Caesarian sections, more infants would be saved.

Since the surrounding Chadian villages often are poorer than the camps, the corps has begun programs to benefit the camps and villages, building its new health center at a location that will benefit both, so that it will continue to serve Chadians when the refugees return to Darfur.

That type of community building is what attracted AJWS, which has made infrastructure building a hallmark of its work across the globe

But as the situation in Darfur deteriorates and violence — including attacks on aid workers — escalates, the refugees’ return home isn’t imminent. If things worsen and a new flood of refugees moves into Chad, they will quickly overrun the camps’ ability to serve them.

We returned with a clearer sense of the urgent response needed from our community. First, we must support the NGOs doing such extraordinary work.

Second, we must urge Congress and our administration to keep up pressure on the international community and the Sudanese government; Congress must pass the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act immediately.

Third, the United Nations Security Council must expand the mandate of the African Union troops in Darfur to include protection of civilian populations.

Fourth, NATO, the European Union and the United States must step up to the plate with expanded funding, air support for peacekeeping troops and provision of peacekeeping forces themselves.

Finally, we must do everything possible to urge our government and the United Nations to assist in negotiations for a real peace treaty among the Darfur parties.

The refugees dream of that day and look to us for help. If we succeed, maybe these refugees can rest, and their Sukkot will be called, in the words of our tradition, truly sukkot of peace.

Rabbi David Saperstein is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.