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Jewish Journal

Bearing witness a world away from L.A.

Wrap-up from JWW's visit to Darfur refugees in Chad

November 1, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Two weeks ago, The Journal published an essay by Janice Kamenir-Reznik, founding president of the nonprofit Jewish World Watch, as she and two other JWW leaders departed for a two-week trip to Chad to visit Darfur refugees. As a coalition of about 60 Los Angeles-area synagogues, JWW's mission is to educate and advocate on issues of genocide and egregious violations of human rights. It also works to provide relief to survivors of genocide.

In Chad, women in the refugee camps face danger of assault and rape by the Janjaweed marauders -- as well as other rebels and even some Chad locals -- when they venture out to collect firewood. To reduce this risk, JWW has been raising funds to provide two refugee camps -- Iridimi and Touloum -- with solar cookers. These low-cost aluminum-covered cardboard instruments are manufactured in the camps, are self-sufficient and have proven effective in keeping the women safer.

To evaluate their program, Kamenir-Reznik, Executive Director Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug and Solar Cooker Project director Rachel Andres traveled first to N'Djamena, the capital of Chad, to meet with officials from UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency. They then traveled with humanitarian workers, as well as Chadian environmental and refugee advocates, as they visited the Iridimi and Touloum camps, where more than 10,000 cookers are now in use. They met with tribal leaders and with more than 100 women who use the cookers. They listened to stories of hardship and triumph over unimaginable tragedy. The following are excerpts from e-mails the travelers sent home while en route:

N'Djamena, Oct. 15

The average life expectancy here is 47 years old, I can tell you that I have not seen one older person anywhere! I am 45 years old, and because of sheer luck or fate I was born in Los Angeles, as were my husband and my children, and based on life-expectancy rates in the United States, I should have many more years of life to experience. But the children here, the smiling beautiful children in their school uniforms, waving to us on a street corner -- what chance do they have?

-- Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug

N'Djamena, Oct. 16

While "touring" N'Djamena, Derk [Rijks, the solar cooker project founder] wanted to give a message to someone who happens to live in the poorest section of town. We were dropped off ...[and] walked along an endless river of garbage: plastic bags, trash, bugs, empty containers, a few goats roaming, small fires burning ... words can't describe the smell and sight. On one side of us was the garbage with children walking across it and even wading into it, and on the other side were dung huts where families live in 10 x 10 hovels. There were a few children roaming about, some barefoot, as well as a woman braiding another woman's hair, a skinny dog sniffing around for something to eat and finally the home of Martine.

Martine is a beautiful, poised, sweet woman who was so gracious and pleased to see us. It was putting this beautiful face and sweet personality to the reality of this slum-like living that was completely devastating. The realization that people were living, literally, on top of this trash dump hurt to the core of my being. This country and its people are supposed to be in good shape compared to Sudan ... and we haven't even arrived at the refugee camp yet.

-- Rachel Andres

Iridimi, Oct. 18

Today we visited the Iridimi refugee camp, where our Solar Cooker Project was launched 18 months ago. The sense of being, literally, a world away, finally holding the hands of the women working to manufacture the solar cookers and speaking with the Sudanese refugees about how our project has impacted their lives for the better is something I will never forget.

Iridimi itself reminds me of how I picture the "neighborhood" where our

Post-Trip Speaker Series Dates

Nov. 2

Who: Rachel Andres
When: 6 p.m.
Where: Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles

Who: Janice Kamenir-Reznik
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks

Nov. 3

Who: Janice Kamenir-Reznik
When: 8:45 a.m.
Where: Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino

Who: Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug
When: 9:30 a.m.
Where: Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village

Nov. 5

Who: Janice Kamenir-Reznik
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd, Los Angeles -- co-sponsored by Temple Beth Am and Temple Emanuel

ancient Israelite ancestors lived in Egypt. Low mud-brick buildings, some thatched-roofs, little vegetation, and roaming donkeys -- truly a biblical scene resulting from contemporary inhuman behavior.

We began our day with an incredible meeting -- we were ushered into a room of 20 "elders" of the camp, sitting on mats, dressed in long white gowns and tall turbans. These are the leaders of the Iridimi camp, and they were invited to meet with us to discuss the project. I have to say that I was terribly intimidated by this group, as I'm sure they have never seen three white Jewish women from Los Angeles (who, while trying to dress appropriately for our guests, ended up looking like Golde, Tzeitle and Hava!), let alone engaged in peer-to-peer conversation with them! But they were gracious, respectful and expressed extreme gratitude for the work we have done for their benefit and for the benefit of their families.

The other surprising thing was their willingness to listen to our "moderator," Marie Rose, who, with Derk, now heads Tchad Solaire, the local organization formed to run the project. Just as we watched these men "shoo" the three women leaders of the camps to the back of the room, they listened as Marie Rose led the 2-hour long discussion, answered their questions and engaged them in sometimes difficult conversation. Finally, we three Jewish feminists took great pride and pleasure in witnessing the young Madame La Presidente des Refugies speak up from behind the rows of men and express her opinions about the usefulness of the project and her disagreement with some of the opinions expressed by the men. I believe we are witnessing a real cultural change, both in terms of empowerment of women in this society, as well as a grudging acceptance by the men. But isn't that just history repeating itself?

My last thought is about kindness. As I sat on the dirt floor of two different "homes" this afternoon, I witnessed a kind of dignity and kindness that I will never forget. How do people who have lost so much -- family, community and property -- continue to offer to the stranger who enters their home whatever little food or shelter they have? Without a second thought to their own needs, these participants in our evaluations opened their homes to us, provided us with food and drink and gave us entry into their lives.

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