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JewishJournal.com

November 1, 2007

Bearing witness a world away from L.A.

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

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/bearing_witness_a_world_away_from_la_20071102

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. -- TSG



Iridimi, Oct. 18

After having our "Permission to Circulate" papers checked, we went straight to the solar cooker workshop, where we were enthusiastically (to say the least!) greeted by the 15 or so women who work so diligently making the cookers. After handshakes, hugs, smiles and a few photos, the work began. The women busily took their positions and suddenly the room turned into a serious manufacturing plant. Two women traced the cooker pattern with ball point pens and carefully cut out the cookers; two other women brushed gum arabic (glue) on the cardboard and smoothed the large pieces of foil onto them; and a seamstress sewed fabric into carrying bags to protect the cookers. Outside on the ground, one woman squatted while she stirred gum arabic crystals in water to melt them with her bare hands (for hours), and the other hammered holes in the cookers in order to place eyelets (a recent improvement to the cookers, which helps steady them on windy days by attaching rocks to a string that is placed through the eyelets).

In the small, neat storage room we saw laminated photos of kids from L.A. decorating potholders, stacks of cardboard, cookers in carrying bags, fabric and other supplies. The women were so proud to show us all they had accomplished.

-- RA



Iridimi, Oct. 19

My friend Monica wrote me a sweet note before I left. In it, she said to think of her "when there are laughs, and there are bound to be some." ... In a meeting with the Iridimi Leadership Council (picture two dozen Muslim men in traditional garb sitting on the floor staring at us) ... we entered the "tent of the meeting" for what we thought was more or less a required formality before we would start the interviews in the camp. The discussion turned out to be a serious and frank conversation about solar cookers. I was prepared to hear the resistance of the men to the solar cooker project; the main criticism I have heard about solar cookers is that the men don't like the way the food tastes. Their mothers and grandmothers cooked over wood fires, and they want their wives to do the same, I'd been told. One man volunteered that the food tastes good, and that it is so good that sometimes the children steal some out of the pot if it is not watched. Pleasantly surprised, the men talked of how they like solar cooking because now the women are safer, since they don't have to go out for firewood (also a woman's job), and that now the women have more time for other things. The only complaint was that solar cooking takes longer. The three women sitting to the side sat up when they heard that. One was the president of the women refugees. She said, "We are the ones who cook, and we don't mind. Now we have more time to do things we like, like henna!" (Think: time to go to the spa!) The women laughed, as did the men and the rest of us.

-- RA



Iridimi, Oct. 19

Today we continued with the evaluations of the Solar Cooker Project inside the Iridimi camp. At the end of each 30-minute interview related to each woman's solar cooker practices, we asked if she would mind sharing her personal story about what had brought her to the Iridimi refugee camp. Each of the women we interviewed told us about the bombardments of their villages and their horrible personal losses. One of the women told us that three children were killed in her family; she then pointed at a woman across the courtyard of the small compound and told me that the woman's mother was killed in the same way. In the first two days of the field work, we have visited around 35 households. By the end of the process, if all goes according to plan, we will have met with 100 households.

One of the most emotional aspects of the visit to the camp for me is the total lack of material culture. We have seen hundreds and hundreds of children. We have not seen a single toy or a single unnecessary object. Food is obviously very scarce, and despite 10 or so hours we have spent so far in the camps, I have never seen a child eating anything or playing with anything.

-- Janice Kamenir-Reznik



Iridimi, Oct. 20

Of course we know from news reports of the atrocities being committed in Darfur over the past few years, but we are sitting now, face to face, asking the question. A few women chuckled nervously as they began their story, each telling of their village being bombed and the Janjaweed militia coming by truck and attacking their families, raping the women, stealing their belongings and burning their villages. Each told of family members being killed. One woman had six children; four were killed the first day during the bombings and the other two children were killed the following day. A man came outside of his tent as we walked by to tell us that he uses the solar cooker to cook his meals. He was the first man who talked of cooking. His wife and children were all killed in Darfur. He is alone now.

-- RA



Touloum, Oct. 21

Man's inhumanity to man is limited only by the creativity of his cruelty. Today we cried. We have sat with small and large groups of Darfuri refugees for the last several days and talked about solar cooking, with the details of the horrors that brought us together silently hanging in the air. Today, however, we looked into the sad dark eyes of our refugee sisters and listened to their tales of horror.

Zanuba is 25 years old. She is a beautiful young woman with three small children who has aspirations to come to America. She has been living in the Touloum refugee camp for two years. When her village was attacked by aerial bombing, and then by the Janjaweed militia, they ran. Many were able to get to the nearby wadi (a dry riverbed), but many more were killed, including a woman who had gone into labor with twins and could not run. The men were primary targets, so they tried to hide by wrapping themselves in scarves like the women -- but the Janjaweed forced everyone to remove their head coverings and killed the men on the spot. Many young women were tied up and raped until they died. Other women were put into trees that were lit on fire until they divulged the whereabouts of their men. And in one of the most gruesome stories I have ever heard, the Janjaweed decapitated several people and used the heads to form a "three stone fire."

As Zanuba shared her painful story and the stories of the other women in the room, tears streamed down our faces. I was overwhelmed, not only by their suffering and loss, but by the ability of human beings to use their superior abilities to inflict unspeakable and evil acts on one another.

As we spent our last night in Iriba thinking about all we had seen and heard, one of our UNHCR colleagues asked me if I felt this experience had "changed me." I'm quite convinced that the personal impact of this visit will continue to unfold in the weeks and months to come, but my initial response is of course. How can I go back to my life, my hectic, wonderful life without hearing the voice of Zanuba in my head?

-- TSG



Touloum, Oct. 21

... Above all, I was yet again overwhelmed by the boundless capacity of human beings. The capacity of humans to commit unspeakable evil, and the countervailing capacity for healing. The capacity for those exposed to the greatest of evils on our planet to be able to regain their trust in people. The capacity for survivors of horrific cruelty to be able to laugh again. The capacity of women, who have watched their daughters tortured and murdered in front of their eyes, to give birth again to new life. The capacity of people who live in a Godforsaken place to feel hopeful about tomorrow.

-- JKR



Los Angeles, Oct. 25

We have been home for 24 hours. While our sadness persists (and lingering nausea plagues our innards), we also feel a growing sense of amazement and pride at the positive impact our JWW projects have had on the refugees.

The Solar Cooker Project has played a vital role at the Iridimi camp in decreasing dependence upon firewood. While the evaluation report is not yet complete, there is no question in our minds, after speaking with hundreds of refugees at Iridimi, that the project is successful. It has reduced the need for firewood so significantly that there is little or no need to search for firewood outside the camp and risk assault. The increased safety and security of the women is beyond our original hopes and expectations.

While this trip focused on evaluating the Solar Cooker Project, our experience there spoke volumes about the importance of our other JWW-funded projects in other refugee camps. We saw firsthand evidence of the critical importance of our work to build medical clinics, to support a psycho-social counselor for trauma victims, and to expand the "She Speaks, She Listens" radio program that educates and empowers women, particularly about gender-based violence issues.

And, having seen the thousands of children at Iridimi and Touloum and their total lack of anything, we are thrilled beyond words with the JWW backpack project [which will provide school and basic hygiene supplies for the kids]. If only we could all be there the day they distribute the backpacks to the children!!!!

... What we saw on our trip strongly validated the success of the Solar Cooker Project in helping to minimize the need for firewood among the refugees. Each of us feels renewed enthusiasm for the work of JWW and more passion than ever about the vital importance of our mission, one borne of the ancient teachings of our people, which are as relevant today as they were when originally fashioned. We are so proud of our Jewish World Watch community and how they choose to live the words of the Torah: "Do not stand idly by ..."



-- Janice Kamenir-Reznik, Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug and Rachel Andres JewishJournal.com published a live, unabridged day-to-day journal of the trip, with many more photos here.

For more information on JWW or to support the organization's work, go to http://www.jewishworldwatch.org.



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