Janice Kamenir-Reznik is the Co-Founder and President of Jewish World Watch (JWW), a leading organization in the fight against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. JWW’s work is currently focused on the ongoing crises in Sudan and Congo. Janice is currently traveling along with Diana Buckhantz, JWW Board Member, on a site visit to the JWW Solar Cooker Project in the Farchana refugee camp in eastern Chad, home to approximately 30,000 Darfuri refugees.
[Farchana, Chad] -- It is late into the evening, and I just remembered – tonight is the first night of Chanukah, even in the seemingly God-forsaken town of Farchana on the eastern rim of Chad. Today my JWW travel partner, Diana Buckhantz, and I spent Shabbat visiting the Farchana refugee camp. We came to meet the Darfuri refugee women served by our Solar Cooker Project. With all of the scores of organizations that support this massive camp, I was told today that the donor partners almost never actually come to the camp to meet, on a personal level, with individual refugees to engage in conversation. Most donors, I was told, receive reports explaining how the funds are used and describing the benefits conferred. As we met the women today, the vital importance of visiting the camps and talking to the people being served, which JWW has done in Congo and Darfur whenever possible, was clearer to me than ever.
One obvious reason that personal contact is so important is to bear witness to the women’s stories of loss, survival and resilience. Bringing these mind boggling and dramatically tragic stories home helps to educate and mobilize our community and give a face to an otherwise very distant, removed, hard to understand genocide, the effects of which continue to unfold.
The other reason is more subtle, but it is equally, if not more, important. Many of the women we met with expressed a similar sentiment when they heard who we were and why we came to visit. With faces that speak legions about their sense of isolation, their sadness and their understandable depression, they were so grateful to be remembered especially now, at a time when the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have announced huge reductions in resources previously provided to the Farchana camp. The refugees at Farchana know that those resources are being redeployed from Farchana to be used in other, newer conflict areas around the world. We learned that this week alone UNHCR reduced by 25 per cent, effective immediately, and in some cases even retroactively, the funds and services allocated to Farchana. There was a further UNHCR directive issued this week that for the 2013 budget year, Farchana will take an additional 28 percent reduction in allocation.
Information about all of this redeployment of funds sends a very serious and provocative message to the refugee population; first and foremost, it means that their services will be drastically reduced. To people living in abject poverty and profound squalor, drastic reductions in services could be the difference between life and death. But what is also significant and quite painful to the refugees in Farchana, is the message of abandonment that the reductions imply. The reduction of funds is a symbol of the sad truth that the world’s attention has moved on.
So in the midst of such depressing news, unwittingly, our trip to Farchana has taken on new significance – to the refugees, to the aid workers, and to us at JWW. For the refugees and aid workers, a visit from an organization that is not reducing its funding but rather was interested in listening to ideas for future projects, lifted spirits and brought a degree of hopefulness. For me, Diana and for JWW, it means an intensification of our responsibilities, as we are being relied upon by one of the most beleaguered populations in the world, a population that is increasingly isolated and abandoned.
Today, after I introduced myself and JWW to the women refugees, ending my words with JWW’s core value of “not standing idly by,” a woman, Awa, stood and said that Jewish World Watch gives her hope. She continued by telling us, “with the passage of so many years, I was sure that by now everyone had forgotten about Darfur and given up that we should have a future. But hearing about your education and advocacy work on our behalf gives me back some spirit and makes me know that not everyone in the world has forgotten about us.”
This evening, as I remembered that it was the start of Chanukah, I reflected on Awa’s words and realized that we are faced with a serious challenge – an apt challenge to consider as I pulled my small menorah out of my duffle bag. Chanukah is about fighting against great odds and ensuring that right prevails over might. It is also a time of bright and shining lights. Tonight is the first light of Chanukah, and I am very far away from home. I came close to forgetting to light the first candle. But, by myself (Diana was long asleep) in my hut late at night in the World Food Program compound in Farchana, two candles were lit. As I watched the candles burn down, I felt renewed strength and obligation to continue our work here and to continue to shine a light on problems and circumstances others might prefer not to see. This surely was a memorable, if not festive, Chanukah, and one that I likely will never forget.