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First Person for One Activist, Darfur Stories Underscore Need for Urgent Action

May 1, 2006
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

“It looks like Arabic… only upside down.” Suad Mansour and Amira Tibin’s eyes danced: They had never seen Hebrew before. Both are from Darfur, Muslim-born expatriates from that agonized war zone of Sudan. They are well-educated and articulate, but utterly new to Judaism.

As they stood in the synagogue lobby, clad in traditional Sudanese wraps and headscarves, they cocked their heads and remarked on the oddly familiar lettering on the wall. Smiling, they moved on.

I was escorting the two women one day in early April as we paid visits to two churches and an elegant Reform temple in suburban Philadelphia. The congregations were among five that had agreed to host communitywide talks that our grassroots Darfur Alert Coalition was organizing.

We were making courtesy calls to assess the various sanctuaries, meet the clergy and impress on people the urgency of the African crisis. The purpose of the speaking tour was to let American audiences hear directly from Darfuri activists. These visits would give the hosts an advance taste of that.

At the same time, for the bridge-building to be durable, we all had to be open to learning from one another. In that spirit, Suad and Amira were thrilled to leaf through the prayerbooks and be invited onto the temple’s bimah for an impromptu primer on the Torah.

As the administrator opened the ark and unrolled the magnificent scroll, the two women tiptoed up and watched silently. When he held up the pointer for them, a silver yad, Amira exclaimed, “Yad! Of course, the hand! Yad means hand in Arabic, too.”

It was a precious encounter. I glowed with thoughts of Suad and Amira returning home to tell their families about their insights into Judaism, and about the warm welcome the staff had given them.

Receptions of this sort are immeasurably important. Beneath their cultural reserve, Darfuris in the diaspora suffer in despair over the genocide that has devastated their homeland and claimed so many of their extended family members.

Feeling forsaken by the world and nearly invisible to the American public around them, they are crying out for action as best they can, and are greatly comforted by expressions of support.

This was driven home to me during the drive to our next stop that day, an African-American mega-church in Philadelphia. I was traveling with Suad. Being relatively new to the Darfur coalition, I didn’t know her well and began asking about her family.

Eyes cast downward in the Sudanese custom, Suad began a grim recitation. Her family’s ancestral village is no more, incinerated at the hands of the Janjaweed, the government-backed Arab militia. Her father was imprisoned for killing a marauder who tried to plunder their home.

One of her uncles has gone mute, traumatized by the horrors he witnessed. Three of her older sisters are living in displaced persons camps, struggling to keep their families safe.

Unlike her sisters, Suad left village life years earlier to attend university. She became an accomplished administrator, creating a program to train and empower women displaced by the recent war in southern Sudan. As relief organizations began to honor her and fund her work, she was targeted by government security forces and fled the country.

Stunned by her account, I urged Suad to tell it to the church pastor to underscore the significance of the talk he’d be hosting. In his office, Suad solemnly repeated her testimony and implored his help. Tears broke through her dignity. She daubed them on her wrap.

Later, I apologized to Amira that she had not had time to address the pastor as well. Amira told me she has a brother in Darfur who has been missing for two years. He was pressed into the military, and the family fears the worst. Her husband’s ancestral village was destroyed, and one of his young cousins died when the Janjaweed tossed him into a burning building.

“But it’s OK,” Amira said, her eyes burning. “Another time. We all have stories like that.”

I couldn’t help thinking what an unlikely midwife I was to be bringing these various communities together. As a recently retired religion editor, I do have good connections in both religion and media circles. After attending a powerful talk on Darfur and hearing a call for help in organizing a multi-city speaking tour, I had decided to volunteer my services, figuring I could use my connections to get good venues and good press. It paid off for Suad, Amira and others in the coalition.

Beyond that, though, it’s an odd coupling. I’m a WASP with absolutely no family experience of persecution, let alone genocide. Jews and Darfuris have an automatic affinity, but my ancestors, being a mix of New Amsterdam Dutchmen and Protestant Brits, were historically on the side of persecutors. I know, from old family letters and insinuated comments, that my family has held nativist and other prejudiced views down through the generations.

Fortunately, one of my grandmothers broke the mold. A schoolteacher in New York a century ago, she taught waves of new immigrant children, visited their tenements and — shocking for her breeding — befriended and socialized with their parents.

Decades later, as a Sunday schoolmarm in my hidebound hometown, she determinedly exposed us Methodist children to the local Catholic church, the synagogue and the nearby migrant worker shanties. Though it scandalized some, it broadened the world for me. It may explain why I married a Jew, and why I have become a fellow traveler with Darfuri expatriates.

Like her, I seem to be drawn to work along the borders. In any case, I know much that I do is in her memory.

But how I wish she had imbued me with more emotional armor. As I run head-on into the sufferings of Darfur, I am bowed. People with histories of enduring persecution perhaps have developed defense mechanisms to strengthen themselves and cope; I have not.

I felt this full-force when, in the middle of the Darfur speaking tour, I took a night off to attend our synagogue’s interfaith Freedom Seder. Knowing of my Darfur work, the rabbi asked me to make a few comments about the Darfur crisis as a case of modern-day oppression.

I could barely speak. Facing a roomful of friendly Jews and black Baptists, I was overwhelmed. I struggled to tell them how 500 Darfuris — four times our seder crowd — are dying every day. How women and children are not collateral damage but targets. How, at one of our talks, cell phones rang as Darfuris in the room received reports from home of fresh atrocities.

My pained, lip-quivering performance drove home for me just how much the Darfuris, for better or worse, have gotten under my thin skin.

I’ve continued to work with them on coalition business and enjoyed their company socially, at dinners and even a Sudanese wedding. I also arranged for 38 of them to travel to Sunday’s Washington rally aboard our synagogue’s three-bus caravan, a journey that featured a special teach-in and sing-along.

May other people of good will join the movement — and handle the intensity with more aplomb that I manage.

The public support is there now; I only hope it’s not fleeting. The Jewish community, to its great credit, has been out front on behalf of Darfuris. It’s a natural for deepening its ties with them in an ongoing way.

The Darfuris need it — and Lord knows, they deserve it.

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