In late 2009, the Michigan Darfur Coalition sponsored an event in Birmingham, Michigan to introduce the local community to incoming refugees from Darfur, Sudan. Our hope was that we could encourage a group of volunteers to step forward and mentor them in their resettlement process. It was the first time I had ever met refugees from Darfur myself and I was nervous. It was surreal to be standing in the same room with people I had been working to protect for three years without ever having a personal connection.
In 2006, I was a self-employed mother of one young boy and expecting my second child. My interest in international humanitarian causes did not exist. The Lost Boys were the beautifully dark young men that worked at Meijer when I first moved to Lansing. Genocide happened in Europe and stayed where it was brought to an end, as far as I knew. I had no idea that genocide was raging in Darfur before I came across an ad featuring Angelina Jolie ran in Rolling Stone Magazine for Genocide Intervention Network.
The article asked us all to, “Have a hand in stopping the first genocide of the 21st century.” I took pause. Angelina Jolie is a favorite of mine. Not because of her awe inspiring relationship with dreamy Brad Pitt. It’s not how many children she has or how her lips remain so plump. I admire her work bringing attention to important humanitarian causes around the world. I stored the information away in my brain for later Googling and finished reading my magazine.
One quiet evening I searched the web and learned that genocide had been occurring in Darfur since 2003. In response to a rebel uprising, the Government of Sudan hired a third party militia called the Janjaweed to carry out a scorched earth campaign against civilians. The new status quo in Darfur had changed from peaceful to razed villages, raped women and girls. The men were tortured and killed or forced to flee. The bodies of the deceased were tossed down wells to poison the water making the once vibrant village completely uninhabitable. Surviving Darfuri people began an exodus to flee the violence that ended with refugee camps on the borders of other countries. As per usual in a refugee camp, food and medical supplies were insufficient.
As of today there are still 2.7 million refugees displaced because of the Darfur crisis. The President of Sudan has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. His indictment is the first to ever be made against a current Head of State. It has been estimated that over 200,000 people have been killed. Unfortunately, attacks continue to be made in Darfur and on refugee camps that are mainly comprised of widows and children.
Now refugees from Darfur have started to come to the United States. We have already seen arrivals in Grand Rapids. When I first heard the news I was relieved. They would finally be safe. That relief was suddenly replaced with a dull ache for a people who have had their home stolen. The harsh reality is that they may never be able to return. They will now have to start over in a foreign place. This new place will be full of glaring challenges like severe language barriers, untreated medical issues and limited services.
When the first refugees arrived those massive challenges were met with support from volunteer mentors. The volunteers were not prepared. None of us were prepared for what our new friends would need. What they lacked in preparedness they made up for in dogged determination. They used hand signals to communicate, they found resources within the community to make ends meet and they assistant the social workers. They were a life line. They gave the Michigan Darfur Coalition a way to implement the Charlton Breen Refugee Assistance Program Fund.
The Charlton Breen Refugee Assistance Program Fund was named to honor a board member of the Michigan Darfur Coalition who recently lost his battle with cancer. Our friend Chuck worked tirelessly. Even through the pain and chemotherapy he was the backbone of our organization. The fund has continued to grow and based on the information we receive from our volunteers we have been able to give financial assistance to those refugees in need. This assistance has taken the form of tuition assistance, medical bills and bus passes among other necessities.
On October 9th, 2010, at the Capital Area District Library Downtown Auditorium, from 2pm-4pm, my friend Abubakar will be sharing his experiences as a refugee. The story of his flight out of Darfur and how volunteers and mentors have contributed to making his resettlement a success will leave you encouraged. It will also impress upon you the importance of empathy for those seeking sanctuary. After he speaks there will be active refugee mentors available for a round table discussion on how to become more involved in the resettlement process. I hope you make the time to hear this man tell you how he believes that we must all seek peace. I want to sit with you and marvel at his courage, perseverance and abundant spirit of gratitude. Most of all, I hope that you will be inspired to help people like Abubakar.
Tashmica Torok is a local entrepreneur, blogger and community activist. She is the co-owner of Heritage Flooring, a professional flooring installation company, the Mid-Michigan Coordinator for the Michigan Darfur Coalition and the author of the popular blog Mother Flippin’: One Funny Mother.
For more information about Tashmica or her small independent business visit, www.mother-flippin.blogspot.com or www.thetorokheritage.net. For more information about the Michigan Darfur Coalition visit www.michigandarfurcoalition.org.
-Tashmica C., CADL Patron and Mid-Michigan Coordinator of the Michigan Darfur Coalition