Twenty four hours ago we left our hotel in Ndjamena. There was a three hour flight delay, a power outage at the Ndjamena airport, and a glitch in the airline's computer ticketing system, all of which threatened an involuntary extension of our stay in Chad. Thankfully, both Diana and I were on board when the flight finally left!
Now, just two hours away from landing in Los Angeles, I have had a long time to reflect on the past ten days. We accomplished everything we set out to do. We met with our partners, visited the Farchana camp's Solar Cooker Project workshop and met with the women who work for the project in the camp. We return to LA with lots of new and important information and several new recommendations of ways that we can make our already amazing Solar Cooker Project even better. But, without a doubt, the most important take-aways from this trip had little to do with any of the tasks we came to perform. Rather, it was what happened on our second day at the camp that touched me and Diana in the most profound way, and which, I believe, left the most important impact on us and, I imagine, on the women refugees with whom we met on day two.
As a follow up to the first day's meetings at the camp, we had asked to meet with no more than four or five women to be able to have a few lengthier more in-depth and more personal conversations than would have been possible with a larger group. Further, our prior experience in Congo and at the other Darfuri refugee camps was that the women spoke more intimately and freely to us when men were not present. The Cord staff succeeded in finding us the only female Arabic to French translator in the region, Zam Zam, who works for HIAS in Farchana.
When we walked into the Solar Cooker Project workshop we were stunned to see the room teeming with women and their babies, all sitting silently on the woven mats facing the plastic chairs they set for us at the front of the room. While we were disappointed that we clearly would not have the small group meeting on which we had planned we knew that, however unwieldy it might be, we would have to proceed with the larger group.
I asked Zam Zam to ask the women if they would make a large circle on the mat so we could see one another. They seemed confused with the request; no one moved and Zam Zam couldn't seem to make herself understood. We then climbed through the dense crowd of women and babies and sat ourselves down in the center; everyone shifted so that now we were all sitting face to face on the rag tag patchwork of colorful African mats. Through Zam Zam we thanked them for coming to the meeting and explained that we were there as representatives to demonstrate our sisterhood and empathy and to bring their stories and circumstances to the attention of communities back home... to help ensure that they are not forgotten. We asked if someone would volunteer to tell her story of how she came to be a refugee living in the Farchana camp.
After a moment of silence, an older woman, Ferah, began to speak. She told us the day, the exact time, and the detailed facts of how the Janjaweed entered her family's compound, killing, raping, terrorizing... she covered her face and began to cry. As she did, others cried and wailed, perhaps in empathy, or perhaps because her story brought back their own nightmares of the day their lives irreversibly changed; memories of the unspeakable personal violations and memories of the horror of tiny graves. The group too large, the conversation too wrenching and the emotions too raw, the conversation was getting out of control.
While trying to comfort the now agitated women, the conversation was switched to current issues relating to life in the camp. Equilibrium restored, the women spoke about the dangers to women in and out of the camp, about the lack of health care, and about the epidemic levels of AIDS -- which, cruelly, can be diagnosed in the camp but not treated. They told us that they would like to learn to read and they asked if we could help provide some cleaning supplies and new mats for the Solar Cooker Project workshop.
Then the woman sitting next to me, Khatouma, reached out her hand and said, via Zam Zam, "We have all lived in this camp for nine years. Over the years many donors have visited to inspect projects they have funded. But, this is the first time a white woman has ever sat with us on our mat and engaged us in conversation." Khatouma went on to say how much it meant to her and to the others that we were sitting on their mat and talking with them about their lives, asking for their thoughts about how to improve their situation. Her revelation brought a lump to my throat, and I felt ashamed for those who, however well-intended, take the time, energy and resources to visit the camp and fund projects, without ever talking to the women or sitting with them on their mat, a practice that every one of our delegations has done on every trip, without every realizing its significance.
I understood at that moment that the most important part of our journey was not the tour we took of the camp, our assessment of the Solar Cooker Project, the technical meetings we had with our implementing partner, or the meetings with the U.N. and other powerful organizations from which we sought more support of the Project. The part of our trip that was most important, and that probably made the deepest and most sustained impact on the refugees and certainly, on me, had nothing to do with words or translators or statistics or dollars; rather, what was important was that we sat on the mat listening, touching, and being present with the women.
I leave this trip with a renewed understanding of the significance and maybe even the symbolism of the mat. The mat is a very intimate place, a place where people feel cared for, listened to, even loved. I am feeling that the mat is the place where invisibility and anonymity dissipate and the women feel seen as the individual human beings that they are, a place where every woman has her own name, her own story, her own hurts and her own dreams.
I cannot end my blogs for this trip without expressing my love an appreciation for Rabbi Schulweis, my co-founder of Jewish World Watch. His request that I help him build Jewish World Watch forever changed my life in ways I never could have imagined. I am grateful to our JWW Solar Cooker Project Director, Rachel Andres, whose diligence, patience and persistence over the past seven years has developed our Solar Cooker Project into the impactful and life-saving force that it is today. I am grateful for all of our dedicated JWW staff, Lois, Mina, Jan, Liz, and, a special gratitude to Naama Haviv, whose expertise and brilliance shapes our work and whose competence and thoughtful planning of our trips reflects her humanity. I am grateful to my incredible travel partner and fellow JWW Board member Diana Buckhantz who gives her ample heart and beautiful soul to JWW and to the people we serve. And finally, as our wheels touch down onto the LAX runway, I am grateful to my husband, Ben, for his unwavering love and support for my work with JWW. It is good to be home.
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.