Israeli-Jewish aid workers help Sudanese refugees

Sudanese children take part in art therapy classes organized by Israeli-Jewish NGOs at the Tregine camp near the Chad-Sudan border. Photo by Kobi Wolf.Fatma, 10, is busy drawing. Sitting on a straw mat, she shyly explains her work: “This is …

Sudanese children take part in art therapy classes organized by Israeli-Jewish NGOs at the Tregine camp near the Chad-Sudan border. Photo by Kobi Wolf.Fatma, 10, is busy drawing. Sitting on a straw mat, she shyly explains her work: “This is my father, riding on his camel back home from the market.”

Yet nothing is at it seems. Fatma is a Sudanese refugee living in the Tregine camp some 120 km. from the Chad-Sudan border; her father was murdered three years ago in neighboring Darfur by the Janjaweed militia. She was lucky; she and her mother and brothers managed to escape the massacre and are now living in relative safety.

The session Fatma is attending today allows her a few precious hours away from the daily routine of the young girls in the camps. This is part of the trauma counseling and social service programs run in six of the 12 refugee camps through the HIAS (Hebrew Immigration Aid Society)/IsraAID program.

In the past five years, nearly a quarter of a million refugees have crossed the border into Chad to escape the ongoing carnage in Darfur. As the media began revealing the grim situation, more and more NGOs became involved in what is today the biggest aid operation in the world.

While most international groups focused on the basic needs – food, water and shelter – a group of NGOs came together through IsraAID: the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid, a coordinating body of Israeli and Jewish organizations specializing in providing development and relief work.

The group began by analyzing what would be the best way to provide aid without duplicating other international programs. In late 2004, a team of Jewish professionals was sent to the camps in Chad to assess their needs, says Alan Schneider, of B’nai B’rith International, who recently visited there to further assess the ongoing operations. “Upon their return, the IsraAID members decided that HIAS’s trauma counseling and social service expertise would be the best contribution in aiding the Darfurians in the camps. The program has been running over the past two-and-a-half years and is constantly growing.”

Schneider is proud of the quick response the team offered. “It was shortly after the first reports of the crisis that we decided to act and the assessment team was sent to the camps.”

The partners in this Jewish hands-on aid operation include the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, Jewish World Watch, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief.

Psychosocial treatment may not be the first words to come to mind when visiting refugee camps in the desert, but after a month in the various camps, it is hard to imagine life without it. Signs of rehabilitation of community and personal lives are evident wherever we visit. It is crucial, much like the clean water, food and medical care provided by other NGOs.

What moved Jewish NGOs to venture into this tough, unfriendly and at times highly dangerous terrain? As we travel through Chad, familiarizing ourselves with the people, we understand how difficult, at times nearly impossible, it is to work here, yet the Jewish team goes on. Many criticize this mission; “your own needy come first” is a phrase commonly used when one hears of this operation. Yet the partners in this project are convinced this is the place to be.

“For HIAS, Judaism’s commitment to tikkun olam [repairing the world] is a value of paramount importance, and our Jewish community’s dedication to helping end the genocide in Darfur and care for the victims is central to our humanitarian mission,” says Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of HIAS. “One of the finest ways that we and the numerous Jewish organizations and individuals around the world who have supported and collaborated with us in this work can honor the memories of the Jews who perished during the Holocaust is to remember their suffering and struggle to care for today’s victims of genocide, terror and persecution like the Darfuris we have the honor to serve in Chad.”

According to an American Jewish Committee spokesman, “Our collective memory of persecution and genocide evokes deep empathy for the victimized people of Darfur and keen recognition of our responsibility – as Jews, as Americans, as people of conscience – to aid them.”

“Our focus is to educate and advocate on issues of genocide and egregious violations of human rights, as well as to provide refugee relief to the survivors of genocide,” says Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, director of Jewish World Watch, a Los Angeles-based organization. “The HIAS/IsraAID program provides us with the unique opportunity to fulfill that commitment to refugee relief, while also supporting Israel’s commitment to respond to suffering of others around the world.”

“Today this is the only hands-on Jewish project which involves various Jewish partners from around the world and Israel all coming together to assist the Darfurian refugees in Chad. We couldn’t think of a better partner than IsraAID to represent our aims of tikkun olam and the humanitarian face of Israel in crisis situations around the world,” says Ted Sokolsky, president of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

“Our partner organizations have shown once again that working together Israelis, Americans, Canadians and other Jewish partners not only enhance the impact of the Jewish response in the field but also help us all show the Jewish compassion to others,” says Shachar Zahavi, founder and chairperson of IsraAID.

In Tregine and Bregine camps, situated a few kilometers from each other, the HIAS/IsraAID program operates two community centers. Besides the foreigners and Chadians working here, more than 90 Sudanese refugees receive training and work in their camps. The camps are divided into “blocks” or neighborhoods, and each local mobilizer is in charge of one block. Each morning begins with a review of the problems these mobilizers encountered overnight. Some are referred for further treatment; some are solved locally by the mobilizers using the training they’ve received.

This training is crucial for the refugees’ future and for community rehabilitation. In November 2006, all international staff was evacuated from the camps due to the rebel forces’ invasion of the area and the heavy fighting that followed, yet the Sudanese mobilizers continued their work for the entire period of the evacuation using their newly acquired expertise to help their peers. “This is crucial for our future. When we eventually return to Sudan, we can use our training to overcome trauma and deal with the new situation,” one explained at an early morning training session.

Mobilizers receive a salary of $50 a month, not much in Chad where the NGO boom has caused prices to soar, yet they work beyond designated hours. Having a job allows them to regain a piece of their former lives and rely on their own means rather than being totally dependent on foreign aid as the majority of the camp inhabitants are.

One story displays the grim situation in the camps: Gamara, a young mother of four, was collecting firewood outside the camp much like most of the women here. Unfortunately, away from the relative safety of the camp many are raped by Chadians. Gamara was attacked, but her assailant did not rape her; he beat her severely before she managed to fight him off. Upon her return, her husband left, convinced she’s been “defiled.” Only the intervention of a HIAS worker and a doctor’s expert opinion convinced him to return to his family and prevent Gamara becoming the sole caretaker for her four children.

In many camps, the team provides counseling for rape and assault victims and conducts sessions for children in an attempt to treat those affected by trauma.

HIAS’s approach embraces local culture and works with community leaders to motivate the families into caring for these children. In Goz Beida camp, one mobilizer discovered Salima in his block. The nine-year-old was severely malnourished and retarded. Her mother was barely feeding her, mainly because of her mental condition. The HIAS team, through months of counseling, convinced the mother to feed Salima properly, yet years of neglect had taken their toll and her body resembles that of a two-year-old. Her sister and brother, encouraged by the local mobilizer, now care for Salima, taking her to the medical center for regular checkups and making sure she is fed.

Many children suffering from various conditions such as retardation or epilepsy are neglected in the camps; some are chained down to prevent them from running away or harming themselves.

Clitoral excision is another issue HIAS deals with through community leaders and education. Excision is a widespread practice in Darfur and Chad, but in the camps it is slowly declining. “New times call for a new outlook,” explains Ahmed, a sheikh in Bregine camp, who is not afraid to speak out against the practice. While HIAS does not force its mobilizers to participate in the project to reduce or eliminate excision, many choose to take part, saving hundreds of young girls from this gruesome ordeal.

“You are the chosen people” comments Mariam, a Chadian HIAS employee in Goz Beida. “I want to help my brothers; the Sudanese are our brothers.”

Many of the refugees and local workers are amazed and grateful for the Jewish initiative, bombarding us with questions about Israel and Judaism.

We leave Chad as the rebels begin taking over areas in the east in an attempt to overthrow President Idriss Deby. In a few weeks they will conquer the capital, N’djamena, cutting off the refugees and forcing many of the foreign aid agencies to halt their operations, yet there is still hope that even this dire situation will not influence the goodwill and effort of the Jewish organizations providing help for the ones who need it most.

Reprinted by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post

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