Monday, April 02, 2007

Refugee Crisis From Darfur, the CAR to Rural Indiana

April 2, 2007

After Darfur, Starting Anew in the Midwest

New York Times

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Looking at old pictures taken in the desert sand in the Darfur region of Sudan, Fawzia Suliman pointed to one after the other: mother-in-law, sister, sister-in-law, cousin, and so on.

“Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead,” she said. “All dead.”

The last place that Ms. Suliman called home was a grass-topped hut that janjaweed militia members burned to the ground. She offers the scars on her feet as testament to how fast she ran to escape them in the summer of 2005, at the beginning of an unlikely journey that led to an apartment here.

“If I talk to people from Darfur, I say come here,” said Ms. Suliman, 24, who has taken a job making utensils and cups in a plastics factory. “It’s too nice. Everybody knows New York City. But my God, all this is America, too.”

As many as 300 people originally from Darfur are living in Fort Wayne, with others scattered across smaller Indiana cities like Elkhart, South Bend and Goshen. Together, they form one of the largest concentrations of Darfuri in the United States.

The Darfuri in the Midwest stand out because by their own choice — they are not part of a resettlement program — they have skipped the big-city, East Coast introduction to America in favor of settling in a slower-paced agricultural region. Their numbers have increased since the first arrivals in the late 1990s and as the crisis in Darfur has escalated in recent years, with many reaching back to rescue more of their family members and friends.

The pastoral similarities between Darfur and Indiana, however tenuous, bring some comfort to the immigrants who are haunted by what is still going on back home.

“When I want to relax, I drive myself to the farms,” said Suliman A. Giddo, co-founder of Darfur Peace and Development, a nonprofit relief organization here. “That reminds me a lot of my country. I like to see the sky with the moon and the stars. That is the thing many of us like about this place.”

Much of Darfur, an arid region the size of France in western Sudan, remains a zone of vicious fighting between the government and rebel forces. The years of village burning, rape and mutilation have driven 2.5 million people from their homes, and left at least 200,000 dead.

“I do things to be happy and live life, but on the inside I am very sad,” said Ms. Suliman, who is seeking asylum in the United States and still mourning relatives who perished in the janjaweed’s raids. “I cry every day about how my family died.”

In her apartment on the north side of the city, with her feet propped on the sofa, she is a bittersweet world away from the home in Darfur that she fled and the refugee camp in Chad where she ended up. The camp is where, she said, a friendly man whose name she cannot remember said, “If you get to America, call my cousin and he will help you in the Indiana.”

Ms. Suliman had never heard of such a place. But after she left Chad on a student visa bound for the United States, she called the number. Area code 260. Fort Wayne. Much to her surprise, she got an answer and also tapped straight into a quiet but thriving community of her own people living new lives amid the flat farmland of northern Indiana.

“I came fresh from the problem area to America and I did not know I would have so many friends here,” Ms. Suliman said in the English she still struggles to master. “So many people from Darfur come to help me, to say welcome here. I still cannot believe, every day, my God.”

The first Darfuri families drawn to Fort Wayne in the late 1990s were attracted by an abundance of industrial jobs and the city’s extensive web of charities, volunteer church groups and nonprofit social service agencies. Free health care is available at church-run neighborhood clinics. Volunteers teach English most weeknights, and make home visits. The city offers wireless Internet access at no cost.

“Cities like New York are not attractive for our beginners, too busy,” said Nourain Basheir, 41, one of the first Darfuri to settle in Fort Wayne in 1996. “This community welcomed us cheerfully and respectfully. They understand our people.”

Despite Indiana’s reputation among Americans as a monolithic slice of the country, in parts of Africa it is known — mostly by word of mouth — as diverse, welcoming and affordable.

Fort Wayne, for instance, has one of the largest populations of Burmese in the United States, and for a city its size — approximately 250,000 residents — it has a considerable international flair, with many families from Vietnam, Congo and Somalia. Seventy-seven languages are spoken in the Fort Wayne public school system.

So when the Darfuri began to arrive, Fort Wayne already had considerable experience with newcomers, city officials said.

But this group was clearly different.

“This is a particularly poignant situation here,” Mayor Graham Richard said. “We understand that.”

The Rev. Joe Johns, pastor of a local church, is typical of some people here who had little if any connection to Darfur just a few years ago, but who are now committed activists. “Here I find my literal neighbors in Fort Wayne, their families are undergoing such horrific situations,” Mr. Johns said. “I had to understand how to love my neighbors as myself. The answer was to travel to Darfur and be of some value.”

Mr. Johns said he had made two trips, as a relief worker and chaplain. The pastor of a church in Goshen, the Rev. Myron Bontrager, and seven congregants were to leave in late March to work in Sudan. “I don’t know if there’s any other thing that we’ve gotten behind to rally as a church like this,” Mr. Bontrager said before the group left, armed with $30,000 in donations to help set up a water purification system.

Despite the outpouring of support, there have been challenges for the Darfuri in Indiana. Misunderstandings along cultural lines persist, for instance. Africans who eat with their hands, as is their tradition, might draw stares at buffet restaurants, as might women wearing Muslim headdress while at work assembling auto parts. But in interviews, many immigrants from Darfur said they had found mostly peace.

“This place is quiet and the people are kind,” said Khadiga Abdalla, who left Darfur in 2003 and is studying nursing at a community college. “There is no problem here.”

With the $7.85 an hour she earns working in the plastics factory, Ms. Suliman has created her first real home, a place of safety and, to her, overwhelming abundance. She marvels at the central air-conditioning unit that also delivers heat when she is cold, at her refrigerator stocked with eggs and juice and beans. She is appreciative that the sun and rain do not come through her roof.

Her time in Fort Wayne has been peppered with many firsts: first time wearing pants, driving a car, using a fork, saving money in a bank account, not having to walk two hours for fresh water, being able to eat to the point of feeling full.

“One thing I still have a problem with is the nice food in America,” she said. “I keep the pictures of my family on my refrigerator to remember when we could not eat. It makes me sick. I do not like to remember.”

There is a picture of her husband on the refrigerator, too. They were separated during their chaotic nighttime flight from the approaching militia in the summer of 2005.

She prays that he is alive, that one day he will meet their 1-year-old son, Zakaria.

“I am working to find him,” she said, “so I can bring him here and show him how nice the life is.”

April 2, 2007

Wedged Amid African Crises, a Neglected Nation Suffers

New York Times

OTAH, Central African Republic, March 30 — Every year, Robert Dourmadji would set aside some of his grain for seed, resisting the temptation to feed his wife and seven children with it even when times got lean as the planting season approached.

This year, though, he had no choice — his wife made porridge from the last of the millet weeks ago. They had been surviving on green mangoes and manioc leaves. Pushed from their homes in a nearby village more than three months ago by a rebellion and the scorched-earth counterinsurgency tactics of their country’s army, they have been living in desperate conditions.

“What can we do?” he said. “When the rains come we will really suffer.”

Mr. Dourmadji and hundreds of other ragged, hungry people came out of hiding Friday morning to meet John Holmes, the United Nations’ new under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, who visited the Central African Republic on the last leg of a 10-day visit to the region.

Mr. Holmes pledged more aid to help those left homeless by the fighting, now more than 210,000, and urged aid groups and donors to do more to help this nation, one of the world’s poorest and most unstable.

“They need urgent help before the harvest to make sure they have a harvest,” he said. “We aren’t doing enough. There is a bigger problem than most were aware of.”

The crisis in the Central African Republic is now more than two years old, and the fighting has killed thousands of people and caused hundreds of thousands of the country’s four million people to flee their homes.

Their flight has been so desperate that those who can have run across the border into their troubled neighbors’ territory. About 50,000 people from the northwest have fled into southern Chad, and thousands of residents of the northeastern town of Birao, in a perverse twist, have even fled into the Darfur region of Sudan, where a struggle over power, land and identity has raged since 2003.

But unlike the suffering of its neighbors, the crisis in the Central African Republic has largely escaped the world’s notice. International donors pay about $1 billion to support the effort to feed and shelter two million displaced people in Darfur. Here that figure is about $50 million, United Nations officials say.

That has meant little assistance for people left utterly destitute. Jean-Charles Dei, the top official of the World Food Program in the Central African Republic, said on a visit to Otah on Friday that his organization had no food available to feed the 1,700 people hiding here. Its operations here are chronically short of cash.

“Unfortunately, we have not had the capacity we would have liked to respond,” Mr. Dei said.

Mr. Holmes has spent the last 10 days visiting this region, which has spawned one of the world’s deadliest and most complex crises. Over the past three years, it has come to encompass three deeply troubled and unstable nations in a set of loosely connected conflicts.

In all, 2.5 million people have been forced from their homes in the three countries. In Darfur at least 200,000 people have died, and perhaps the toll is more that twice that number, though it is impossible to be sure without detailed mortality surveys. No one is sure how many have died in Chad, where the violence is linked to Darfur, or in the Central African Republic, which is a close ally of Chad’s embattled government and where diplomats and experts say rebels backed by Sudan have operated.

For more than two years a low-level, homegrown insurgency has raged in the northwestern part of this impoverished and unstable nation, and in the last year a new rebellion in the northeast has added new misery. That rebellion is suspected of having ties not only to Sudan’s government but also to rebels seeking to overthrow Chad’s government.

Mr. Holmes, who was appointed on March 1, has been seeking to highlight the enormous needs in this regional morass. He said he chose to begin his term as the United Nations’ top aid official in this region because it presented some of the biggest and most complex challenges.

“It is the biggest humanitarian operation in the world,” he said of Darfur.

Toby Lanzer, the United Nations humanitarian chief in the Central African Republic, said that despite the nation’s desperate poverty, saving lives here, with enough resources, would be relatively easy.

Chad and Sudan are vast, arid nations that have complex ethnic problems, and aid workers have been attacked and stymied by government bureaucracy. Sudan and Chad have both refused United Nations peacekeeping troops, but the Central African Republic has said it would cooperate with an international force.

“This is a place where the international community is welcomed,” Mr. Lanzer said. “It is a country of four million people. We should be able to fix this.”

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