Confronting genocide in Darfur

Silvestro Bakhiet has seen his share of jail cells and refugee camps during his lifetime.

Now he’s working with the Jewish community and others to keep his fellow Sudanese citizens out of them — and alive.

A tall, well-built man with an arresting smile, Bahkiet can only grin when asked his age. A huge percentage of southern Sudan’s largely Christian population born around the same time as him was simply assigned the birthday Jan. 1, 1964. So, he estimates he’s just enjoyed his 41st birthday.

After a lifetime of protesting the oppression of Sudan’s Christian population and working with international relief agencies, Bakhiet began to believe his life was in danger in the mid-1990s. He immigrated to America in 1997.

The San Francisco resident has been working to bring money, educational materials and food to Sudan ever since — and even testified before a congressional committee last year. But it was the onset of genocidal attacks against Muslim inhabitants of the western Darfur region by the Khartoum government and their Janjaweed militias that spurred Bakhiet to partner with the Jewish community.

Bakhiet hits a chord with his Jewish audiences when he compares the discrimination, purges and genocide faced by southern Sudanese Christians and, now, western Muslims to the atmosphere in Germany in the 1930s.

“Some [audience members] are very sad. Most are not aware what we are going through and have been going through: persecution, raping, killing the entire family, slavery. It’s like the suffering of the Jews during the Hitler times,” he said.

“The Sudanese have also been persecuted. We are all of one blood. And the enemy of the Jewish community, it’s the same the people of Sudan is suffering from.”

In recent months, he has spoken at several Jewish Community Relations Council meetings in San Francisco and on the Peninsula. He was so well-received he was invited to be the featured speaker at a recent Shabbat service at Peninsula Temple Sinai in Foster City.

What’s more, working with the JCRC’s assistant director, Abby Fleishman, Bakhiet has visited the homes of local Jews holding “Save Darfur” fund-raisers and helped amass thousands of dollars. Along with Elvir Camdzic, the director of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Center of San Francisco and a genocide survivor, The JCRC is forming a Save Darfur Coalition.

Bakhiet’s political life hit high gear when he neared college age and began protesting the Khartoum government’s requirement that all potential university students pass an Arabic exam. “That is a policy to force you to change culture, religion,” said Bakhiet, a Catholic who attends services at a pair of San Francisco churches.

“You are forced to study Islam, be Islamic, study Arabic.”

In the late 1990s, he visited his parents in their Ugandan refugee camp — the first time he had seen them in 15 years — and was heartbroken by what he witnessed.

“I found the situation very terrible. Everyone is in need of assistance. And relief from the U.N. is not really sufficient for them,” said Bakhiet, who, in addition to his charitable work, puts in a swing shift as a hotel counterman.

“The kids could not go to school, get treatment or even have proper food.”

He has since raised hundreds of thousands of dollars via the group he named after his native village, the Pageri Organization. He recently received his largest gift to date: A $60,000 grant from the Sisters of Mercy to help establish girls’ schools.

And while Bakhiet usually focuses on long-term solutions such as education and job training, he is adamant that the Darfurian refugees need every sort of help, and they need it now.

“They are really suffering now. They don’t even have blankets,” he said of the refugee camps in Chad and western Sudan.

“That, of course, reduces the situation. If you want to buy food, you need money. If you want to buy blankets, you need money.”

For more information on Silvestro Bakhiet’s Pageri Organization, contact him at [email protected] or (415) 587-9593.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.