New Years visit tells Darfuri refugees that we do care

No one said it, but the uneasy feeling was palpable. I could see the questions in their eyes: Why are you going to spend Rosh Hashanah in Darfuri refugee camps in Eastern Chad? Why would a rabbi welcome the Jewish New Year in a place where there are no Jews? Do you really think going will make a difference?

rabbi lee bycel

I understand these questions. I only regret that they are rarely asked aloud. I had a lot of time to reflect on those questions on my recent three-day journey to a place that is far more distant from San Francisco than the days of travel it took to get there.

I wrote this column in Eastern Chad, an epicenter of human suffering. I was there with fellow human beings, reminding them that we do care and that we have not forgotten. I was listening to their stories and letting them know that I will bring their stories home. I was there because our worlds are inextricably linked.

I first visited Chad in 2004 and I have returned several times since. This is the same area of Eastern Chad that then-Sen. Barack Obama visited in 2004. People here remember his commitment to urge the United States to help end the genocide. I hope that soon he will remember it too and use his power as president to take bold and necessary action.

The Chadian people are some of the poorest people on the planet. Here, some 275,000 Darfuri refugees have found a fragile safe haven in United Nations tents. These shelters provide minimal protection from the harsh conditions of sub-Saharan Africa and not much more from the storms of conflict.

The plight of the Darfuri people — the nearly 3 million displaced from their homes and the 400,000 dead — has been well documented. Our advocacy and diplomacy has had some impact on decelerating this genocide, now in its seventh year. Our humanitarian aid has saved lives. Still, the situation on the ground remains dismal.

Rosh Hashanah is a holiday that celebrates renewal and creation. It implores us to care for each other and to care for this planet. It reminds us that as long as there is life there is hope.

What better place to welcome in the New Year than with the victims of man’s brutality to man? Although we have yet to turn our powerful prayers into a world that is just and humane, I have hope — and hope is all these refugees have. It is their lifeblood.

As I sat in the camp with new friends and refugees whom I have known for years, I marveled at their ability to survive. The soul of a refugee camp resides in the courageous people who dwell within it. The silent screams that echo through the camp are those of a people who are asking if the world still cares.

My presence — though it could be any of us — conveyed that we do care and we are doing our best to restore their lives.

These refugees are the victims of horrific events: genocide, climate change, lack of resources and a world that is

confused about its humanitarian priorities. It is no longer possible to separate these problems; real solutions will come only when we think and act in integrated ways. Ways that allow people to live with inalienable rights — to food, shelter, potable water and the absence of violence in their day-to-day lives.

There is much discussion about the role of the United States and what international pressure should be applied to change the situation.

This work is essential and provides hope for long-term solutions. Immediate humanitarian needs, however, cannot be overlooked.

My friend Adam cannot wait another year for drinkable water; his daughters cannot wait another day for a life without the constant threat of rape; the elderly and the infants cannot survive another winter without shelter from the torrential desert rain. Where will the aid come from unless we help to provide it?

Did my trip make a difference? I saw a difference in the smiles of the children. I felt it when I held a refugee’s hand. I witnessed it when I visited the aid clinics. Perhaps the difference wasn’t quantifiable, but it was profoundly apparent to me.

I returned home renewed and filled with hope for the New Year, thanks to the brave spirit of the Darfuri people. Experiencing the horrific conditions of their day-to-day lives brings an indescribable perspective to my own challenges and reminds me that my life will never be full until their suffering is over.

Our humanity is defined by our actions — our ability to show compassion, to empathize with others and to do something constructive — and opportunities to help others are present each and every day.

For us, remembering the Darfuri people is a measure of our conscience and humanity. For them, it is their hope for survival. That is why I return to Chad.

Rabbi Lee Bycel will speak about his experiences in Chad during the Yom Kippur Neilah service at 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 27, at Temple Isaiah, 3800 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. Ticket information: (925) 283-8575.

Rabbi Lee Bycel is executive director of the Berkeley-based Redford Center, which aims to inspire positive social and environmental change through the arts, education and civil discourse. Find out how to help at

Rabbi Lee Bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

Rabbi Lee Bycel is the Vice Chair of the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities and deeply committed to helping JFCS/East Bay and HIAS in their lifesaving work of resettling refugees.