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Children of hope

Rabbi shows dignity of Darfuris in refugee camps


Rabbi Abie Ingber at a Darfuri refugee camp in Chad


By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Rabbi Abie Ingber — who for 31 years served as rabbi for University of Cincinnati’s Hillel and is now director of interfaith community engagement at Xavier University in Cincinnati — will lead the audiovisual presentation, Children of Hope: Photographs Taken by Darfur Refugees, as part of Temple Israel’s Ryterband Brunch Series on Sunday, Nov. 8 at 10 a.m.

For 10 days in March, Ingber visited Darfuri refugee camps in Chad at the invitation of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to see HIAS’s psychosocial work in the camps, which provides trauma counseling, social and relocation services.

There are an estimated 300,000 Darfuri refugees in Chad.

Ingber brought several digital cameras into the camps and asked refugees to take photos of whatever caught their eyes over a 24-hour period. The refugees had never seen cameras before.

The result is more than 3,000 images of life in the camps from the perspective of the refugees.

“The most significant surprise,” Ingber says, “was that at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, the security patrols that accompany all of the humanitarian aid workers, all of the NGOs, leave the camps. So there is not a person (outside) who knows what the camps look like in the evening hours. In the morning they come in and hear such-and-such happened.”

The images of night and early morning in the camp showed mothers brushing their children’s hair, bathing their infants, cooking meals, and of refugees gathering anywhere light was available.

“If people contributed a little bit of wood and the imam could teach at night, there was a gathering of people,” Ingber says.

For him, the most poignant photo of all was that of a woman bent over with some straw squeezed in her hand.

“You see the sand behind her with the sweeping curls made by a broom,” he says. “And in front of her, you see a little bit of collections of dirt. She is sweeping the desert because it is her home. It’s just beyond belief, the humanity of these individuals, how they care for the little bit of clothing that they have.”

In the Western world, Ingber says, our image of the refugee camps is of desperation, dirt and hopelessness.

“When you see these photographs from the camps, you see how beautiful these people are in terms of their determination not to lose their dignity and their humanity. How long will it last? I don’t know. But right now, they are still children of hope.”

Ingber is the child of Holocaust survivors who met in a refugee camp after World War II. During his first encounter with the refugees of Darfur, he felt compelled to tell them his refugee story.

“I shared with the refugees in the Gaga camp a tiny fraction of my mother’s story. She was the last physical survivor of the Lutsk ghetto in Poland. The refugees’ response was that they never thought they would hear a story that was worse than their own.

“Moreover, I said to them, ‘Sixty years from now, the world will still create refugee camps. Will you meet and marry in this refugee camp the way my parents did? Will you educate those children and bring them to a life of purpose and productivity? And will you teach them that they, 60 years from now, will go into that refugee camp and bring the people hope?’ And I was crying and they were crying. I came back with their story and I left them my story.”

Ingber says the prospect of these refugees returning to Darfur doesn’t look good.

“It is just too risky to even look at the possibility of going back to Darfur, at least at this point. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees does absolutely incredible work in the refugee camps. As much as we mock the United Nations, it’s worth having the United Nations just to have the Commission for Refugees.”

But for the refugees to remain in Chad is also a source of tension.

“The Chadian system is a French language system of instruction. The Sudanese school system is Arabic and Islamic based. Do you educate them still so that they can return into the Darfuri system or do you educate them in the Chadian system so that they can begin a new life in Chad? These conflicts are not easy to resolve.”

Ingber says the refugees are beginning to realize that although they want to return to their homeland, “just waiting in the camps without finding opportunities for productivity is not going to work.”

And though the needs of Darfur’s refugees have faded from awareness in the Western world, they’re still palpable.

“The work that HIAS is doing and the confidence that the international aid organizations have in the psychosocial work of HIAS desperately needs to be supported,” Ingber says.

The HIAS model is to train refugees as psychosocial workers in the camps. This, Ingber says, will produce people who will pursue education.

He also credits American Jewish World Service’s Solar Cooker Project. “The more young women and older women who do not leave the camp in pursuit of wood for fires for cooking, the less rape there will be,” he says.

Ingber hopes the photos the refugees took will bring renewed attention to their situation.
“These are proud human beings who are doing everything they can — as our own people did in the camps — to maintain their human dignity, hoping that they will be allowed to return to their homeland and refresh and renew themselves in that way.”

He envisions a project to bring some of the refugees to America to pursue studies in a university environment. These trained professionals would then return to their people as productive citizens.

“When my grandchildren say, ‘Grandpa, where were you when the genocide happened on your watch,’ I don’t want to pull out a green rubberized bracelet and say, ‘This is what I did.’”

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