Tag Archives: Darfur advocacy

Escape to Obscurity

It was July in Darfur, at least 120 degrees. You almost couldn’t even breathe because of the heat. When you inhaled, you wished you hadn’t. Oxygen wasn’t worth the pain of having a thousand knives invading your lungs. I stood next to our house in El Fasher, North Darfur and waited. There was always a lot of waiting in Darfur in the summer. Nobody went anywhere in the heat of the day. On the horizon, a mirage shimmered over the sand, threatening to devour you if you ventured too far.

A knock on the metal gate of the compound broke the silence, and I heard feet scuffling outside. The security guard opened the door, and in walked three young Darfuri women. One woman made an immediate impression. She burst through the entryway, threw her hands forward, and hollered greetings at our security guards as if they were her best friends and she hadn’t seen them in years.

“Al salaam alaikum! Qayf? Tamaam? Tamaam!” She rambled off a litany of questions and exclamations, as one does when greeting anyone in Darfur, without really seeking the answer: How’s your health? How’s your family? How’s your family’s health? I hope their health is good. I hope everything is good. Is everything good? Is everything alright? How are you? Are you good? How is everything?

Then she strode up to me, her blue jalabiya fanning out behind her as if she were an angel about to take flight. Her face turned serious, the laugh disappeared, and she looked me straight in the eye.

“I am Hawa.”

After sharing cups of tea, we all sat down to hear what Hawa had to say. She took her place between the other women on our couch that had faded from green to yellow in the desert sun. She spoke with authority, gesturing animatedly as she told her story. As I watched her, I thought back on my diplomatic training course that emphasized the use of hand gestures in giving speeches. Hawa would have aced the course.

At moments I could not even focus on what she was saying; her vivaciousness drowned it out. She smiled as she spoke, even though she was recounting heartbreaking stories. How could she smile while talking about these tragedies? I wondered about all the sad secrets hidden behind her smile. Women raped by soldiers, children fighting over PlumpyNut packs, teenage boys stolen in the night by rebels on pick-up trucks. Hawa was not afraid to tell me these things. She was a natural leader, catapulted to where she was by the horrors she had witnessed. She knew she could be arrested for talking to me. She knew she could be arrested just for standing outside our house. But she didn’t care. It almost seemed she wanted to be arrested—to become a victim for her cause.

I thought to myself: What will happen to this woman? Will she ever leave Darfur? Little did we both know on that afternoon, one day Hawa would be living in a shelter in rural New Jersey. She would be scraping money to get by, hoping for a chance to win a scholarship to an American school. She would be lost in a world she did not know how to lead. After surviving a war and thriving in hell, Hawa would be ill-suited for a peaceful life.

Hawa arrived in the United States on March 3, 2012. She had been awarded the International Woman of Courage Award, an honor bestowed upon 10 women each year by the U.S. Department of State. To accept her award and participate in a series of conferences, Hawa was granted a visa to travel to the U.S.

She first touched down in Detroit, where she had a layover. When she stepped off the gangway into the airport, she started laughing. An airport official asked, “Why are you laughing?” And Hawa said, “I am just happy. I am so glad. This place I was dreaming about for long years.” She sat down in the terminal to wait for her connecting flight. She took out a notebook and began writing. She wrote, “There are so many people. This is the United States. This is where I’m going to be… This is a new life. This is a new dream.”

She arrived in Washington D.C. the next day and set in motion plans to claim asylum. She would not be returning to Sudan.

It was February 27, 2003, a Thursday, when the janjaweed militia invaded Tina, Hawa’s hometown, about 75 kilometers southwest of El Fasher. Hawa, 18 at the time, was at home when all of the sudden shots rang out. She fled. She was separated from her family in the mayhem, but she continued running anyway. A stray bullet struck her right hand, but she didn’t stop. She didn’t know where to go. “Everybody was running, running, and running,” said Hawa. “But I was one of the ladies from the village who was kidnapped. About 50 ladies from the village were kidnapped by janjaweed.”

Hawa had no idea what had happened to her family. Blood flowed from her wounded hand. She had no choice but to go along with her captors. She suffered terribly at the hands of the janjaweed, in ways so personal she finds it painful to discuss. The women were taken to Menawashi, a town south of Tina. Once in Menawashi, Hawa discovered her cousin, Aziza, 12, had also been kidnapped. The two of them embraced, and immediately began plotting an escape.

As the sun sank below the desert horizon, Hawa and Aziza put their plan in motion. “The janjaweed pushed all the ladies to go with the animals in the valley where there were big trees,” said Hawa. She and Aziza hid behind some trees through the night. In the morning, when the militia forced the women to trek onwards, Hawa and Aziza remained silent in the bushes. “They left us behind the trees. Then, we ran to some village near Menawashi—I don’t remember the name.” In the nearby village, a woman named Zahara took Hawa and Aziza into her home. It was clear Aziza was weak, so Zahara gave them both food and water. “You must follow this big road to North Darfur, to El Fasher,” she told Hawa. “Even if you find any checkpoints for police or military. If they stop you, just say you are coming from this village and you want to go to Zam Zam.” Hawa did not know Zahara, but she trusted her enough to follow her advice. She and Aziza set off northwards, hoping to reach El Fasher without violence enveloping them again.

After three days and almost 100 kilometers on foot, Hawa saw the checkpoint at Zam Zam ahead of them on the road—the last checkpoint before El Fasher. Aziza’s frail legs could not carry her any further. “Aziza was very, very tired,” said Hawa. “She wasn’t able to go, and I put her on my back.” Hawa trudged the final stretch to the checkpoint with Aziza on her back until others saw them approaching. People ran to them to help. Aziza was whisked away to a medical tent. Hawa set about trying to find her family, as many Darfuris from other villages had fled to Zam Zam, where an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp had been set up.

Hawa searched and searched but found no one from her family. Finally, she found someone who knew where they might be. “Everyone from Tina went into El Fasher,” she was told.

Her journey was not yet complete. Determined to find her family, Hawa collected Aziza, and they set off on foot yet again. Twenty more kilometers. One more day. They arrived in El Fasher in the evening the next day. Hawa and Aziza were reunited with their families and prepared to set up temporary homes in El Fasher. They planned to return to Tina as soon as they could.

But they did not yet know that a war had begun. They did not know that the janjaweed would invade other villages, that rebels would take up arms against the militia, that Darfuris seeking refuge would pour into El Fasher by the thousands. They did not know that the garden where they had set up their temporary shelters would explode into Darfur’s biggest displaced persons’ camp and become home to over 100,000 Darfuris.

Hawa would never return to Tina. She started going to school in El Fasher. She studied English, and she worked hard. It paid off. She landed a job as an interpreter with the United Nations peacekeeping force that was dispatched to Darfur. Her influence in the camp, now called Abu Shouk, grew and grew. She started working with international human rights organizations. She was not afraid to speak out about her experiences. And then one day in July 2010, she knocked on the metal door at my house in El Fasher. She marched in, sat down, drank her tea, and launched into her life story.

After two more years of meetings at my house and two more years of evading Sudanese authorities, Hawa fled to Cairo for her safety. The Sudanese government had arrested her on May 6, 2011 for her advocacy work. She was released two months later and escaped to Cairo soon after. From Egypt, she traveled onwards to the United States to accept her International Woman of Courage Award and claim asylum.

Given her reputation as a Darfuri human rights activist, Hawa had a justifiable claim for asylum. On February 25, 2013, she went in for her asylum interview the way she went into everything—brimming with confidence. She noted the date was just two days shy of the tenth anniversary of Tina’s destruction.

Three days later, asylum was granted. Hawa could not have been happier. She was safe. No more scurrying around the camp at night to meet other activists. No more keeping lists of detained protesters. No more furtive phone calls to Darfuris in exile. But now there were new challenges. Hawa didn’t have a home or a job. Her English was far from perfect. All she had was a list of Darfuris living on the East Coast who might help her find her way. Hawa moved in with Aisha Adam, a Darfuri who emigrated to the U.S. in 2003 and was living in New Jersey. Aisha attended community college each day. Hawa stayed at home and spent her time researching education programs and funding opportunities.

The day eventually came when Hawa had to leave Aisha’s home. Aisha, who was receiving government benefits, was told she could not host anyone in her home while she was on welfare. Hawa packed up her things. But where would she go? In Darfur, Hawa always had many places she could go when she was in trouble. By relying on “wastah,” the Arabic term for under the table connections, Hawa always found a way out of her conundrums. But “wastah” could not save her in America. She was on her own.

On a cold day in February, Hawa walked into the Family Promise shelter in Flemington, New Jersey.

“It was very difficult,” she said. “When I was there, I was saying ‘oh my god, nine years I was in a shelter in Darfur. And now again, in the USA, I am also staying in a shelter again.’” Hawa was glad to be in America, but ashamed to be living in a shelter. WNYC reporter Robert Hennelly contacted her to do a story about her life, but Hawa refused. She did not want her family and friends back home to learn she was homeless.

“Every night we were going to a different church, waiting in line. There is somebody preparing to give dinner during every night,” she said. Under the shelter’s supervision, Hawa moved from church to church every two weeks, never sleeping in one place long enough to make it feel like home. People in Flemington helped feed them. “Every night came different family members. Every night somebody brought the food,” said Hawa. “Sometimes pizza, sometimes rice, sometimes different kinds of food.”

In Darfur, the name “Hawa Salih” meant something. From the northern capital of El Fasher to the western towns bordering Chad, Darfuris had heard of the brave Hawa. People whom she met smiled admiringly when they spoke of her. “Ahh, yes, Hawa,” they would say. “She is strong.”

Inside the church in Flemington, New Jersey, nobody knew Hawa’s name.

After two months of bouncing around from church to church, Hawa finally caught a break. Kait Picco, her asylum lawyer, was able to enroll her in a government program through which Hawa would receive benefits for five months. Around the same time, a community organization called Hias placed Hawa with a host family in Philadelphia. Hawa arrived in Philadelphia, moved into her own bedroom at the home of Lynne Iser and Mordecha Liebling, and started meeting with social workers.

Picco and others advising Hawa told her she needed to find a job – any job – so she could be self-sufficient. But Hawa was stubborn. She said the only thing she wanted to work on was promoting human rights in Darfur. Anything short of that simply did not interest her. Hawa said she did not come to America to flee her problems; she came here to continue her advocacy for Darfur unhindered by government persecution.

Within days of arriving in the U.S. in 2012, Hawa had stood between Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton to receive her International Woman of Courage Award. Wearing a turquoise jalabiya and hugging the First Lady, Hawa and a crowd of hundreds listened as then—Secretary of State Clinton gave a speech honoring Hawa’s bravery. Applause drowned out Hawa’s “thanks you”s.

Before, Hawa was famous among Darfuris. But now, her fame had spread to the United States. Why, then, should it be so difficult to find a job? Given her celebrity status, Hawa thought it would be simple to find a way to support herself and continue her work. She did not foresee waiting in line to sign up for Medicaid or relying on her lawyer to find her a home.

“She’s really good at networking for human rights causes, but not necessarily to sell herself,” Picco said. “The sense I’m getting is that she isn’t taking the initiative with trying to pull strings at various nonprofits. She’s got the contacts, she’s got to make it happen.”

Hawa can be forceful and magnetic. She is talkative and insistent—“Save Darfur! Release all political prisoners!” And yet she is oddly passive when it comes to building a new life, as if fame alone should make her lofty aspirations come true.

“Her English isn’t great enough to just plop her into the UN,” Picco said. “She’ll be stuck in a job that she’s totally overqualified for, like cleaning or hospitality-kind work. We told her anything like that would be a temporary stepping stone to something better.” But Hawa won’t listen.

Eileen Weiss, co-founder of the New York Coalition for Sudan, an advocacy group that works with Darfuris, said she often sees prominent Darfuris arrive in America and take low-paying jobs out of desperation. “Maybe over there they were political leaders or teachers,” she said. “But over here, because of language and the time it takes to adjust and get visas, many of them are driving cabs, and that might not be what they want to do with their lives.”

When Hawa refused to consider a job she thought was beneath her ambitions, Picco didn’t force her to take it. Instead, she set about finding ways for Hawa to advance her studies so she could earn her Master’s degree and land the human rights position she covets. Picco has bought Hawa five months of time with the government program. Five months to live with her host family. Five months to network with organizations. And five months to improve her English. At the end of August, the government money will stop, and Hawa will be ineligible for welfare benefits.

Hawa is throwing herself into studying for her English proficiency exam and seeking academic scholarships. But she has not considered other jobs after August. Hawa has only her ambitious path and nowhere in her plan is there room for menial work.

“I signed letters to Barack Obama about security in Darfur,” she said. “Again in January I signed letters about the humanitarian situation. And to the Secretary of State John Kerry. I keep in touch with many of activists even to Abu Shouk camp.” She frantically rattled off a list of organizations she has volunteered for over the past year. “I worked with Act for Sudan. And the Sudan Emergency Summit-for lobbying and conference. And the Enough Project—John Prednergast (founder of the Enough Project) selected me to be an advisor for the program, to help to develop strategy and planning.”

After all the volunteering she has done, no one offered her a full-time job. And after all her speeches on the empowerment of women, she got nothing in return. She did not seek, nor was she given, any honorarium. Instead, she returned to the shelter in Flemington.

In the second week of April, after being in the U.S. for 13 months, Hawa finally started to learn how the system works. She figured out that no amount of fame would earn her the job she dreams of. While her “wastah” with human rights advocates might well help in the long run, she knows she must begin to act, for and by herself.

A few weeks ago, I saw Hawa for the first time in over a year. I almost didn’t even recognize her—she was no longer the effusive young woman in the blue jalabiya I met three years ago. She was dressed in a Western-style suit with her hair pulled back in a braided bun. She blended in with all the New Yorkers bustling by on Amsterdam Avenue. We strolled around West Harlem with two of her friends, one of them Aisha Adam, her first host in America. We chatted about Hawa’s plans for the future—school or work or whatever comes her way. Later, she told me she had drafted a resume, and asked me to write a recommendation letter for her. She listed a few organizations she planned to reach out to for jobs and asked me for suggestions, too. She sounded excited, and claimed she was finally going to start working. “Insha’Allah, Hawa, insha’Allah,” I cautioned. She cleared her throat a little bit and her voice dropped an octave. “Yes, yes, you are right, Kate. Insha’Allah…”