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Three Darfur refugees arrive in Grand Rapids grateful for chance at 'peace, freedom' PDF Print E-mail

By The Grand Rapids Press

March 21, 2009, 3:18AM

Until Friday, the Darfur refugee crisis did not have a name or face in West Michigan.

That changed with the arrival of three refugees from the long-simmering African stalemate that is considered genocide by much of the world.

"I am very, very happy to see myself in America," said a beaming man named Abubakar, 31, moments after arriving at Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

Abubakar, and two others, Alnill, 46, and Abdulkarim, 31, asked that only their first names be used because of fear of reprisal against family members by the Sudanese government.

Abubakar described a scene in his home village in the Darfur region of Sudan, one that has been recounted by thousands of witnesses since the conflict escalated in 2004: "They are killing people, raping women."

They are being supported by Programs Assisting Refugee Acculturation, part of Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services and an organization called Save Darfur Grand Rapids.

Ann Dunlop, 56, president of Save Darfur Grand Rapids and a newly-hired case manager for the refugee program, is grateful for the chance to make at least a small difference in this ongoing humanitarian crisis. Dunlop said the three are the first Darfur refugees to arrive in the Grand Rapids area.

"The problem is that it is so big that people don't know where they can jump in to help. One of the problems is that it has been going on for so long that people get sort of immune to hearing about it."

Dunlop helped form Save Darfur Grand Rapids in 2006, a coalition of about a hundred people and several churches.


Darfur Crisis Hits Home

The first refugees arrived in West Michigan on Friday. Bethany Christian Services is aiding resettlement of three Darfur refugees and needs volunteers to teach English, provide transportation and offer counseling for budgeting and other needs.

"People have to understand that they do have some power. There are things that they can do."

Darfur has been the subject of international scrutiny since 2004, when government troops and a militia group known as the janjaweed moved against a black African rebel movement that complained of neglect from the nation's Muslim government.

Backed by the government, the janjaweed carried out widespread civilian killing that led to a massive refugee crisis.

The United Nations estimates that the five-year conflict has left 300,000 people dead and 2.7 million more who are believed to have fled their homes in the face of atrocities and the destruction of villages.

Compounding the crisis, the President of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, was charged earlier this month by the International Criminal Court with five counts of crimes against humanity.

Bashir responded by ordering 13 aid organizations serving millions of people in Darfur to suspend their operations on accusations they provided false evidence to the court.

Dunlop said she fears the crisis may only deepen.

"The expectation is that things will get worse before they get better."

Wearing a large plastic name tag around his neck, Abdulkarim said he can only wonder what happened to his mother, father, brothers and sisters.

"They kill a lot of people in our area. I have family but, unfortunately, I lost my family in 2005. I don't know what happened to them, whether they are alive or not."

Like the others, Abubakar fled Darfur in 2005, walking alone for 15 days to reach the border with Chad. He and the others met for the first time in the refugee camp in Ghana. They learned only days ago they would be coming to a place called Michigan.

Abubakar said he is glad to be out of the camp in Ghana, a place he said had "no health (care), no education, no improvement. No life in there."

He is eager to find out what his life here might bring.

"It's my dream. I know that America is peace, freedom. I miss all this a long time."

Hearing of the 'Lost Boys' helped local man find a new hope PDF Print E-mail

From:The Michigan Catholic
Date Published: December 4, 2009
By: Jared Field

BIRMINGHAM � Tim Page sees the world through a long lens.

Seated at his kitchen table, Page, an ophthalmologist in Birmingham, scours the Internet for the latest news out of east Africa, a region that could scarcely be more different than suburban America, rife with poverty, turmoil and war.

Even still, he's not too far away to see something unexpected: Hope.

For Page, a member of Holy Name Parish in Birmingham, living out his faith means far more than attending Mass on the weekend, saying prayers and tithing 10 percent. He seeks to hear those who cry out to God; he seeks justice for people he'll never meet in places he'll never see; he wants to nourish the hungry and clothe the sick.

He's your neighbor and he wants you to join him.

"There's a tremendous need, and it's palpable," said Page, an advocate for east Africa and member of the Michigan Darfur Coalition. "It's very real. Just because you can't see it out your back window doesn't mean it's not happening. You have to look for it. It doesn't matter what you give. Just be conscious of what's going on and just make some sort of effort to help out."

Page, a 42-year-old husband to Jill and father of three sons, was inspired to get involved in advocacy for east Africa some years back after he heard stories of the "Lost Boys" of the Sudanese civil war that started in the 1980s � a precursor to the current conflict-turned-genocide in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

He was perplexed by what he thought was a contradiction in terms: Could genocide happen in secret in the 21st century?

"I was really surprised that I didn't know anything about it," said Page of the conflict in Darfur that, by recent United Nations estimates, has claimed 300,000 lives. "It shocked me that it was going on. These terrible things were happening and I was just doing my day-to-day routine.

"I've never understood how people let these things happen."

Lost and found

Jacob Atem, a "Lost Boy," says he owes his life to good people such as Page, Christian people who have no earthly reward for knowing or caring about the tragedies of his family, nation and continent.

"I love his passion," Atem said. "He has a good life; he could just live his life and say 'forget Sudan.' That's what amazes me about him, and those individuals. They want to speak for those who can't speak for themselves."

Atem is a "Lost Boy" who escaped Sudan when he was 6 or 7 years old (he still doesn't know for certain how old he is, though 25 is his best guess). Both of his parents were murdered by government-backed militiamen in southern Sudan and his sister was captured and enslaved.

After hiding out in the woods for several days, Atem traveled east for more than seven months on the back of Michael, his teen-aged cousin, across Sudan, Africa's largest country. He traveled in a canoe across the Gilo, a river on the Ethiopian border infested with crocodiles where thousands who fled died before making it to Ethiopia, a country that had a civil war of its own not long after they arrived. The war forced them back into Sudan for a time before they fled on foot to Kenya, where Atem lived for nine years before coming to America with the help of the U.S. government and support organizations.

Today, Atem lives near Lansing and travels the country drumming up financial support and increasing awareness of the ongoing struggles in Darfur as well as southern Sudan.

"I want to be able to convince people," said Atem, who founded the South Sudan Healthcare Organization, a non-profit organization supporting the people of Southern Sudan by providing healthcare facilities, education in healthcare and sanitation and assistance with healthcare supplies. "I challenge myself to teach those who will listen. To me, it's amazing. I speak to so many churches; I never turn down anyone. We have one goal and that is serving God."

"This is what God looks like. He's so big," he added.

Atem believes that great things can be accomplished with Christians band together to in support of social justice for all.

"As Christians, our voice should be heard," said Atem, a graduate of Spring Arbor University and graduate student in Public Health at Michigan State. "I wouldn't be here without the help of Christian people.

"What's in my heart is how God has helped me so much through so many people."

With the help of people such as Page and numerous support organizations, Atem has been able to raise $50,000 to build a health clinic in Bor in southern Sudan.

According to the most recent estimate, there are nearly 2 million Catholics in Sudan.

"I want to be able to convince people," said Atem, who founded the South Sudan Healthcare Organization, a non-profit organization supporting the people of Southern Sudan by providing healthcare facilities, education in healthcare and sanitation and assistance with healthcare supplies. "I challenge myself to teach those who will listen. To me, it's amazing. I speak to so many churches; I never turn down anyone. We have one goal and that is serving God."

"This is what God looks like. He's so big," he added.

Atem believes that great things can be accomplished with Christians band together to in support of social justice for all.

"As Christians, our voice should be heard," said Atem, a graduate of Spring Arbor University and graduate student in Public Health at Michigan State. "I wouldn't be here without the help of Christian people.

"What's in my heart is how God has helped me so much through so many people."

With the help of people such as Page and numerous support organizations, Atem has been able to raise $50,000 to build a health clinic in Bor in southern Sudan.

According to the most recent estimate, there are nearly 2 million Catholics in Sudan.

'The core of our values'

In September, Page saw firsthand some of the needs that exist in the far-flung corners of the globe. He spent two weeks living at an orphanage and working in a health clinic in northern Kenya where he performed eye procedures on patients, many of whom had AIDS.

For Page, it was an eye-opening experience.

"I can't help but to care," said Page, who works with Kenya Relief, a non-profit organization the people of Migori, near Lake Victoria. "When you feel their pain and see what they're going through, you can't help but to act � I think it's certainly a part of our faith to reach out and to be concerned about others, to put others before ourselves. I feel that it's our duty and that God calls on us to help those who are in need.

"I think it's the essence, the core of our values."

Just this month, Page helped facilitate the shipment of 120,000 meals to drought-ravaged northern Kenya through Kids against Hunger, a U.S.-based food-aid organization. The shipping alone cost $10,000.

Dr. Page says that even small stuff can make a big difference in places such as Kenya and Darfur, and that everyone can get involved in simple things like creating awareness among elected officials.

"That's we what we do and what everyone can do: advocate," he said. "If you're not bugging your senators, congressmen and president to act on this they aren't going to do it.

"It does take effort to get involved, but it's definitely worthwhile."


Get involved

If you are interested in getting involved: letter-writing campaigns, getting more information, donating time or money you may contact Tim Page at: Phone: (248) 515-8688. On the Web: MichiganDarfurCoalition.org.




Pennfield Students See Darfur Horrors PDF Print E-mail

From:The Pennfield The Enquirer
Date Published: October 20, 2009
By: Justin A. Hinkley

A tall, scrawny man known as Abubakar tells a story that's hard for many to hear.

A college graduate who majored in Arabic literature, Abubakar had just begun his career as a teacher in Al-Fashir, Sudan, when the political uprising began there in 2003. Two rebel groups in Darfur, Sudan's western region, had taken up arms against the government. And the government was retaliating by burning down villages, robbing and killing civilians and raping women, according to reports.

Abubakar was captured, accused of being a rebel and beaten during interrogations. He escaped from a Sudanese hospital and spent six years as a refugee in the neighboring nations of Chad and Ghana before coming to Grand Rapids.

On Monday, he had this to say to about 100 people gathered at Pennfield High School's Performing Arts Center: "I would say to Americans, you are really lucky and please don't take that for granted," he said. "You can say anything you want to government and nobody can arrest you and no one can harm you. That's a wonderful thing. So fill your wonderful life."

Messages such as those are what led Pennfield Middle School social studies teacher Mitch Fowler to begin the Darfur Media Festival. He asked his seventh-graders to put together multimedia presentations -- photos, video and music -- that would "raise awareness and ask for help."

"The first thing that came to my head when I heard what was happening there was how sad it was," said 13-year-old eighth-grader Marshall Curtis. "The second thing was what I could or couldn't do to help."

Partnering with the Michigan Darfur Coalition, Fowler's students put on a presentation last year and raised more than $200 to help the 3.5 million Darfurians displaced by the genocide and who depend on humanitarian aid.

On Monday, the films were shown again -- gut-wrenching and heartfelt images of Sudanese women and children and gory images of ethnic cleansing shown in a documentary -- hoping to encourage people to get involved.

The Michigan Darfur Coalition's Charlton Breen set the scene this way: He asked the audience to imagine hearing bloodcurdling screams from a neighboring apartment, waking to find their neighbors' home aflame or spotting a cluster of lost and fearful children on the side of the road.

"I would say that most of us would do something," Breene said. "But what if you don't hear the screams yourself? What if you hear about them from someone else? Would the situation really be different?"

That was the question raised by Abubakar's story and the atrocities he shared. When his family's village was attacked, he said Sudanese soldiers took a villager's baby only minutes old and dropped it into boiling water.

"I hope my story can just make you take action," Abubakar said. "I don't know, what can you do? But I believe you can do something."


Sudan's Lost Boys Pursue Olympic and American Dreams (Interview with Dominic Maurice) PDF Print E-mail
Date Published: 8/14/08

Virginia Mitchell and Charlton Breen of the Michigan Darfur Coalition (MDC) recently sat down for an interview with Dominic Maurice. Maurice is a former "Lost Boy" refugee from Sudan who has become a U.S. citizen and resides in Michigan. Last week, Maurice's friend, Lopez Lomong, was selected by Team USA to carry the American flag at the Olympic parade of nations in Beijing.

Charlton Breen: I understand your journey to the United States was a long and improbable one. Can you describe it?

Dominic Maurice: I was born in the village of Chukueum in Southern Sudan. Chukueum was a beautiful village surrounded by mountains. Our family lived on a farm. My father was a teacher, while my mother stayed home to tend to our house and the children. I had started school myself, but everything changed when I was only nine years old.

The war started and the government mandated that all boys from our tribe be killed. So, 50 kids from our town left on foot. Several mothers came with us because they had boys who were too young to make the journey. Our ages ranged from 3 to 15. The majority of the boys were about my age. We had to hide and sleep during the day and walk at night. We walked directly to Kenya, where the United Nations was waiting for us in the Juja region. Not everyone survived the journey. There was no real food for many days, and people ate whatever they could find along the way. Several people died of hunger, while others were taken by animals.

We arrived in Juja in 1991. We lived in Juja for 10 years. On December 29, 2001, I left Kenya and came to Lansing, Michigan, with two other guys. We stayed with an American family.  We met them for the first time at the airport, and they helped teach how life in the U.S. is different.

Virginia Mitchell: You recently became a U.S. citizen. Can you tell me about that experience?

Maurice: This process began around 1994. Eventually we became permanent residents of the U.S. After five years, we were eligible for citizenship. When our applications were finally approved we had to submit our fingerprints, and then wait even longer. Eventually, we received our citizenship ceremony letter. People from the MDC talked to a judge to get me a private ceremony. I had my ceremony at a junior high classroom in Detroit. One of the boys in the class had raised $2,000 for the MDC, and they were excited to be a part of the ceremony.

It's great being a citizen now, because I can travel and have a passport, and also I feel great because I know I can stay here. And, in the future I want to be able to contribute to something good, in the way that people have contributed to me.

Charlton Breen: Last week in Beijing, Lopez Lomong was chosen by Team USA to carry the flag at the parade of nations during the opening ceremony. How do you know Lopez, and what was it like to watch him at the ceremony?

Maurice: I have known Lopez since we lived together in the same compound in Kenya. We played games together. I came to the U.S. first and he came later to Syracuse, New York.  He tried out for the Olympics in Oregon, then trained in Colorado. We were together again in Colorado, because my cousin graduated from college there at the same time.

It was very exciting to see him on TV. He means a lot to me and to all of us back home in Sudan. We are very proud to see him representing the USA. It sends a message that people can come from anywhere and achieve their dreams. But we didn't actually dream this dream when we were living together in Kenya. Who thought this would be possible? When we were back in Kenya, these types of dreams just didn't occur because we didn't know they could.  We are very thankful to the United Nations and the U.S. government for giving us the opportunity to come here.

Virginia Mitchell: What do you think of attempts to link the genocide in Darfur with the Beijing Olympics?

Maurice: Because of a lack of coverage in the media, not everybody knew that there is a link between Sudan and China, but recent news regarding the Olympics is helping people to learn about the link. I think it is very helpful to link China to Sudan to try to get China to help the people of Sudan. I hope the Olympics can bring about a new agenda that will be helpful.

Virginia Mitchell: President Bashir has recently been indicted by the International Criminal Court. How did you feel when you heard this news?

I felt great. I won't lie. I felt great. He is a part of the problem. For the ICC to do this, it shows where the responsibility lies for the war in Darfur. I will be happy for him to appear in court.  He should be held accountable for his actions.

Charlton Breen: How do you think the international community is doing with efforts to end genocide in Darfur?

The world is doing a good job of trying to help Sudan, but the problem is with the Sudan government. The international community is trying its best.

Virginia Mitchell: You have spoken at several events for the MDC. Is it difficult for you to recount your experiences?

Maurice: It is not difficult to tell people. My mind can still remember what happened. I think people need to know. I feel good letting people know my story.

Charlton Breen: You are about to become a junior at Grand Valley State University (GVSU).  What challenges have you faced since starting college?

Maurice: Just getting through it. It takes a long time. I wish I was a senior! I want to be done, so that I can have a chance to do something more. The hardest part, though, is the financial situation. I work when I am not in school, and they (GVSU) tell me I make enough money to pay for my school expenses, but in reality, I don't have enough money after my other expenses to pay tuition. The little money that I make that is left over after expenses, I need to send home to my family in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

Virginia Mitchell: How is life for your family these days?   

Maurice: I just talked to them last week. The conditions in Kakuma are really bad. People are getting killed. You can't walk around by yourself or at night. The U.N. is still there, but their rations are too small. There's not enough food or clean water, so I send them money so they can survive.

Virginia Mitchell: Do you miss your home in Sudan? Do you plan to return there one day?

Maurice: Yes, I miss my family and my community. But the situation is not good. Hopefully I will visit around Christmas this year. If everything goes right, I can go in December. I am still waiting for my passport, but the people of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids have sponsored my airfare.

Charlton Breen: What are your dreams for the future?

Maurice: I have the same dream as Lopez to run in the Olympics. I was running track and playing soccer. But I had to change my plans to just try to support myself, and that kind of killed my dream of running. My new dream is to finish school and to work for an organization and work with children. Because organizations helped me once, so I want to help people, too. I just want to help and contribute, either to kids in Sudan or here in the U.S. I also want to write a book detailing my journey and what I had to go through to get to where I am now.
Darfur in the News PDF Print E-mail

From: Darfur Consortium
Date Published: 07/24/07

Associated Press: Michigan Latest State to Target Sudan. A growing list of states and universities across the country are pulling their investments from foreign companies that deal with Sudan, Iran and other nations accused of government-supported genocide or terrorism. It could be the largest wave of public divestment activity since efforts targeting South Africa and apartheid in the 1980s. Michigan is among the states that soon could join the effort. The state Legislature on Tuesday was to hold hearings on bills that would restrict the state's pension fund investments. According to the Sudan Divestment Task Force, 19 states and more than 50 universities have adopted some sort of divestment policy related to the African nation, where the government and its military allies are accused of pursuing a genocide campaign in the Darfur region. ''As more and more states jump on board, it creates a snowball effect,'' said Ginny Mitchell, an Ann Arbor resident who is working with the task force. ''It will hit Sudan in the wallet, and that's what we're looking to do.'' One set of Michigan bills would target a relatively short list of foreign companies -- mostly from oil, power and minerals sectors -- listed by the Sudan Divestment Task Force. The task force says those companies have a business relationship with the Sudanese government but fail to benefit citizens outside of government-controlled circles, and have not adequately addressed the genocide through corporate action.

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