Rabbi Abie Ingber can’t hide his discomfort. It’s a breezy, overcast Friday afternoon, and Ingber pauses outside the Gallagher Student Center’s lower level. In several days, he leaves for a humanitarian visit to the refugee camps in the African nation of Chad. There, under the auspices of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), he plans to share a message of hope with some of the 300,000 refugees who escaped the genocide in Darfur. It’s a trip envisioned to be long on heart but short on armed security.
“Am I scared? Yes,” Ingber says, pulling his blue pea coat tighter against the cool March breeze. “But in the end, I couldn’t tell my kids that when the opportunity came to do this, I stayed here and sold T-shirts.”
Ingber, director for Xavier’s Office of Interfaith Community Engagement, was invited to Chad by HIAS, an organization founded in 1881 to help Jewish immigrants. Now one of the premiere refugee/immigration humanitarian organizations worldwide, its work in Chad with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees focuses on helping refugees deal with trauma and other psychosocial aspects of displacement.
The trip carries special significance for Ingber, a child of Holocaust survivors. His parents met and were married in a refugee camp following World War II and received aid from HIAS. Now more than 70 years later, their son is traveling to Africa to share their story of hope beyond horror with a new generation of genocide survivors in a new generation of refugee camps.
Over the course of the trip, Ingber is speaking in each camp and distributing several digital cameras, asking the refugees to aid him in taking pictures of camp life to document their plight. Combined with his daily journal entries, the tragedy and triumph of those in the camps is brought to life.
[divider]Day Three: The work begins [/divider]
After two days of travel and meetings, Ingber’s work begins in earnest at 4:30 a.m. when a crowing rooster shatters the silent darkness in the city of N’djamena. A half-hour later, Ingber is preparing for a flight to the town of Abeche. From there, accompanied by armed security vehicles, his group makes a 60-kilometer drive over a lunar-like landscape to Gaga refugee camp.
JOURNAL ENTRY: Thursday, March 12—The drive took almost two full hours. The vista everywhere has cypress trees, low vegetation, boulders of granite and other piles of stones collected by natives to bring to town and sell for construction. Young girls on donkeys transported piles of freshly picked wood; young boys stood watch near assemblies of goats and large cows.
The camp itself is perhaps 5 kilometers past the village … We met with a large assemblage of refugees in the HIAS program hut. We were formally welcomed, and our words were translated into French, then to Masalit, a dialect from Darfur. My message of hope from the refugee camps of the Holocaust was exceptionally and tearfully received. Then one of the refugee leaders spoke for the group with passion and appreciation for HIAS work and the support of the American government and people.
[divider]Day Four: Children’s day [/divider]
The second day of visits to the Gaga camp is children’s day.
JOURNAL ENTRY: Friday, March 13—When we arrived some 200 children were assembled on the large open field, lined up single file in a perfect square, boys with boys, and girls with girls … The children sang in one voice a song “Bilad,i” to their homeland. The second song was about crossing the border from Sudan and being picked up in trucks to be brought to their home, Gaga camp. We shook the hands of every single child in turn. I wished each one “ASalaam Aleikum,” and they responded with “Aleikum Salaam.”
There is no crime in the camp; on the rare occasion that a theft occurs, the police are called in to make an arrest. Hassan [one of the refugees to whom Ingber gave a camera] was all smiles to tell me of all the pictures he had taken. He had been up late at night and rose early to comply with my request to use the camera every moment. What an exceptional young man. We may need him as an ESL student at Xavier.
The camps close to outsiders at about 4:00 p.m. each day, so at 3:00 p.m., the group loads into vehicles for the return drive to Abeche for a weekend of meetings with UNHCR and HIAS staff members.
[divider]Day Seven: Abuses [/divider]
After a three-hour drive From Abeche, the group arrives in Hadjer Hadid to visit the Bredjing refugee camp, home to 33,000 Darfuri refugees.
JOURNAL ENTRY: Monday, March 16—The major issues are gender/spousal abuse, infanticide, abortions, forced young marriages, domestic conflicts, adultery, etc. Some of the community mobilizers [specially trained members of the refugee population] spoke of running out of medicine for epilepsy and young people being chained because of their mental diseases. Much of the mental illness can be attributed to the shock of the genocide that the people saw in Darfur. I pushed hard to see if HIAS might open the door to the medical services in charge of the camp (IFC-Red Cross) to see if Xavier could provide some nursing students to serve for a month or two to help with women who have been raped or encountered other sexual issues.
In Hadjer Hadid, Ingber’s party also visits the Chadian deputy prefect for the region. The prefect, a Muslim, handles all the Chadian affairs for the local camps of refugees.
At the end of our meeting, our eyes met and the prefect asked if I was an Arab. “No,” I responded, “a Jew, but I work a great deal with Arab students at my university.”
[divider]Day Eight: Hopelessness comes easy [/divider]
On the final day of camp visits, the HIAS group drives to the Tregiune refugee camp, home to 16,500 Darfuri refugees. On Tuesdays, the community mobilizers bring the psychosocial staff to families with pressing needs.
JOURNAL ENTRY: Tuesday, March 17—The first family we visited had a 19-year-old son with epilepsy. In the camps he had received medical treatment, but the pills were not available anymore. When he suffered he would wander and fall, injuring himself terribly. The boy’s father kept him chained. It was difficult to hear the story, but the family acted out of love and out of fear for his significant injury.
Our second home visit was almost unbearable. As I entered I saw a crudely fashioned gate of twigs. Behind the door was an elderly woman with severe mental problems. The family members said she not only would hurt herself, but would bite children. Her bony fingers extended from behind the twig door. I responded in traditional fashion and took her fingers in mine and kissed them.
As we exited, I needed some comfort. It came as the Psalmist foretold. I looked ahead, and an Imam was sitting beneath a makeshift hut, copying Koranic verses onto a wooden tablet for his students. I asked for his permission to photograph and for him to recite some verses from the tablet on which he was writing. His chant began, and I quickly pulled out my audio recorder to capture the moment.
The day’s visits end with a 15-year old-boy who received a head injury as a young child and, as a result, suffers seizures and mental problems.
There is little or no medication, and hopelessness comes easily.
Later that evening, as he prepares to return home, Ingber reflects.
We had come to Chad to see the 250,000 refugees from the tragedy in Darfur. We did not see everyone but we saw thousands and physically touched hundreds. Each one was a shining star in the tapestry of humanity. Every star is unique. Every star has its place in the heavens. Every star shines its unique light on our earth. Sometimes you have to travel to an unfamiliar sky to see the uniqueness of each star. I will never forget the Chadian sky. I will never forget the stars shining from Darfur.
The prophet Abraham was told to look to the heavens to number his blessings. This too is our prayer. Insha’Allah. Keyn yehi ratzon. May it be God’s will.
[divider]One month later: Back at home [/divider]
On an overcast April afternoon, Ingber sits in his office in the Gallagher Student Center. His framed humanitarian visa from the Republic of Chad leans against the window, positioned to provide a tangible reminder of the trip each time Ingber looks out across the campus. He’s been home about four weeks, but the feelings he experienced in Chad have not dimmed—nor do they show signs of doing so. Ingber’s initial trepidation is replaced with glowing possibilities: He now sees opportunities for the University and its students to become involved, whether through education or service, and ways of sharing the numerous exceptional photos taken by the refugees. It is clear that, in many ways, he found more than expected in Africa.
“Before I left, I could have given expression to why I went,” he says. “But I never realized that the opportunity to tell the story of the Holocaust, and my parents experiences in a refugee camp and the 60 years of hope and life and celebration that followed, could really bring hope and life and celebration to refugees from a place as far away as Darfur. But that’s exactly what happened.”
He pauses. “If you open yourself to see God in all people, and you allow yourself to experience the gentle hand of God in the direction of your life, it’s amazing how powerful those two things can be together. I cannot wait to go back.”