Darfur Crisis Hits Home in Indiana

The low point for Kimo was when he found one of his friends shot dead and another sliced down the middle with nails driven into his knees.

Horrific scenes like these characterize his journey from the war-weary Darfur region of Sudan to his unlikely new home in Fort Wayne, Ind., the location of a small, yet significant enclave of about 300 Darfurians.

The journey began a little more than three years ago when Kimo's village was attacked. Men tied him, his father and the mayor together, and threw them into a car. They drove to a town about 100 miles south. Along the way, the mayor died. Kimo and his father were lucky, as 90 of 400 villagers were killed in an attack, Kimo said.

"They put me in jail and tortured me," said the 34-year-old illegal immigrant, who asked that his real name not be used to protect his identity. "They asked me about rebels and the leaders. When they know I don't know anything about that, they leave me and I walk back to my village."

He took his ailing father to a hospital but said he was turned away. The doctors were too afraid to treat him. They feared they, too, would become victims of Government Security Forces, the people Kimo said had abducted him. Kimo found refuge at the home of a relative where he and his father stayed for two weeks before walking home.

Kimo went to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and reported everything that he had seen. Because he spoke out, Kimo said the government threw him into a prison where he was beat, burned, and hung from the ceiling. He endured this torture for 57 days. He escaped from prison when African rebel forces attacked the city and set him free.

One of Millions of Victims

Kimo is one of the millions of victims of the latest crisis in war-torn Sudan. Since 2003, approximately 400,000 Darfurians have been killed and more than 2 million have been displaced, according to savedarfur.org, a nonprofit group formed to raise awareness and mobilize an international response.

The violence began when African rebel groups attacked the Sudanese government. In response, the government has been tacitly sponsoring the Janjaweed, Arab men on horseback who attack the black African villages and rape, kill and destroy. The crisis comes on the heels of a recent truce in the Sudanese civil war between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south.

There is a glimmer of hope that an end is in sight. On May 5, the Sudanese government and the rebel factions signed a peace agreement, but it is not clear whether the agreement will be enough to stop the violence.

Kimo returned to his home and lived peacefully for a short time until October 2003, when the village endured yet another attack in which 67 people were killed. Bombs were dropped, and people were shot and chopped apart, including Kimo's two friends. Kimo found their mangled bodies on the ground. He and his family ran for the hills, but soon lost track of each other. Kimo then made his way to a refugee camp in Chad, which is just west of Darfur.

"They kill everything. Child, woman, animal," he said. "So we escape. We hide in the hills, the mountains."

Even after getting separated from his family, Kimo continued to fight the Janjaweed. He was hired by the Coalition for International Justice, a nonprofit organization that supports international war-crimes tribunals and justice initiatives, to document the atrocities. Some of the evidence he compiled was cited by former Secretary of State Colin Powell when he called the crisis "genocide" in 2004.

A Darfuri Enclave

For nearly two years, Kimo has been separated from his father, wife and now 3-year-old son. He is in the United States, living with his uncle and learning to be part of a community in Fort Wayne, Ind. The U.S. government insists that he is not eligible for asylum because he now has a Chadian passport, Kimo said, and he has to wait a year for another hearing.

Kimo is essentially a refugee, generally meaning a person who has crossed international borders to escape oppression. Refugee has a very technical meaning to the U.S. government, which grants thousands of people the status each year.

According to Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration spokeswoman Gina Wills, the United States identifies certain people around the world who are eligible to be resettled here as refugees. Kimo, on the other hand, came to America first and now has thrown himself on the mercy of the court.

"In order to seek asylum they have to be here, and then they apply to be a refugee," Wills said.

The process is never guaranteed.

Although Kimo is a college-educated farmer, he cannot get a work permit because of his status. He came with a student visa, but could not afford $25,000 for Indiana University and it expired. He hopes that once he gets asylum, he can work and at least send money home to his family.

"Just I'm waiting," he said. "What can I do?"

The congregation of Darfurians in Fort Wayne prompted Sulimon Giddo to select it as the headquarters of the nonprofit Darfur Peace and Development.

This small Midwestern city appeals to immigrant populations because it is "family friendly" and is surrounded by factories, including a General Motors Corp. assembly plant that, despite the company's troubles, recently added 200 jobs.

The city, which is surprisingly diverse, is also home to Catholic Charities, which has been resettling refugees in the area for more than 30 years. The Darfurians are not refugees, and usually come to Fort Wayne after first settling somewhere else, but they are drawn to the city's immigrant-friendly environment.

The Rev. Joe Johns, pastor at the Fellowship Missionary Church, has tried to educate the community about the Darfur crisis. Fort Wayne churches have held rallies for peace in Darfur, and Johns has traveled twice to the war-torn region.

"More so in our congregation, people can see the idea. They see clearly that these people in our community need help," said Johns, who led his church's effort to raise $90,000 in aid for the people of Darfur. "The problem is knowing just what to do."

Johns recently returned from a 10-day trip to Darfur and met with Kimo's ailing father who had just undergone surgery for kidney stones. Kimo's wife and child were living in Khartoum.

Johns explained how Kimo was doing and brought documents from Kimo's lawyer for the father to sign to corroborate Kimo's story in his petition for asylum.

"He told me afterward, he was deeply grateful," Johns said. "He basically bequeathed his son to me. It was a memorable moment. He probably resigned himself that he wasn't going to see his son again."

The Harsh Reality

Brian Steidle, a former observer with international African Union forces deployed to monitor the situation in Sudan, traveled to Fort Wayne in March 2006 as part of a 22-city speaking tour for peace in Darfur. He was pleasantly surprised by the support he found there. While serving in Darfur, between September 2004 and February 2005, Steidle saw entire villages decimated by what he said was the Sudanese army. He described seeing "scores and scores of bodies."

"I stood next to Sudanese generals while this was going on," said Steidle, 29, a retired Marine captain. "I would say, 'Why are you doing this?' They would say, 'These are not my guys.' … Just flat-out lied right to your face. It's not even after it's done. It was while we were watching it. They would say it's not happening."

Steidle wanted to fight back and protect the victims, but had to leave out of sheer frustration. Now his mission is to convince Americans that something must be done.

"We are more interested in Michael Jackson than 300,000 people being killed," he said. "It's another African problem. People just roll their eyes. It's a genocide. We wake up in the morning. We eat our bowl of cereal. We go to work. We watch our silly sitcoms at night. If it doesn't affect us, we don't care about it."

Steidle said Darfurians saw America as their savior. Each time he went to a village, he was greeted with cheers.

"They have a tremendous amount of hope that the West will save them. I have been applauded by entire villages because they think George Bush will come," he said. "Their only hope is in America. They love what we did in Iraq. They say, 'Those people are free. Why don't you free us?' I don't think that will ever get troops on the ground."

The United Nations seems to be slowly moving toward an intervention. It wants to send 20,000 troops, but the Sudanese government has not agreed to allow them in. On April 30, 2006, thousands of people attended a rally in Washington, D.C., for peace in Darfur, and actors like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney have recently spoken out about the crisis.

Community Outreach

Giddo, who left Darfur in 1999, came to the United States to get his doctorate in finance at Fort Wayne's joint campus of Indiana University and Purdue University. Even before the crisis, Giddo wanted to help move his homeland into the future. He was one of the privileged few who attended school, but to get there he had to walk two days.

In the small office where Giddo and his lone full-time staffer, Karri DeSelm, work, Giddo reaches out to potential donors and volunteers who can support their efforts to rebuild the bloodied region. For example, they have instituted programs in which American students raise money for books for Darfuri schools.

"Let us work together as a community before it breaks down to a war, and then we can start on development," he said.

Some of the most-eager help has come from his Fort Wayne neighbors, like members of Johns' evangelical church eight miles across town.

"If we profess to fulfill Jesus Christ's teachings and he professes to love your neighbor as you love yourself and we have neighbors whose family is being killed, we can't do nothing," Johns said.

The Will to Survive

Six months ago, Fatouma joined the burgeoning community of Darfurians in Fort Wayne. Fatouma, who gave birth to a baby boy two months ago, is in the last stages of receiving her asylum status and does not have a work permit.

She must rely on her new friends and neighbors to pay her phone bills, medical expenses and rent. To protect her identity, Fatouma asked not to use her real name.

"When I met [Fatouma] last fall, she was new in town with a baby on the way," said Karmon Young, a member of Fort Wayne's International Women's Club. "I took her to all of her prenatal visits and sometimes helped the doctor and [Fatouma] understand each other."

Although several people in the community help support her financially, Fatouma is still very much alone. Most of her family was slaughtered by the Janjaweed. She told her story while bouncing her baby, and barely flinched when she said that she had received "no anything from my husband," since her home was ransacked last May.

Fatouma has long been acquainted with violence and bloodshed. Her village was first attacked by Arabs seven years ago, when she was newly married.

"They attacked the village from all sides," she said in Arabic through Giddo, who translated. "Almost 50-plus people were killed."

Afterwards, she and her family fled to a new location within Darfur, where they thought they would be safe from attacks. However, when the tension and violence continued to escalate, Fatouma, 29, was victimized again.

Last year, she and four other women were taken by the Janjaweed and held hostage for two days.

"We are the masters, and you are just our slaves," Fatouma said they told her.

When they ordered her to gather firewood, she escaped and ran until she encountered an elderly man, who told her where some remaining members of her village were. She went there, but her family and husband had vanished.

Hungry and without shoes, she walked six days to Chad, then spent two more days in search of a doctor. She eventually made her way to the Chadian capital, N'Djamena, and went to the American embassy where she was able to arrange a flight to the United States.

She "is an easy person to love and admire," said Young who helps tutor immigrant women in English. "She has so much personal strength and courage. She has survived terrible personal tragedies, yet never complains about anything."

Young and Johns look at the tragedy of Darfur in the face every day and say they can't pretend the problem doesn't exist. Since they came to Fort Wayne, the Darfurians' problem has become the community's problem.

"It stems from being personal," Johns said. "I hate to say it, but if there wasn't Darfurians here, I don't know how active it [the Fort Wayne community] would be."

For more information on Darfur, or to learn what you can do to help Darfur, please visit SaveDarfur.org or Darfur Peace and Development.