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Honoring Girls and Women on World Refugee Day

By: Niki Bhargava, International Justice Project

In honor of World Refugee Day, which falls on June 20 every year, the International Justice Project is spearheading a series that will highlight Darfurian refugees whose strength truly inspires us and whose stories shed light on the ongoing violence in Darfur, Sudan and the struggles of adapting to a new life in the United States. We do not use names to protect those who courageously share their stories with us.

Eight years ago, OK came to the United States as a refugee from Darfur, Sudan who was escaping the violence perpetrated by the Sudanese government. Now, she is the founder of an organization called the Darfur Women’s and Children’s Association (“DWACA”), which is dedicated to empowering Darfurian women and helping them and their families adapt to life in the United States.

In early 2000, violence had cast a shadow over OK and her family in Zalingei, a village in West Darfur, as war broke out in the region. The Sudanese government ruthlessly attacked villages and targeted innocent Darfurian civilians, like OK and her family—signs of the genocide to come. Because of the escalating violence in the region, OK and her soon-to-be husband, a political activist, were forced to leave their home, abandon their belongings, and move to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, to live with his family. Soon after, he was forced to flee to Egypt, leaving OK alone in Khartoum for three years. Eventually, he and OK were reunited and married, and they made their way to Phoenix, Arizona through the assistance of the United Nations.

Now parents, with two small children of their own (ages two and seven), the couple want to make sure that their children never experience the violence and fear they were subjected to in Darfur. OK wants to ensure that her children receive the best education and opportunities available, but for a young couple in a foreign country, going it alone is a daunting task. Luckily, OK recognized that they were not the only refugees facing an up-hill battle. In 2006, only two years after arriving in Phoenix, OK founded DWACA and now provides a network of support for Darfurian women around the country.

In Phoenix, OK explains that the Darfurian community is made up of people from many different regional tribes, including people from her own Fur tribe. In Darfur, these people, herself included, had nothing, and now, in the United States, where many more opportunities are available, there are significant barriers preventing them from taking full advantage of these opportunities.

To support their families, many of the men must maintain two or three jobs and the women typically stay at home to care for their children. OK explains that the main goal of her organization is to help the women and children in this community become self-sufficient, but that the general lack of English language skills, education, transportation, daycare, and most importantly, confidence make it a very difficult task. Additionally, many of the women suffer from mental health problems, especially depression and despair.

"It is just of a lot of stuff, says OK. The women are thinking a lot about what happened in the past in Darfur and their families still in camps or other countries, and they have a lot to deal with here. No one knows if we will ever go back to Darfur. We are here in the U.S. for now, and we are learning to combine two different cultures together. We don’t want to lose our culture, especially with our kids, but we have to learn American culture."

According to OK, Darfurian women are not accustomed to speaking out or making independent decisions, and after the trauma experienced in Darfur and the trauma of making the long journey to the United States, it is difficult to give them the confidence to learn to do so. Additionally, lack of language abilities and education are huge barriers that add to a lack of self-confidence. Most of the women speak Fur or Arabic, not English, and it is difficult for others to understand them. OK says that often even simple tasks, like making a doctor’s appointment for their children, is overwhelming. Many of the women will call OK and ask her to do it for them because they just do not have the confidence to even try.

DWACA, with guidance and support from the International Justice Project (“IJP”) and Parent School Support Services, has begun organizing English-as-a-second-language (“ESL”) classes for the women and after-school tutoring for their children. One of the problems faced by many families is that the children are falling behind in school. They generally learn Fur or Arabic first, and English when they start school so reading, writing, and keeping up with their schoolwork quickly becomes challenging. "All of the women want to be able to help their children with their schoolwork," says OK, "that is why we want to learn English."

OK works with Jessica Couleur, an IJP volunteer and long-time friend of the refugee community in Phoenix, to organize the ESL classes and other skills and training workshops. Earlier this year, representatives of the IJP made a trip to Arizona with support from the Marilyn S. Broad Foundation. The visit inspired the women to get motivated to take charge of their current situation. She says that "although their husbands have two or three jobs, the women in her community are learning to be self-sufficient enough to eventually hold a job of their own." OK, for instance, is employed as a caregiver for the sick and the elderly and makes house visits to care for them.

Additionally, the IJP and DWACA are working together to facilitate increased access to physical and mental health care through the Refugee Women’s Health Clinic (“RWHC”), a culturally grounded, patient-centered medical home for the growing refugee community in the Phoenix area. OK, the IJP, and the RWHC hope to begin group discussion sessions this month with the Darfurian community to help direct people to the mental health care that they need.

The Darfurian refugee community in Phoenix is a relatively large one, with nearly 100 women and children, and it takes a lot of planning to organize events that work with all of their schedules, says OK. Transportation and daycare for the children are major issues that the people of this community face, in addition to the previously-mentioned language barrier and mental health challenges.

Eight years and one successful organization later, OK teaches us that with perseverance, a positive outlook, and above all, inner-strength, it is not only possible to come out of an impossibly difficult situation but also to help others do the same.

If you are interested in supporting the work of the DWACA or the IJP or making a donation to this important cause, please email ijp@internationaljusticeproject.com.

Photograph via IJP

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