Like many Americans, the human suffering in Africa doesn't register on my day-to-day worry meter. Typically, I stay isolated from the misery and displacement that accompany endless civil wars in countries such as Sudan.
My sensibilities changed last week when I called Rhodes College senior Rachel Boulden to ask about the mock refugee camp she organized at the school. Boulin, a passionate advocate for the many Sudanese refugees who call Memphis home, says she hopes the camp stimulates compassion and action by students and area residents alike.
"We have hundreds of refugees in Memphis with heart-breaking stories of loss and separation," Boulden says. "Once they get here, they become almost invisible, struggling to learn the language and determined to give their children the opportunities they never had."
Intrigued by Boulden's fervor, I arrived at Rhodes last Saturday to find a cluster of tents made with plywood, clothesline, and tarps. Student guides explained the camp's namesake, Camp Kakuma, where 90,000 Sudanese refugees wait out the years in the desert region of Kenya. Next, the guides recreated the arduous process of camp life: trade a name for a number, get a ration card (lose it and you don't eat), wait in line at the medical tent (lice, cholera, and tuberculosis are rampant), drink a small ration of water (once a day at an assigned time), and then eat a ladle of red beans, hominy, and cornmeal mush (with your fingers because there are no forks).
"You sit and sit and sit because, except for cooking the meals, there is nothing to do," says Janet Banga, a Sudanese refugee who came to Memphis after living five years in a Kenyan camp. Today, Banga is perched on a large aluminum can near a tent and a crude fire pit. The cans, she says, were valuable because they could be shaped into stools or plates or containers for cooking. "The cans were all we had, plus dried beans and corn and a little salt," she says.
Her sister-in-law, Flora Elisa, shakes her head, agreeing with the memory. "Finding firewood was very hard," she says. "We had to walk five or six miles, always looking for more wood."
I listened carefully, amazed by the women's forthright accounts, told with no weariness or regret. "We have jobs and a good life now," Elisa says, smiling. "But there are many people still in camps. We cannot forget them."
Her words are like the closing remarks made a few days earlier by Rawandan hero Paul Rusesabagina at a Martin Luther King Week event. Rusesabagina reminded Rhodes students of Sudan's western Darfur province, where 200,000 people have been killed since 2003 and thousands more displaced by rebel fighting.
"There are so many voices calling for rescue," he said. "They need you. They need your help."