Imagine a rainy day and you don’t feel like walking home. You manage to successfully hail a yellow cab coming your way. The driver stops, and you hop in the backseat. Through the rear view mirror, you notice the driver has a kind face. You tell him where you are going, and later, on a whim, ask where he’s from.
He tells you his name is Rahama Deffallah. Before driving a cab, he was a civil engineer in Sudan. In 1997, Rahama fled to the U.S. seeking refuge from Darfur, a region the size of Texas in the western part of the country. At the time, there was what he calls a “silent genocide” taking place. As part of the Zaghawa tribe, he explains, “I didn’t have rights in my country. I was a second-class citizen in Sudan.”
Since Rahama left, the situation in his homeland has only gotten worse. In 2003, rebel movements representing the marginalized people in Darfur took arms against the government of Sudan. The government has since responded by dropping bombs from Antonovs, Russian warplanes, on Darfurian communities, and arming Janjaweed militias on horseback who have subsequently burned and raided villages, raping and killing the indigenous African tribes in the region. In the past few years, over 400,000 people have been killed and at least two million have been displaced. While international attention on Darfur has increased, so have the offensive attacks on the region. Rahama hopes that the world’s concern will soon translate into action and a commitment to justice.
You begin to realize what once seemed like a remote problem in Africa, has a powerful presence in Brooklyn.
As Secretary General of the Darfur People’s Association (DPA) of New York, Rahama is one of 247 Darfurians living in the Boro Park/Kingston area of Brooklyn, which hosts the largest number of Darfurian refugees in New York State. About 180 have arrived since the violence began in 2003. Almost every weekend, they hold a funeral service for their loved ones killed in Darfur that week. Rahama alone has lost 47 members of his family. The loss resonates in the community.
When you inquire more about the Darfurians here, Rahama conveys the hardships they endure. “All the people here suffer. They are working very hard to support their families back home.” The DPA has been organizing collections of clothing and school supplies, which they periodically send to refugee camps in Chad, Sudan’s western neighbor.
Rahama is quick to point out that many of the refugees in Brooklyn are living in conditions similar to those in refugee camps in and around Darfur. Because of language barriers and an unfamiliarity with the American system and way of life, they need help finding jobs, accessing social services and obtaining survival skills necessary for their new surroundings. “We hope we can become part of this community.”
You ask Rahama what he thinks of Brooklyn and he replies, “I like Brooklyn, it’s very friendly.” He tells you that where he is from is not developed as it is in New York. People live in mud huts. They are mostly farmers. The natural landscape is largely untouched. “When I came here, I was surprised at what I saw. It was more than what I expected.” While Brooklyn in many ways is far from Darfur, Rahama feels like he is close to home. “Most Darfurians live here together and support each other. Brooklyn is a good place for us.”
You discover that over the past three years, Rahama has spent his days driving a taxi and attending Darfur rallies, funerals and vigils. He has spoken to students, churches, mosques and other community centers about what is ravaging his homeland. He spent endless hours watching footage from his country to help translate subtitles for the recent documentary film Darfur Diaries. You wonder how he manages to balance all this. He responds, “Yes, it is a lot at a time, but it’s a matter of life and death.”
Rahama lives with his wife Awadia and their three young children: four and a half year-old daughter Zahar, two-year-old son Abdullah, who loves Dora the Explorer, and their recent addition Sheima, only a few months old. You ask what the kids know about Darfur, and Rahama says the little ones are too young to comprehend, but “Zahar is now understanding some things. When she sees any kind of picture of people suffering, she asks if this is Darfur. She’ll pick out clothes she doesn’t need and say ‘just send it to Darfur.’” Rahama hopes one day to show his children Darfur at peace.
It has been two years since Rahama has seen his own parents. He tells you his 93-year-old father and 90-year-old mother are still in Darfur. Their village of Mozbed was completely destroyed, and they are now living in caves in the nearby mountains. You learn that in the coming weeks, Rahama is planning a trip by himself to visit them. He helped coordinate a shipment of clothes and supplies from Brooklyn to Chad via Cameroon, and he is traveling to Chad to assure their delivery to the camps, personally distributing the goods to the refugees. From there, Rahama will cross the border into Darfur to see for himself what happened to his village and how his parents are surviving the situation.
Being constantly reminded of the genocide back home, you can’t imagine how he stays strong. In his soft-spoken but confident voice, he shares, “ I have hope there will be peace in Sudan. There will be regime change. I will see the refugees go home. I will see the destroyed villages rebuilt. Those refugees will see justice.”
Sangamithra Iyer is an editor at Satya Magazine. For more information on Darfur and Darfurians in Brooklyn, visit brooklynpeace.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.