A few months after my final Olympic Games in 2006 I was invited to travel to Chad to visit with refugees with the American Red Cross. We traveled from camp to camp, and although the heat of summer had long since passed it was still dry and hot in that region of the world. We visited a camp of more than 30,000 people, mostly women and children from Darfur. The children laughed and followed us around giggling and smiling for pictures (they loved to see their images reflected back on the tiny LCD screens of our digital cameras). When we asked why there were so few men in this camp we were told that some of the men had stayed behind to fight for their homes, and try and raise crops on their native lands in case it became safe to return. Many more had been killed, leaving behind their wives and children who had walked miles through the desert to arrive in this camp alone and with nothing.
While we were in this camp we were invited to the distribution tent where rations from the World Food Program were being handed out. The women patiently stood in a long line and as they wove through a giant tent they collected their share of grain (sorghum or wheat), legumes, salt, and oil for cooking. Each amount was carefully measured out and then poured into well worn bags or jugs then placed on the women’s head and she would walk back to the tiny little square of land in the camp where a plastic tarp was the roof of her and her children’s home. They told us that the women would mix the grain and legumes and oil and make something like a cake that would be the family meal, twice per day.
Today I ate something like the equivalent of those rations. A handful of rice and beans in the morning and the same for a small dinner. All told this was just about 1000 calories. Refugee rations will keep someone alive, but it will also keep someone from ever reaching their potential as a person. At that level, children will not grow to the size they are meant to be, the brain doesn’t develop to the level that it could, and no one is never really satisfied. Of course, it is a much better alternative than eating nothing at all.
We know that one of the most effective tactics used against the millions of refugees and internally displaced people within Darfur is attacks against humanitarian groups who bring in these life giving supplies. It is a despicable act of cowardice against defenseless women and children and those that would aid the innocent. The thing that struck me about that camp was not that the people I met were in imminent danger, but how very vulnerable they were. There is no where to go from these camps. If the food does not make it in to the camps, it is only a matter of days before people are starving. Recently reports have been trickling out of Chad that in addition to back and forth attacks by Chad and Sudanese governments, there have been attacks on refugee camps containing these tens of thousands of women and children.
I am grateful that today I got my rations, I hope our political leaders can find a way for the millions of innocents to at least get theirs.