Children in refugee camps receive basics – food, shelter, clothes, medicine – but education remains impossibly elusive once they hit secondary school, while primary school quality can be questionable. Sales of a new book aim to both finance libraries for Darfuri children who live in a dozen refugee camps in eastern Chad and indirectly raise awareness about the continuing plight of people in this African region.
The book, “What You Wish For,” is a collection of short stories and poems for young adults written expressly for the publication by a range of authors, from Alexander McCall Smith of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, to Nate Powell, a prize-winning graphic novelist. The writers’ contributions are meant to be inspirational, touching on themes like love, friendships and bullying, universal concerns for all youngsters, including the thousands stuck in the Chadian camps, where up to 285,000 people reside, having fled the war in Darfur. Some of the younger residents have never known a home outside the camps.
“This will give them hope for an education,” said Mohamed Yahya, a founder of the Damanga Coalition for Freedom and Democracy, a nonprofit group that works on Darfuri issues and a former refugee himself. He spoke at a two-hour event held on Oct. 17 at the United Nations to celebrate the book’s publication. “Books help us grow, make us who we are.”
All of the book’s sales will go to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which provides humanitarian aid to the Chadian camps and will use the money to create libraries there. Besides Yahya, the program featured other experts on Darfur: John Prendergast, a founder of Enough, a nonprofit organization focused on genocide and war crimes in Africa; Udo Janz, director of the executive office of the UN refugee agency in New York; and Grainne O’Hara, a senior policy adviser for the agency who spent two years in Darfur.
In addition, nine of the 19 book’s authors, none of whom were paid for their literary contributions to “What You Wish For,” spoke on a separate panel. The writers who appeared included R.L. Stine, author of the famous “Goosebumps” books; Karen Hesse, a Newbery medalist for the verse novel “Out of the Dust” and a MacArthur fellow; and Marilyn Nelson, a former poet laureate for Connecticut. Meg Cabot of the best-selling “Princess Diaries” series, and Cornelia Funke, a German writer known for her Inkworld trilogy, participated by Skype.
“What You Wish For” was organized by the Book Wish Foundation, a charity started in 2007 by an American mother-son pair, Lorraine and Logan Kleinwaks, to help Darfuri refugees. Penguin/G.P. Putnam’s Sons is the publisher.
The program was twofold, devoted to discussion about the book and about the enduring suffering in the Sudanese region, which remains as hazardous as when the Darfur conflict officially began, in 2003. Prendergast, representing Enough, which he founded in 2007 with Gayle Smith through the Center for American Progress, is now tackling education in Darfur.
Education is what gets cut from refugee camp budgets when donations stall, Prendergast said, a fact echoed by Janz of the UN, who said that “education bears the brunt,” with libraries virtually nonexistent in most camps. Prendergast also talked about a social networking program under way for Darfuri refugees.
The program, lead by Enough’s Dream Team Darfur and Sisters Schools initiatives, is working to connect American students by satellite to refugee children in Darfuri and Chadian camps, who tend to think of themselves, Prendergast said, of having no future. The program already raises money from American schools to help pay for teachers, buildings and textbooks in Darfuri schools.
The social networking arrangement enables US students to get know children in camps, making their far-apart worlds a little less abstract. The program uses satellite technology in place through a fellow Enough entity, the Satellite Sentinel Project.
Grainne O’Hara, who worked in western Darfur for two years for the UN refugee agency, spelled out the how internally displaced persons camps in Darfur can overwhelm the villages where they are set up. She said that conditions in Darfur have not improved since the peace agreements were signed years ago.
“Words fail me,” she said, describing the tough daily grind for those in the camps and surrounding them. Resources like water and firewood are hot commodities. And routine tasks like collecting firewood, done mostly by women and girls entailing long treks in isolation, can mean being vulnerable to sexual attacks.
Nevertheless, O’Hara said, the people in the camps never give up the possibility of providing an education for their children, a hope that they cling to despite the long odds.