(Marioma, little Raja, Attahir & others dancing)
On November 15th, the local Darfuri community, along with the activist group Save Darfur and a faith-based charity, put on a fundraiser for Darfur with Sudanese food, introductions, singing, drumming, and dancing.
I have spent time with many different cultural and geographical communities this summer and fall as part of my community research and community engagement in Mountain View for Anchorage United for Youth. Of all of these, my connection to the Darfui community is the best example of why personal connections matter, and why social service work must include relationship-building.
A shared acquaintance connected me to Debbie Bock, a volunteer with the Save Darfur group in Anchorage, who volunteered to take me by the apartment of Abubaker and Safi, the informal leaders of the recently-arrived and resettled Darfuri community here in Anchorage. A while later, I stopped by their apartment again to talk about the idea of a focus group and Abu eagerly volunteered to bring people together for me and interpret. He also made some comment about not understanding how to use facebook or e-mail or his digital camera, and so I offered to help. He organized Darfuri men for the focus group and sort of interpreted. It was chaotic and difficult and people came in and out during the group, but I heard their voices.
(Abubaker is in the back. In the middle is Attahir, the first Darfuri to bring his family to Anchorage. On the right is Tor Gach, a leader of the Southern Sudanese community and a Nuer interpreter.)
Abu told me he could help me pull together women for a female focus group and suggested that I should meet them first. And so I arrived at his house on a Friday evening with carrots fresh from my parents’ garden in hand. It was Ramadan and the sun was soon to set, so he put the carrots in the pan with some liver he was cooking for his roommate and then drove me around to meet Darfuri women. Each one made us sweet tea or offered us Pepsi. We broke fast with one recently-arrived family that gave us heaping amounts of aseeda (a pasty starch used to scoop up sauce) and an okra meat dish, soup, and salad. Abu then drove me to meet Halima, with whom I spoke in Spanish (her 4th or 5th language) as telenovelas played in the background. All of this took way too long and I was worried about time–this would be a common theme in dealing with Abu–but I just had to…adjust. Check my worries. Check my European-American sense of time and work and just BE with them.
I spent another Saturday afternoon teaching Abu to send photos by e-mail and organize photos into folders. Oscar and I knocked on various doors to invite teenagers Marioma (from Darfur) and Gislaine (from Togo) to Photovoice and I retuned to Halima’s apartment to invite her for an interview. Her neighbors told me she had moved, and invited me in to eat goat stew, watch Sudanese concerts on their TV, and call Halima. The man who had cooked the goat stew once operated a restaurant, and I spoke with him about opening a restaurant in Anchorage, and helped them find the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, in response to their worries over citizenship health checks. I later interviewed Halima in her apartment with a Jordanian interpreter who brought her two hyperactive children, one of whom threw up after two pieces of the cloyingly sweet (and delicious) baklava and orange juice Halima offered us.
After being out of touch for while, I called Abu to ask him something, and it turned out he wanted my advice, so he came to my office to ask about how to establish non-profit status for the Darfuri community and how to formalize the ways in which they already help one another financially. He also wanted my advice on his course of studies at UAA. I agreed to help him with both concerns through some connections, and he agreed to come be a part of the Anchorage United for Youth planning effort and be a voice for his community in this. I also helped out the community with advertising for and taking photos at the Darfuri event, and ate and danced there at the event with my dad.
The point of all this:
A lot of this doesn’t sound like work.
Indeed, it’s fun. And tasty. And sometimes difficult in that I have to be humble and patient and give up my typical ideas of productivity.
But if I hadn’t been personally introduced to Abu and Safi by someone they trusted and cared for, hadn’t sat and eaten their goat stew or baklava or aseeda, hadn’t traded favors with Abu, hadn’t said my “Asalam Malekums” or chatted or shrugged my shoulders at the sometimes chaotic and often unplanned way that things happened, I don’t think my research would have been as successful and I don’t think the Dafuri community would become involved with Anchorage United for Youth. As Wisteria Ward, who works at New Hope Baptist Church in Mountain View told me, “If service providers want trust, they have to build relationships here. We have to see their faces around.”
That’s less tangible than anything on my job description, but no less necessary.
And that requires an adjustment on our parts.