In Darfur: ‘Sini, Pini, Khawaji-Emi’ … Another Name for Friend?

Neal Deles, area coordinator for CRS’ new activities in the southern corridor of West Darfur, shares a story from the field.

Many times I leave the office exhausted, dragging myself down the three blocks to the World Food Program compound where I’m currently staying until our guesthouse is finished. Each time I inevitably perk up when I hear children’s excited shouts of “khawaji” (foreigner) or “Sini” (Chinese).

It seems like one of the first words toddlers learn in Darfur is “khawaji,” as they are the ones who repeatedly shout this phrase at me over and over almost every time I pass by. Sometimes I think I actually provide some form of entertainment for them (other times, I hope that the novelty of my presence is dissipating so they see me as part of their community).

Darfur children

Neal Deles, second from left, hangs out with some local children while waiting for a tire to be changed on the way to a food distribution. Photo by World Food Program staff

Sometimes I just hear “waji” or “aji,” and at times children cautiously approach me as well and smile when I shake their hands. I’ve told the kids many times “Ana ma Sini,” that I am not Chinese, but they can’t distinguish between Asians the way I can, so I let it go. Other times I tease them and call them “Sudani.” That makes them stop to think before they respond with “Ay!” which I translate as “Yes, I am actually Sudanese.” I told a few kids near our office that I am a “Pilipini” (Filipino). Now some of them call me “Pini,” although at times they still start off by shouting “Sini” until I stop and say “la, la, la” (no, no, no). Then they proudly say “Pini” and giggle as I walk away. A few of them have also asked my name and now call me “Neal.”

There are some children who call me “Khawaji Emi” when I walk to the UNHCR compound to visit friends in the late afternoons. I found out that there used to be an American woman here called Emily, and they must assume that all foreigners are named like her.

On these walks I often met Musa, a 4-year-old boy who runs barefoot towards me and holds my hand as I walk the length of the UNHCR compound wall. At times he races with other children to be the first one to hold my hand. He doesn’t say much, but he gives me a big smile when I offer my hand and proudly walks with me for two minutes until I reach the UNHCR door and say goodbye. He then lets go of my hand and runs back to his friends. Few words are spoken during this short walk, but it is somehow comforting to have a child reach out to a stranger this way.

It is these children that motivate me to do a good work here in Darfur. Many of the children were born at the height of the conflict and may not even know their families’ village of origin due to their displacement. At times I can get so drowned by work that I forget the reason why I came here and left my comfortable cubicle in CRS’ Baltimore headquarters to accept this hardship post. This fleeting interaction with the Darfuri children gives me joy. It also reminds me of why we need to do a good job when we distribute food to the mothers each month, promote better hygiene or childhood disease prevention practices, build classrooms and train teachers, and do all of the other projects we implement in Darfur that may not directly target the children but benefit the wellbeing of their families and communities.

It is my hope that there will one day be an enduring peace in Darfur so these children can grow up in a peaceful environment and even possibly return with their families to the villages where their parents played as children. And though I want to be a part of their community, I also await the day when the children no longer see me as a novel presence and call me by my name instead of “Sini,” “Pini” and “Khawaji-Emi.”

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5 Responses to “In Darfur: ‘Sini, Pini, Khawaji-Emi’ … Another Name for Friend?”

  1. mary frances taymans Says:

    Neal,
    Thank you for using the power of the word and picture to open those on the other side of the world to beauty of children and the pathos of the situation. It is only real when there is a face.
    Mary Fran

  2. Richard Stoops Says:

    Neal,
    Beautifully said, or shall I say, prayed. That one day will come. Thank you for sharing thoses moments when your heart speaks as loudly as your voice and actions.

  3. Helene Deles Murdock Says:

    Neal,
    Your compassion and dedication reminds me of all that is good in this world! Thank you for the opportunity to see the world through your eyes and words. And thank you for the reminder to see the beauty in the faces of the people around me. I’m blessed to call you cousin.

  4. Morgan Daniels Says:

    Hey Neal,
    Cool blog. Hope you’ll get to post something on life in Khartoum soon. Just remember you are living an amazing experience and doing a lot of good. I have not forgotten about Darfur because of your emails and notes. Its just tough to keep the ADHD culture of the USA focused on anything very long as you well know. Peace and stay safe!

  5. Neal Says:

    Shukran lek! Thank you for your kind words, I am on my final day in Habila now, a bit sad but still grateful for the interaction with the children and they have finally asked my name.

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