Neal Deles is Catholic Relief Services’ northern area coordinator and education program manager in West Darfur, based out of the El Geneina office.
I’ve been having fun meeting students at schools for children displaced by the ongoing conflict in Darfur. Most are shy, coming near me but keeping a comfortable distance and just smiling when I greet them. The more brazen ones shout out English words they have learned in class: “OK! How are you? What is your name?” I shout back “Neal!” or ask if they are “tamam,” Arabic for “good,” which always elicits big smiles. One time as we were driving away, a student shouted “Sit down!” I laughed because I was already sitting down in the car, but then I realized it was his earnest attempt to communicate with me.
Since then I’ve been reflecting on what it means to “sit down” in Darfur. I have seen primary school students sitting down under a shady tree, enthusiastically participating in the day’s lesson. I have seen students sitting on big plastic mats CRS provided along with a brand-new classroom. I have seen the local residents sitting down as they wash their hands and feet before prayers.
And many times I have found myself sitting down as I reconciled budgets or wrote reports. I have sat down in a circle on a mat with other men during fatour—the 11 a.m. breakfast—as we all ate from a big tray of beans and bread. A few times I have sat through very long meetings where I was at the mercy of occasional translations. I have also sat down with Sudanese colleagues after work to share light-hearted conversation and sweet Sudanese tea, served in small glasses.
But I also see that boy’s greeting as a reminder to sit down and reflect about my work and life here. In an emergency situation like in Darfur, you can get caught up in the unrelenting work and the many demands on your time. So it is important to take some time to sit down to rest, to set work aside for a while and to reflect on why I am here. It is so easy to get stressed out, become judgmental or to see life as more difficult than it really is when we lose track of who we are deep inside.
The boy’s greeting was an invitation for me to pause and recognize that more than anything else it is the people here who matter. It is the lives enhanced by the projects we implement, it is the resulting relationships formed, and it is the safety of staff when they travel out in the field. I also believe that it is the recognition of the person I meet on the road with a nod of the head, a greeting, a smile or a handshake. As we start this new year, may we each find time to sit down.
– Neal Deles
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