Sitting Down for a Moment in Darfur

Darfur school

CRS is helping to build temporary and permanent classrooms in West Darfur for students displaced by the ongoing violence. Here, first-grade students sit down for their lessons in a semi-permanent classroom CRS built at a school for displaced children. Photo by Neal Deles/CRS

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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3 Responses to “Sitting Down for a Moment in Darfur”

  1. Fr. Bob Cushing Says:

    Not only in Darfur, but everywhere people don’t “sit down” long enough to vakue what they have just experienced. In the US, I see people every day who are deply troubled yet they have all the “things” that they need. Except for one thing, they do not have the serenity that comes from living a life that has depth, a life that is savored, a soul that has spirit, a heart that is grateful. They may be hungry in Darfur but the hunger of the heart is everywhere. That is why we need to pray, to spend time counting our blessings, to express our gratitude to one another and to God. God wants us top enjoy the gifts that we are blessed with, otherwise they are not gifts and we do not know that we are blessed. So I will go now and sit down with God before I go to sleep for the day. Blessed are they who “sit down.”

  2. arlene Says:

    Neal, Thank you for the wonderful snapshot of you in Darfur. I am sure that the feelings of dislocation are challenging and I am full of admiration for your sense of presence to it all.

    Keep writing, Neal. Your words help us touch your experience and your hand.


  3. vincent Says:

    In your reflection, I notice how prominent is the desire of the children to ‘reach out’ with some small communication to you, the stranger in their midst. And your wish to communicate with them too, with some words in their own language. In the midst of everything, that willingness and wish to befriend. Here in london,despite all that we have, we are gripped with anxiety about our (economic) future, passing our neighbour let alone the stranger with hardly a word of encouragement or a friendly greeting. As well as reminding me of the virtue of ‘being in the present moment’, the children remind me of that gift of openess to the stranger, and the virtue of welcome, that we who possess so much here, so regularly fail to extend to or enjoy with the strangers in the midst of our affluent cities. Dare we keep an outstretched hand open despite our fears? Let us try.

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