It feels great to finally be en route to Goz Beida and some refugee camps. Even though it’s another travel day and we only made it to Abeche, I was starting to doubt whether we would actually be able to leave N’Djamena. We’re out tomorrow on an afternoon flight, but we should be able to at least get a few hours in the camps, and hopefully see some of Gabriel and KTJ’s old friends.
Although we weren’t able to actually talk to refugees today, we did have one powerful experience that is worth noting. We found out that our fixer in Abeche held on to some panels for Tents of Hope that were left behind in January. One side of the panels was decorated by an elementary school in the US, and the other side by refugees in the camps. Once completed, the panels will be put together to make a tent.
Although we had heard that refugee children had painted war scenes before, seeing these panels made it real for me. The juxtaposition of one side of the panel, decorated with peace signs and hearts by US children, to the other, decorated with guns, bombs and helicopters by refugees, was shocking. Gabriel and KTJ simply asked these kids to draw, and the first things that they put together were scenes of their family running from soldiers and being shot. This is a depressing reflection on the emotional state and mental heath of these children.
If grade school students are more inclined to draw death than anything else, there is surely some significant emotional damage that needs to be addressed. Even more upsetting than the fact that this damage exists is the glaring lack of therapy or counseling. When aid organizations evacuate all “non-essential” personnel, social works or psychiatrists that work with children do not make the list. In my opinion, those that can work with the future leaders of Darfur and help resolve emotional damage are essential. But as refugee camps slowly turn into semi-permanent establishments, important services like schools and counseling are slow to develop. Food, health care and protection should always come first, but the services that make up a functional social fabric must not be forgotten. This is vital for nobody more than the children who are spending some of their most crucial years in camps.