The children of Sudan

September 01, 2005, Rabbi Lee Bycel, MAZON Board Member

They haunt me, the children of Sudan. Two weeks have passed since my return from the Kounoungo refugee camp in Chad, and I can’t forget their faces. The two girls, 9 and 11, who had been raped the day before our meeting. The terrified 15 year-old about to give birth. A boy orphaned in Sudan’s vast desert, praying over the empty cup in his hands. Each of these children knows more of despair than I ever will.

As a board member of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, I have long been aware of the hunger crisis that persists both in the developing world and within our own borders. Still, the images coming from Sudan shocked me, not simply the numbers of men, women, and children starving, having been forced from their homes, raped, even murdered by Janjaweed soldiers, but the fact that these images were buried in the back pages of my newspapers and given scant coverage on the nightly news. I wondered how I could possibly make a difference. With Yom Kippur approaching, it hit me.

The most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur requires that Jews throughout the world abstain from food and drink, assess their lives, and seek forgiveness for their wrongdoings. I could think of nowhere more fitting to keep my fast than among the Sudanese refugees who have fasted for months – not as a ritual but an agonizing condition of daily life. I knew MAZON was preparing to grant International Medical Corps funds to respond to this hunger crisis and decided to visit a camp in Chad under their auspices. I wanted to see for myself, to witness the plight of the Sudanese people.

Based in Los Angeles, International Medical Corps is a nonprofit humanitarian relief organization dedicated to saving lives and relieving suffering through health care training and medical relief programs. International Medical Corps staff have served some 14 million people in more than 40 war-torn countries. But, what sets International Medical Corps apart from its peers in the relief community is its dedication to rehabilitating devastated health care systems, bringing them back to self-reliance. By training local doctors and building local infrastructure, International Medical Corps provides vulnerable communities with the tools to meet their medical needs long after International Medical Corps has shifted its resources to other peoples and other conflicts.

I spent the majority of my visit in Chad at the Guereda “hospital,” which International Medical Corps had just begun rehabilitating. The meager facility was supposed to serve 25,000 Sudanese refugees as well as 85,000 Chadians but had only 5 small rooms. The surgery room was equipped with little besides an IV, and, while I was there, a man who had been shot bled to death because the nearest blood supply was five hours away. Beyond the surgery room were staging areas for women and children with malaria and tuberculosis as well as an anteroom for evaluation, emergency treatment, and basic nursing care. Outside the hospital, International Medical Corps had just established a Therapeutic Feeding Center for women and children, but already the needs of the Sudanese had far outstripped International Medical Corps' ability to provide.

Though I have raised nearly $100,000 from generous friends and colleagues to support International Medical Corps' efforts in Chad and Sudan, much more must be done. As I write this, more than 200,000 Sudanese refugees have fled across the border into Chad. More than a million people have been displaced, between 50,000 and 100,000 murdered. The international community continues to argue over the vocabulary of suffering. Is it genocide? Is it not genocide? The only thing more tragic than this war of words is that it obscures the very real pain I saw. The girls who had been raped were not the exception but the rule. The boy who proffered his empty cup to a cloudless sky may have stood alone, but he spoke for an entire people. Something must be done.

When I arrived in the Kounoungo camp, the healthiest of the Sudanese children swarmed around my van, wanting to shake my hand, to welcome me. Their compassion and dignity in the face of tragedy was overwhelming. Remembering their faces, I marvel at the First World’s passivity and poverty of spirit that seem to be increasing in proportion to our GDP. So many of our lives have been affected by the unwillingness of others to ask questions and get involved. And staying informed, even giving money is not enough.

If we continue to consume a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, we will not survive; this world will not survive. We must change our minds, then our lifestyles. It is imperative that we look past superficial borders and embrace our role in the global village. There are so many organizations out there, like International Medical Corps, doing great work – essential work. But they can’t do it alone.<

They can’t do it without you and me.


Rabbi Lee Bycel moderates Leadership seminars at The Aspen Institute and conducts workshops on a variety of issues related to leadership around the country. He is currently devoting much of his time to raising awareness of the crisis in the Sudan.


For 30 years, International Medical Corps has worked to relieve the suffering of those impacted by war, natural disaster and disease by delivering vital health care services that focus on training, helping devastated populations return to self-reliance.