by Jean-Bernard Hyppolite
Sahar Dinar, 17, is a senior at Central High School. This time of year students her age would normally be more worried about what prom or college they’re going to attend. For Sahar, however, there’s a cause she’s been much more invested in since she was 10 years old. Sahar is a native of Darfur, Sudan. She came to America in 1999, and went back to Darfur to visit her uncles, aunts and cousins at her old house in 2003.
Little did Sahar know that shortly after returning home, she’d have to crawl under the bed as the sounds of gunshots and helicopters lit up the sky. Overwhelmed, Sahar wondered what was going on. “All of a sudden we were hearing gunshots, and my uncle yelled, ‘Get under the beds; get under the beds!’ Me and my cousin were huddled up under the bed; some of our other cousins were under the table; their parents were under beds in other rooms, and everyone was freaking out, like what’s going on?” Sahar added that when she woke up the next day, it was explained that the rebels had attacked the nearby airport.
When Sahar arrived in Darfur, Sudan, in 2003, she was clueless about the civil war raging at the time, but by the time she left, her world would be dramatically changed. Even after the dangers were explained to her, Sahar was not anxious to leave the country. “I stayed there as a vacation,” said Sahar, laughing. Her uncle, Dr. Ali B. Dinar, had the unfortunate task of telling her about the ongoing genocide against a significasnt percentage of the population. Sahar felt a sense of urgency to do something, especially since most of her family resided in the grief-stricken region of Darfur.
The Darfur conflict began in early 2003 when two groups, The Sudan Liberation Movement and Army (SLM/A) along with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), accused Sudan’s government of favoring Sudanese Arabs while oppressing non-Arab Sudanese. At its core, the conflict involves the SLM/A, JEM, official Sudanese military and police and a Sudanese militia group called the Janjaweed. The Sudanese government arms and supports the Janjaweed, a pro-Arab terrorist militia that has engaged in mass murder of non-Arabs. This ongoing genocide has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, mostly civilians, and more than 2.7 million people who have been forced to flee their homes, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. (Learn more at www.UNrefugees.org.)
It turned out that Dr. Ali B. Dinar was a co-founder of an organization called the Darfur Alert Coalition (DAC). Sahar took it upon herself to attend a “nadwa,” (“meeting” in Arabic), where she found out what DAC was doing and subsequently conducted her own research. She eventually signed up for the DAC advocacy group after returning to the U.S. A director named Lou Ann Merkel invited Sahar to go on speaking engagements and share her experiences, which led to Sahar getting requests to speak to udiences in the Philadelphia area about Darfur. “I was so excited because I was able to tell everybody what I personally experienced and to just educate people,” said Sahar.
Sahar has spoken at synagogues, churches and colleges including DeSales Unversity, Swarthmore College, Philadelphia Youth Conference for Darfur, a City Year event; Strath Haven Middle School in Wallingford, Delaware County; Courthouse Square in Pittsburgh, and more. She has spoken at Save Darfur rallies, and she became so energized that she eventually started her own organization, Children Alert Project (CAP), whose main goal is to help Sudanese children in refugee camps. Her cousins told her that the children desperately needed clothing and school supplies. Sahar’s cousin, Tasnim Saeid, held a benefit concert. It raised $150, which all went to CAP. Sahar went back to Darfur in 2007 and gave the money to her uncle to buy clothes and school supplies, which included boxes and boxes of notebooks, pencils, erasers, sharpeners and rulers.
While in Darfur in 2007, Sahar had the chance to visit a refugee camp where her cousin taught. “I started videotaping. It was a long process; I had to ask the school for permission. The school sent me to the superintendent of the refugee camp schools. We went back and went from room to room. It was really sad because the rooms were really small, and each room had up to 100 kids in it. The only light coming in was through the door. There are no windows, no fans, nothing. It was built out of straw, or hay, or like mud buildings.”
Sahar returned to the U.S. later that year and told the story of her visit to Sudan. She got a call from a worker at DAC, who said they raised more money and collected many boxes of school supplies. Sahar was able to arrange for DAC representatives to take over a significant quantity of supplies every time they went back to Sudan. She called it the “Backpack Project.”
In speaking about Darfur to her peers, Sahar has experienced difficulty in explaining genocide to comfortable American teens. “I feel like too many have this thinking of ‘We’re going through problems too.’ But when you think about it, you still have a roof over your head. They’re getting food and water. They’re going to school and getting an education. The kids and people in Darfur aren’t getting any of that…Look at what happened in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen; the people are revolting.”
Through all of her speaking engagements, fundraising activities and hard work, Sahar wants only one thing; for people in this country to learn about what is happening in Darfur. “Just learning is doing a whole lot because once you’re aware of what’s happening in Darfur, then you can inform other people about it.”
Sahar hopes to be sponsored by two larger organizations, Save Darfur and Genocide Intervention Network, in order to spread her message to more people. She explained that she doesn’t have the resources to help more than one school in Darfur, but she’s at peace that she’s doing something.
“As long as I’m helping one school, I feel like I’m accomplishing something,” she said. “I just want the genocide to end.”
Sahar, who resides in Northeast Philadelphia, will be graduating from Central High School this summer. She recently went to D.C. for a Genocide Prevention Conference, held by STAND (Students Taking Action Now Darfur). Sahar hopes to start her own chapter when she attends Drexel University, where she hopes to major in International Relations and Political Science.. Anyone interested in helping Sahar can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.