Tonight, I attended the Holocaust Museum‘s panel and opening presentation for Our Walls Bear Witness: Sudan at a Crossroads. They had an exceptional panel of speakers, including Andrew Natsios, Former Special Envoy to Sudan & Former USAID Adminstrator; Margit Meissner, Holocaust survivor (and possibly the most charming 88 year old I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing speak); and Omer Ismail and Simon Deng, Sudanese leaders and activists.
The remarks departed from standard rhetoric and facts about the genocide, which I suppose is not surprising given that the Holocaust Museum isn’t exactly your run of the mill museum. The Museum Chairman, Tom Bernstein, stated, “A memorial unresponsive to the future would be an insult to the past,” highlighting the advocacy work the museum and its committees do in order to take us one step closer to “Never again.” Margit told a stunning tale of her own escape from Nazi persecution, from Prague through Paris through Spain to Portugal, and finally, to America; she’s now a retired educator who volunteers at the museum, and seems as though she would be a quite passionate and fascinating tour guide.
Two themes and reflections stood out to met as I sat in the audience and listened.
First, the change in the South from the 2005 signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to today. Natsios spoke to the change he witnessed on his most recent trip to South Sudan, in contrast to the famine, starvation, and disease he he seen in the past. He spoke to peace as being an abonormal state for a country ravaged by civil war, on and off, for decades, and how the transition suited them. People were not only dressed, but dressed well. Children appeared better nourished, and the people seemed to have hope. He also spoke to the challenges of the upcoming referendum, the reasons why conflict may break out before or after the January 2011 vote, and his hopes and logic for why it wouldn’t. If I find a transcript of the remarks, I will gladly post a link and share them, as they were insightful, nuanced, and highlighted what has been achieved by the fearless aid workers living in the region.
Second, and with even greater impact, were the kind words the two Sudanese speakers had to share about the United States, living here, and the opportunities they had. The two Sudanese men, distinctly different and yet both speaking to the great need for advocacy to keep us from forgetting Darfur as attention turns to the South, and to the South to allow for a peaceful, free referendum in January. They held nothing back, with one speaking repeatedly of the “United – Do Nothing – Nations”and not shying away from the religious tensions of the conflict. Their messages, though, despite both fleeing their home country, one having been kidnapped and traded as a child slave, and witnessing the apathy shown by many Americans towards the crises happening away from our soil, was one of kindness and thanks for America and the American people. For the opportunities given to them here, and for the goodwill and generosity shown them.
And as I listened to them speak, I was moved by their message, their strength of spirit, and thought it should be inverted: we should be thanking them for their willingness to speak out, share their stories, and inspire those who are free to be a voice for those who are not.
I left the cavernous lobby where the speakers were being held, walked outside to see the projections on the building, and I kept thinking, in the midst of all my other thoughts, how proud I am to live in a country where men like these, and women like Margit, could have opportunities for better lives than they knew in their home countries. I know that sentiment is loaded with potential for backlash about our restrictive immigration policies and the impending death of the American dream (regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum), but we’re quite lucky and fortunate here – and sometimes, it wouldn’t be too terrible, to reflect on how we’ve been blessed. And to share our time, thoughts, and prayers to help and support those without the same opportunities.