The other day, Unfair Park chatted with filmmaker Bentley Brown about his film Faisal Goes West, the tale of a Sudanese family moving to America and settling in Dallas' Vickery Meadow neighborhood. Brown mentioned his friend who convinced him to film in Dallas (and acted as script supervisor) started Refugee Writers, a project aimed at giving these people a platform -- any possible platform -- on which to tell their stories. We chatted with that friend, Justin Banta, to hear more about the stories he tells and why he tells them, or, as he puts it, why he "facilitates" telling them.
From November through February, Banta opened his home to a group of Sudanese refugees who felt that the conflict which forced them away from their home was not being thoroughly covered or thoroughly understood in America. At each meeting, the refugees would video-chat with their relatives who were still living in conflict zones and ask them for detailed reports of what was going on -- militia attacks, deaths, bombings, food shortages, and any other ongoing atrocities. While those in Banta's apartment ate scones and sipped coffee throughout the afternoon, their far-away relatives lived under vastly different circumstances of continued suffering and fear.
"It was really difficult," Banta told Unfair Park. "I think there was a time around December, January where I needed to take a break. ... It got pretty emotional and surreal sometimes." His weekly dispatches from those Saturday meet-up sessions are posted in a section devoted to the conflict on the Refugee Writers website.
Banta, who works in development for a nonprofit and organizes Refugee Writers on the side, started the organization in 2010 after attending Baylor University and graduate school at Princeton Theological Seminary. The idea took hold after he met an Iraqi family and helped the father, who was disabled by a stroke, to tell his story. The man, Jamal Al Obaidi, had been a journalist kidnapped by militiamen because of an article he wrote. His family had to flee the country. The Dallas Morning News wrote about Banta and the family.
"All the projects and everything that we do are focused on engaging the immigrant and refugee populations in ways that respect their intelligence and background and recognizes that a large number of these people have professional degrees, sometimes doctorate degrees, and just generally a wealth of experience that is valuable to Dallas.
For July Fourth last year, Banta interviewed an Iraqi refugee who landed in Dallas after people in Iraq tried to kill him for serving as a translator for American soldiers. He transcribed and edited the interviews into a a striking op-ed for the Morning News.
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Last year, Banta held writing workshops at Vickery Meadow Learning Center, where refugees met on Saturdays to write personal essays. The group, which included people from Ethiopia, Sudan, Congo, Iraq and Russia, read what they'd written at an event at SMU's Embrey Human Rights Program. An essay from a Sudanese refugee who also participated in the video-chats to Sudan is posted below.
It's not easy to encapsulate what Refugee Writers does, as it tells stories through various media and platforms. "I'd say the overall goal is to really give expression to the immigrant and refugee experience in Dallas and to empower them to speak about their experiences on their own terms and in their own way. And to do that in whatever format works best for them," Banta says. In other words, the all-volunteer organization does whatever there's a need for it to do, and Banta hopes to continue doing more of it.
The story of a Sudanese refugee from a Refugee Writers Workshop:
Name: Dabib Sharif Born in Sudan in 1975 Location: Richardson Status: Married Children: 2 daughters and 2 step daughters Citizenship status: Citizen since 2010 Arrived in US in 2004
My name is Dabib Sharif. I am from Sudan, Nuba Mountain in Southern Kordofan. I was born in a small village called Kurmuti in Daling.
I grew up in a poor family. My parents were farmers. My mother was the first of my father's three wives, and all together, there were 15 children in the family. As a result, I couldn't attend a better school because he couldn't afford to pay for my education. My family loved one another, but the little money we had felt like even less in such a large family.
I attended my primary education in Kurmuti and later moved to Daling to attend middle school. Unfortunately, I was unable to finish middle school because my father's financial position was so bad. The Sudanese government was also conscripting young boys to fight in Southern Sudan. At a time when I should have been safe and at peace, learning things that would help me to advance my life, I was instead afraid of being forced to fight in an unjust war and frustrated at being denied opportunity. My father, also scared for my life, removed me from school when I was only 15 years old.
Staying at home with my family was too dangerous, so I left, completely on my own for the first time in my life. I did what I could to survive around the market area in Daling, often cleaning and taking deliveries for the women who sold fruits and vegetables. If I was lucky, they would give me some food or a little money to buy something to eat, but rarely more than what I needed just to survive. Every day was a struggle and I despaired that I had no future in this life; no education, no opportunity, and no hope to ever have a family of my own.
In late summer of the year I was 23, I had saved a little money, so I decided to buy a few things; sugar, salt, and clothes to take to my parents in Nuba Mountain when the whole community was preparing for Nuba day, a holiday when people come together to celebrate the seasons changing into harvest time with singing, dancing, wrestling, and other festivities. I was especially looking forward to having "mariesa," a special drink made only in Nuba Mountain, made from (secret ingredients).
I would never have the opportunity to taste mariesa again, though. On my way home through the forest, I was arrested by the police who accused me of taking provisions to the rebel militias. For 15 days, the guards beat me, hoping I would confess to a crime, but I knew nothing about the rebels. When they grew tired of beating me, they released me but took everything I was bringing to my family and told me if I was seen trying to go back to Nuba Mountain, I would be killed on sight. Terrified, I quickly left and went to live with my uncle in Khartoum, a two day bus trip away.
In Khartoum, life was miserable. With no education, I had no hope of finding work. I relied on my uncle's help, but felt like a burden to him and his family. After nine months of watching the crisis grow worse, I had made my decision; I knew I must leave Sudan. My uncle advised me not to take the dangerous route through the desert to Libya where many people were lost and died on the way. Instead, he helped me book passage on a train to Wadi Halfa in northern Sudan and a boat from there to Egypt. I had no idea how I would survive there, but my fear of staying in Sudan was stronger than my fear of living in an unknown land.
In Egypt, I was shocked to learn about the terrible conditions in Sudan. The government controlled over the media to cover up their abuse of the people and complete disregard for their most basic human rights. Once outside Sudan, I almost immediately became more informed than I ever had been at home under the oppressive government.
I met many fellow Sudanese refugees in Egypt and made friends who helped me to find a place to stay. I rented with some of them in a city called Maahadi. Within two weeks, my friends advised me to go to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency in Cairo, where I submitted an application and returned for an interview after only 3 days. My case was approved after 2 months, but the process was far from over. Only a few people at a time were sent to Canada, Australia, or the USA, so I waited.
Life was hard; no jobs and no opportunity to go to school. I started selling items like wallets, perfume, and handbags in the market in order to pay for my rent and food. The UNHCR office gave priority to refugees with families to travel first. As a single man without any family, I was asked to wait. I continued to wait for 3 years. While I waited on the UN office, I decided to study English. My teacher was an American lady married to a Nuba mountain man called Hashim. I learned a lot from her and my English improved.
Halfway through the 3 years I waited to leave, I was again arrested, along with many other Africans. I spent 8 miserable days in jail, wondering what I had done, and was finally released, mostly due to my possession of a UN identification card which marked me as Sudanese and not one of the Nigerians who, apparently, had passed some forged dollars at the local bank and disappeared. The police had arrested all the Africans they could find while they investigated.
On December 7, 2004, I was finally granted passage to the United States. The journey was through Chicago and finally to my destination, Dallas, TX, where I was met at the airport by International Rescue Committee caseworkers.
After 3 weeks, the IRC organized an orientation to explain how people can apply for local jobs. Among the refugees, I was the only one who had an application form, because I was able to read and write. The next person was a lady sitting next to me. We introduced ourselves to each other and talked more about getting a job. We were sent to the same place together where we applied for housekeeping jobs at the Marriot Hotel.
At the Marriot, I was the only man among 8 women in housekeeping, but I was happy to have work. We worked together, and I would sometimes finish early and go to help the lady who got the job with me. We grew closer and she became my best friend. We boarded the same bus or train to go to work and back home and we grew closer still. After a year, we decided to get married. We have been together for seven years and have 2 beautiful daughters together and 2 more that were hers when we met. I love her very much and she, too, loves me.
On June 5th, 2011, I received a call from one of my family members about a serious bombing in my home town, Daling. My younger brother was among those who were bombed and he was killed. I was so shocked. My only brother, whom I trust, who was the one caring for my father, killed! Oh God, what can I do? My wife was next to me, and we both started crying.
Since then, I've been completely cut off from my family. I don't know if they are alive or dead. There is no way to contact my mother or father to express my sorrow over my brother's death. I work very hard to take care of my wife and children, and even if there was money left over to help my parents and other family members, there is no way to send it to them. Even a donation to a relief agency cannot help them because the corrupt government of Sudan makes it too dangerous for aid workers to go there to help my people with basic things like food and clean water.
Last year, I became a citizen of the United States. My wife and children are citizens, too. This is our home and we love this country. When I came here, I was taught about the ideals of freedom, equality, and human rights. I want for my family and my people to know about and experience these things, too. Conditions in Sudan will only improve if someone intervenes. The bombing and violence perpetrated by the Sudanese government must be stopped before anyone can even try to help the people they are brutalizing.
The media reveals little about the atrocities in Nuba Mountain, but our voice must be heard in the international community. These are my people, and they need help.