A tale of surviving

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Sudan refugee encourages students to become global citizens

Sudan refugee El-Fadel Arbab talks to Woodland Regional High School students April 24 about escaping genocide in Darfur and becoming global citizens. –LUKE MARSHALL

BEACON FALLS — Climb a tree and look for the light. That piece of advice saved El-Fadel Arbab’s life.

Arbab is a survivor of an attack on his village about 16 years ago during the genocides in Darfur. He spends his time now traveling around America, telling his tale of survival and encouraging students to become global citizens.

On April 26, Arbab told his tale to Woodland Regional High School students.

Arbab was 12 years old when his village in the Zalingei area of western Darfur was attacked. The Sudanese-backed militia, known as the Janjaweed or Devils on Horseback, was ethnically cleansing the Darfur region of Sudan.

Sudan, which is an Arab country, was trying to rid the country of non-Arab and indigenous peoples.

When they attacked, his village was fairly prosperous, Arbab explained. The villagers had animals and grew their own food.

When the Janjaweed came, they started by killing all of the educated people, then the business owners and then the village leaders, Arbab recalled. They gathered all of the baby boys, locked them in a hut and set the hut on fire. Then killed the baby girls and dropped them into the village’s water supplies, poisoning the water.

Arbab explained he was able to escape with his life when his village was set on fire, but he was badly burned. He made it to a nearby lake, only to find it surrounded by Janjaweed soldiers. He was able to escape past them through the black smoke billowing from the fire as his village burned.

Arbab said he began running from the village and into the unknown. That was when his grandfather’s advice saved his life.

Arbab climbed a tree and looked out over the land. He spotted light coming from a village far away.

He began running towards that light, being careful not to be spotted and captured along the way.

He ran for a week, sleeping in trees and only traveling at night. He remembered the lessons his elders had taught him about finding edible plants and water.

When he finally reached the village, Arbab said, a boy, slightly older than himself, helped him find food and work. Eventually Arbab saved enough money to take a train to Sudan’s capitol, the city of Khartoum, where he was able to learn his brothers had escaped to Egypt and his mother was in a refugee camp.

After searching refugee camp after camp, Arbab said he found his mother in the last camp and the two began their journey to the United States.

When he first arrived at JFK Airport, Arbab said, he was shocked by the buildings, people, trains, and traffic.

The first night he was in America, staying in New York City, was the first time he had a room to himself. He did not sleep, however; instead he stayed up watching Tom and Jerry.

When he arrived in America, he did not speak a word of English. Arbab said he learned English a few words at a time, mostly by watching children’s programs, such as Dora the Explorer.

Arbab, who was 21 when he first arrived in America in September 2004, travels around America now telling his story of escape from Sudan and encouraging students to become global citizens.

“You have to be citizens of the world. You need to be the change you want to see in the world,” Hatch told the Woodland students gathered in the school’s media center.

Woodland English teacher Meghan Hatch invited Arbab to talk to the students after hearing him speak at Quinnipiac University.

Arbab told the students when people talk about the holocaust, they always say “never again.”

“There was never again supposed to be another holocaust,” Arbab said.

He explained that the slogan “Never Again” was like music for people, they listen to it and like the way it sounds, but it doesn’t call them to action.

Arbab told the students that they have a choice — do something or sit back and let it happen.

Arbab encouraged the students to become involved through easy measures such as writing letters to the president, congressmen, and the United Nations.

Arbab said they may not feel like they are able to do a lot, but their efforts can be huge.

“You have a lot of power,” Arbab told the students.

Because of his efforts to educate people about the conflict in Darfur, Arbab has been put on Sudan’s most wanted list, he said. He explained that, if he were to set foot back in his home country, he would be executed.

This does not stop Arbab, who is about half way to his goal of telling his story in all 50 states.