On Monday afternoon, El-Fadel Arbab sorts through vivid, homemade signs like those pictured above, painted with slogans (“Humanity before Politics,” or "Be the Voice for Those Who Cannot Be Heard”) which he will take to this Saturday’s Peace in Sudan Rally in Washington, D.C. Schoolchildren from Portland, Maine, and our surrounding communities crafted the posters after hearing Arbab’s story.
“If you’re looking for people to help you and they don’t know anything about you, how can they help you?” Arbab asks. Since arriving in Portland from Darfur in 2004, Arbab has dedicated himself to telling the story of his childhood and his people – how the Sudanese military and Janjaweed mercenaries came when he was 12 years old and burned down his village in Darfur, a western region of Sudan, killing most of its inhabitants and separating him from family and community. He made his way to Egypt after four years, where he reunited with his mother, some of his siblings, and members of his extended family before they earned visas to come to the U.S.
Arbab’s story is remarkable, but perhaps just as surprising is how many people with stories like his live in Portland. Our metropolitan area is home to one of the largest organized Darfuri refugee populations in the United States. The Fur Cultural Revival, a non-profit organization headquartered at the Meg Perry Center in Portland, works to spread awareness about the Darfur genocide in the U.S. and ease the transition process for Darfuri refugees in the area. Through FCR, Arbab has organized a rally on the 23 of each month at Monument Square in remembrance of July 23, 2004, when the U.S. Congress declared genocide in Darfur. He sees it as another way of raising awareness.
Arbab is almost halfway toward his goal of telling his story in all 50 states.
“For the rest of my life, I will be sharing this story. I have been enslaved by the government of Sudan, burned alive, lost so many members of my family,” he says. “My story is one example, and it’s not just about Sudan. It’s about breaking the cycle of genocide.”
His preferred audience is students. “The distance between the United States and Sudan that leaders feel doesn’t exist for students. They see the human side of the conflict,” explains Arbab. “Kids want to learn and change the world.” Currently, schools across the country must sign up on a waiting list, booking Arbab a year in advance.
This Friday, FCR will bus Portlanders down to D.C. for the rally, organized by the Enough Project, Save Darfur Coalition/ Genocide Intervention Network, the FCR, and more. Arbab will speak alongside other internationally recognized human rights advocates at the event. Before the rally, Darfuris against genocide are holding a global hunger strike, which will begin at noon on Friday and end at noon on Saturday.
While Arbab’s work increasingly takes him to new parts of the country, he remains dedicated to building relationships among native and new Mainers. “When I go to a different state, Maine is on my mind – the streets, restaurants, stores, views,” Arbab says. “When I come back to Portland and see the view of the ocean, I feel so relaxed, like I am home again.”