(Iriba, Chad) When Darfuri refugees started streaming across the border into Chad four years ago, fleeing a civil war that has killed 200,000 and displaced 2.5 million, many Chadians opened their arms in welcome.
When Darfuri refugees started streaming across the border into Chad four years ago, fleeing a civil war that has killed 200,000 and displaced 2.5 million, many Chadians opened their arms in welcome.
Al-Hajj Saboor Arta Bakit took one step further. He gave the refugees some of his land to raise their own crops. This step has earned him some local respect, some derision, and three separate stints in the local jail. But Mr. Bakit says he was only acting on the urging of his heart.
"When the refugees arrived here, they didn't have clothes, didn't have shoes, they were hungry, and when I saw them, I cried," says Bakit, brushing away dry animal dung from a shady spot under an acacia tree before sitting down. "I don't have money to give, but I do have lots of land. I don't want money for it, I don't want thanks from government. I just want thanks from God."
Not only does Bakit's gift provide 160 Sudanese families with the chance to become self-sufficient by growing their own food, it also builds a crucial bridge between Chadians and Sudanese refugees whose welcome may be wearing thin. Despite sharing the same languages, the same religion, and in some cases the same relatives, the addition of some 57,000 refugees to the local population of 60,000 has doubled the burden on water and land resources.
With the Darfur crisis going into its fifth year with no signs of resolution, Emmanuel Uwurukundo, head of operations for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in this eastern Chadian border town says that Bakit's actions could be a kind of model for a longer-term solution to ease tensions between local people and refugees.
"The donor nations will never continue to fund these programs indefinitely, so making the refugees more self-reliant means that refugees should have a kind of dignity. Refugees are not beggars," says Mr. Uwurukundo. "It's important that we find ways to put together the local population with refugees to work together and share resources."
Bridges between locals and refugees
Aid officials like Uwurukundo admit that few farmers will emulate Bakit in giving away their land. But they hope that Bakit and Sudanese refugees will be able to encourage local farmers to find other ways to integrate Sudanese farmers into the local economy, with the Sudanese refugees sharing their skills, and Chadians sharing some of their land.
When international aid is measured in billions, the generosity of a few acres of land by a small farmer like Bakit may seem like small change. But in a harsh arid region, where plots of arable land are precious and often separated by dozens of miles of rocky desert, Bakit's gift is breathtaking and powerful.
Aid workers say they are concerned that foreign assistance for the displaced Darfuris could cause resentment among the native Chadians, an advantage that is sometimes perceived as favoritism. Bakit says Chadians would only gain if Darfur farmers succeed.
Farming in both Darfur and Eastern Chad is a very low-tech business. In both places, it's a matter of waiting for the rains to come in early July before shoving seeds into the wet desert floor, one at a time, with a thumb.
But the farmers of Darfur have slightly more water, slightly longer growing seasons, and have accumulated more techniques for farming, such as the use of animals for pulling plows, carrying water from nearby streams, and so on. Because of their added experience, Bakit believes that Darfuris have a lot of knowledge they can share with their relatively less developed brethren in Chad.
"When I go to the mosque, I tell people to give land to the refugees; they have experience in growing crops that we don't have," says Bakit. "In the mosque, most keep silent, some say yes, but I'm sure, if