Yom Kippur fast among starving refugees

In the sweltering heat, among refugees, I find a strangely appropriate setting to observe Yom Kippur. I am in Mille, a refugee camp that is home to 14,000 who have fled their war-torn villages in the Darfur region of western Sudan. On this Day of Atonement, a day of self-assessment, forgiveness and change, being with people who are living through the anguish of hunger, disease, homelessness and despair exemplifies the meaning of this day of fasting.

Yom Kippur is not a day to feel comfortable. This day challenges us to consider the question: What are we doing with our precious time on earth? As Abraham Joshua Heschel, a renowned rabbi and social activist wrote: “This is an age when it is impossible to think about the human situation without shame, anguish and disgust.”

Regrettably, over 40 years later, his words remain replete with meaning.

The Mille camp is located in the northeastern part of Chad, a land that has been ravaged by centuries of pestilence, war, colonization and famine. I reached Mille on a small propeller plane, followed by a six-hour jeep ride across a rock-strewn and rugged road.

The turbulent ride across the sub-Saharan desert shakes me to my core — an external manifestation of the purpose of Yom Kippur. The day’s intent is to shake one’s emotional, social and spiritual core in order to atone, empathize and finally move forward. As difficult as my trip is, it pales in comparison to the agonizing journey of the refugees who have walked here to flee from the despair of Darfur.

Mille is somber and filled with infinite tragedy, yet it is also a place of hope, love and humanity. As I spent this holy day visiting refugees in their wind-and-sand tattered tents, in a health clinic and in a therapeutic feeding center, I was struck by the strength of the human spirit that exists here in this outpost of humanity.

I sat with a refugee named Mahmood as he recounted his painful journey from Darfur, filled with the losses of family, livelihood and dignity. I met the director of a medical clinic who is profoundly saddened by children suffering from malnutrition. I wept with sadness at the plight of our fellow human beings. I was in awe at the relief workers’ tireless commitment to alleviating the anguish.

I have observed Yom Kippur for the last two years in Chad. The experience is poignant because the day is so real, so tangible and so personally challenging. In Mille, Yom Kippur is an unavoidable reality — so much to atone for and so important to find hope. I said my prayers while holding the hand of an 8-year-old orphan. I said my prayers at the sight of a newborn baby. I said my prayers while watching children smile. I said my prayers at the graveyard outside the camp where loved ones are buried, so far from home.

On this day I saw Adam, a refugee from southern Darfur, whom I met last year. Fluent in English, articulate and insightful, he teaches with sensitivity and dignity. He is relentless in his efforts to establish a library where he can teach other refugees about human rights. His strength, determination and dream of returning home are tributes to the greatness of the human spirit.

In Mille, the question of who will live and who will die is regrettably answered every day. We are taught that the answer to this question is not for us to know; what is for us to understand is that we can shape how we live and provide others with the ability to sanctify their lives. Bearing witness to the despair of the refugees, I know that we must do everything possible to change their circumstances.

Refugees cry out from their shattered lives. Today, I tell our fellow human beings here in Mille: We will not forget you, we will not stand idly by, we will help you and we care. My deepest prayer is to strengthen my resolve to make this world more humane.

Yom Kippur is about the commitment of believing in change — in ourselves, in others, in the world. My prayer is that the shame and anguish that we should feel today will compel us to commitment, justice and compassion.

As the sun sets in Chad I see with clarity the piercing eyes of those refugees who are seeking, just like us, to be inscribed in the Book of Life. This fast is over. Now, it’s on to the real challenge — healing and redeeming this world.

Rabbi Lee Bycel is an adviser to the International Medical Corps and a moderator with the Aspen Institute. He is a former assistant rabbi at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

Rabbi Lee Bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

Rabbi Lee Bycel is the Sinton Visiting Professor of Holocaust, Genocide and Refugee Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of the upcoming “Refugees in America: Stories of Courage, Resilience and Hope in Their Own Words.”