HOW A $40.00 CARDBOARD CONTRAPTION COVERED IN FOIL
IS SAVING THOUSANDS OF DARFURI REFUGEES
FROM A LIFE OF TERROR
"Our mission is to protect the women and girls who are refugees – people would think they are safe now that they are in the refugee camps but we learned otherwise"
By Jonathan Arkin
When Imani, a young African woman and refugee from Darfur, leaves her camp in Chad to collect wood for cooking, she first needs to find trees – or any vegetation for that matter – to cut and carry.
Then she needs to get back to the camp – alive.
The genocide in Darfur, the result of a long-running government-militia alliance fighting a loose confederation of Darfuri rebels, has affected millions of western Sudanese in the wake of the fighting, first, by the decimation of villages and families, and then by starvation, and mass displacement.
Unbelievably, however, the horror of the genocide is only the first trauma the Darfuris must endure. If they are “lucky” enough to have miraculously survived the wholesale destruction of their villages and the murder of their families, they must make the days-long trek on foot to one of the refugee camps on the Chadian border, where they can find a modicum of food and shelter. Once settled in the camps, it is the responsibility of the women and girls to find firewood, a precious commodity used for for meal preparation. If this last part sounds easy compared to the ordeal of surviving a genocide, think again.
For thousands of women in the Chadian refugee camps, both the natural and man-made erosion that has limited the availability of trees for firewood is only part of the life-endangering problem of collecting. A far more sinister issue lurks in the savannah, and it has little to do with animal predators and the unforgiving weather.
Bandits, militia and other outlaws, known as Janjaweed (roughly translated as “devil on horseback) have long been aware of the parade of women gatherers who leave refugee camps, sometimes alone, to collect necessary wood for burning. Oftentimes, this very act of cutting down trees is illegal, but it is not the danger of arrest that troubles these women. Rape, kidnapping and murder are daily traps that the women – some as young as 10 or 11 years of age – must learn to avoid in order to survive.
When Rachel Andres, Director of the Jewish World Watch Solar Cooker Project – an interfaith effort celebrating its five-year anniversary this May 16, saw what was going on, she quickly identified the best way to reach out to the women of Darfur. Luckily, there was already a model in place for assisting the women whose daily routine consisted of walking for miles at a time just to reach usable firewood.
Andres, heard about the work of Dr. Derk Riiks, a Dutch scientist who first saw the need for solar cookers at the Iridimi camp in Chad, –cookers that could use energy from the ever-present 100 + degree sub-Saharan African temperatures. The idea of solar cooking has been around for nearly 200 years. The project in the refugee camp was still in a pilot stage when Andres and Jewish World Watch gave the program an extra push by publicizing and supporting it.
When Jewish World Watch made their first trip to the camps they saw the progress of their efforts. After completing an evaluation in the first camp where the project started she went with her team to the 2nd camp where JWW had built a manufacturing plant but solar cooking had not yet begun. “We went to the new camp to meet with the people who would be running the project on the ground,” Andres said of her first trip. “As we were driving on the dirt road, led by a security convoy, we saw young girls with huge piles of wood on their shoulders. We had not seen that at all in the camp where we had set up the solar cookers.
A refugee girl gathering firewood in Chad.
Copyright Barbara Grover
It was so telling and pulled at my heartstrings because we hadn’t seen that yet, and we knew that we were getting up and running, but we weren’t quite there yet. These girls were still not safe. It was upsetting on one hand and exciting on the other that we knew they would shortly have cookers.”
The women and girls, who are historically mandated by their local culture to serve as the traditional gatherers of the firewood, had been leaving the camps several times a week, thereby increasing the chances of getting attacked.
A SIMPLE AND SUSTAINABLE ENERGY CONCEPT
The Solar Cooker: 2 cookers costs $40.00
It is, as some describe it, a deceptively simple concept: a foil-covered sheet of cardboard, one plastic bag and a pot for heating. Two “Cook Kits,” as they are called, are provided for each family; and the problem of heating foods that need a substantial amount of cooking time, such as beans, meat, and the sauces that accompany them, is partially solved and time becomes a new luxury for these women.
“The solar cooker cooks food using only the energy of the sun,” said a JWW spokeswoman in a recent informational video. “With solar cooking, the women no longer risk rape and attack from having to leave the refugee camp to search for firewood. Instead, they are able to cook their food using the solar cooker without producing any smoke or harm to themselves or to the environment.”
Women in the Iridimi camp, in Chad, use the cookers during the heat of midday.
Copyright Barbara Grover
“I now have time to look after my husband,” said one woman who had rediscovered her family hours, in an evaluation report recently released by JWW. The study also listed the reactions of other residents of the camps who found that since the competition for firewood had largely disappeared, their relations with neighbors had improved – as had their bronchial and respiratory health.
Yet another challenge, keeping young girls in school, was an issue that arose when the volunteers discovered some of the younger women whose days were defined by four-hour walks to and from the wood-rich areas, plus an extra two hours for the gathering – left little to no time for school. Dropout rates, even among the elementary school-aged children, was alarming.
“We take the risk because we need the firewood to cook for our families,” said another female refugee at the Iridimi camp. “I know it’s dangerous to send my little sister, but sometimes, we have no choice.”
Andres says they now do have that choice – and many of the women are venturing out less.
“Our mission is to protect the women and girls who are refugees – people would think they are safe now that they are in the refugee camps but we learned otherwise. We started the project with the aim of helping the women recover from the trauma they endured, the rapes, seeing family members killed,” said Andres of the steps from concept to reality. “We heard about this pilot project and we thought what a great way to keep the women (safe) within the confines of the camps, and to keep people from cutting down so many trees. And, health-wise, there are lung diseases and eye diseases associated with the burning of wood. People felt so connected to the project when they heard about it and they began to donate money, and to tell their friends about it. We are now in three camps of over 70,000 people.”
Studies have shown that the plan works. According to a recent evaluation, 53% of refugees say that they never have to leave the camp to search for firewood since they have received their solar cookers, and overall trips out of the camps have been cut by 86%.
EMPOWERING THE WOMEN IN THE REFUGEE CAMP
The Solar Cooker Project approach is one used by many philanthropic field operations: they go straight to the community leaders and present their product. Following the model established by Rijks, the team goes into each new camp and meets with the president of the women and men’s refugee groups and the humanitarian workers on the ground, and shows them how the cooker works and inquiries if they think it will be successful there.
Women assembling the solar cookers in the manufacturing plant.
Copyright Barbara Grover
If everyone approves the project (“which generally happens”, says Andres), “we’ll set the wheels into motion and get a manufacturing plant built and see who’s interested in the work. We end up hiring the hard workers – a mix of full time and part time. We also hire trainers, people who have the personality and who want to do it.”
What makes the JWW’s project unique, according to Andres and the JWW staff, is that theirs is the only solar cooker project for refugees that operates on such a large scale. In fact, it is the largest of its kind in the world.
Another important component of the project, say its organizers, is the empowerment of the women – not only to acquire the skills to make the cookers function properly – but also to train others to use them and to train the trainers as well. The rarity of holding a job in a refugee camp, Andres said, is a crucial element of economic development.
“They are ambassadors of the project,” she said of the women who are trained to lead the project onward. “It’s a real win-win for everyone.”
THE COVETED BRONFMAN PRIZE FOR HUMANITARIAN WORK
As Director of the project, Andres shared a synopsis of her own duties.
“I don’t have a usual day. I work in a variety of areas, helping the NGO on the ground determine priorities,” she said. “I also work here in the U.S. to help educate people about the genocide in Darfur and to educate people on how they can help. We work with all different kinds of organizations and individuals, synagogues, churches, girls’ organizations, High School groups, college students, you name it, they have supported the project!”
Solar Cooker Project Director Rachel Andres and Charles Bronfman,
after accepting the coveted Bronfman Prize for her humanitarian work
Indeed, Andres’s description of her work is modest. In 2008, she was awarded the much coveted Bronfman Prize for her groundbreaking work in guiding the growth and implementation of the Solar Cooker Project.
CONTINUING DANGERS, CONTINUING CHALLENGES
With the situation in Darfur continuing – albeit well under the radar these days – with tens of thousands of new refugees becoming displaced recently and having to face the dangers of attacks from the Janjahweed militia and others, the need for concerted efforts in Chad is greater then ever. Some refugees walk 300 miles just to reach the safety of the Chadian border, as documented in this short film by photojournalist Barbara Grover.
“When we went there to do the evaluation of the project we had some nervous moments,” Andres said. “Now the U.S. government has put out a travel advisory for Americans not to travel there.”
But with the project in full swing and expanding, the SCP faces the usual challenge in such cases: creating and maintaining an effective campaign to deliver help.
EXPANSION DELAYED ONLY BY A LACK OF FUNDS
The Solar Cooker Project’s goal of expanding the project into more camps will happen when there is enough money to ensure the ability to not only start up in these camps but continue the work for the follow-up years. The next step is to get the solar cookers into the eight additional refugee camps – large outfits that house a quarter of a million people.
“It’s complicated,” Andres said of working in the refugee camps. “It’s a huge venture to outfit all 12 camps. We can only do it if we raise more money. Our goal is to be in all 12 refugee camps in Chad sooner rather than later. I know we can do it. ”
The success of the project, Andres explained, is definitely its own reward.
“What’s been exhilarating about this project is that such a simple solution works to help so many people, that it’s so basic,” she said. “You don’t have to understand the intricacies of the crisis in Darfur – you can just know that you are helping a genocide survivor stay safe now. It’s easy for people to understand and love the project. People have heard about the genocide, and they have found that they can actually make a difference by supporting this project. They know that they have helped girls and women stay safe. Going to refugee camps in Chad – seeing the women use the solar cookers, talking with them, seeing how much time they have to do other things, it’s gratifying beyond belief.”
GET INVOLVED WITH THE JWW SOLAR COOKER PROJECT
copyright Barbara Grover
Getting involved is simpler that one might think. Two lifesaving cookers are $40.00, and typically will serve one family for about nine-twelve months before replacement is necessary.
“We want everyone to be involved,” said Andres when asked about the segments of the public that JWW is particularly trying to reach. “We know that people want to do something that’s tangible, where they can see the results of their donations. What I see is that people want to get involved as donors and they then stay involved. It’s a way for them to get more involved in helping those affected by the genocide in Darfur. It’s important for people to help and to educate others about what’s happening around the world.”
Other examples of the helping hand abound. At one recent birthday party here in the U.S., a donor asked her guests to forego presents and instead to donate to the project. One teenager painted rocks and sold them to raise money. A church group made and sells Mother’s Day cards (this year’s Mother’s Day is Sunday, May 8). A 14-year-old boy turned his family’s hiking trip to the top of Mt. Washington into a fundraiser.
We’ve been fortunate that so many people have found many creative ways to help these women and girls,” added Andres. “Like the girl who painted the rocks, she found something to do that she was good at – that is a part of what has been really special about this – people have found a way to own this project for themselves. People find their passion and use it to help these women and girls.”
In addition to donating, some suggestions include hosting events where they can educate people about the project, the genocide, JWW in general; there have been gatherings called “Potholder Projects” (groups decorate pot holders that the JWW then sends to the women there so that they do not burn themselves when they open their solar cooked food) to show the refugees that someone halfway around the world cares.
UPCOMING 5-YEAR ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
In the five years since its inception, Andres and the solar cooker project have raised a total of more than 2 million dollars and have just expanded into the 4th camp in Chad with 21,448 refugees. That’s four camps with tens of thousands of lives saved – and eight camps to go.
Training to use the Cookits in the 4th and newest camp in Chad
To celebrate this hugely successful run, Andres and her Solar Cooker Advisory Board are planning an anniversary celebration and fundraiser, scheduled for May 16, 2011, at which Los Angeles celebrity chefs are getting involved — “women cooking here for women cooking there,” as it has been called, and there is much more planned for the day.
Jonathan Arkin is a graduate of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and is currently a writer living in southern California.
Rachel Andres, Director
Jewish World Watch Solar Cooker Project