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Donors Mobilize Resources To Ease Sudan’s Humanitarian Crisis

When Dora Apsan Sorell, 83, saw a newscast in August about the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, it conjured up horrific memories of her time at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Earlier that same day, Sorell, a retired doctor, had received a reparations check for the slave labor she did during the war. With the images of emaciated Sudanese children in her mind, Sorrell sent all $3,043 from the check to a Jewish organization that provides humanitarian relief in Darfur.

“I want the Jews to help the Sudanese people,” said Sorell, who is currently a Holocaust educator in Northern California. “The Jews know what genocide is. We need to show our compassion and interest in other people, as well.”

Even before Sorell’s gift, the Jewish community had begun to mobilize its philanthropic resources to provide humanitarian relief for the refugees from Darfur. Since the beginning of the year, the three main Jewish organizations dealing with Darfur have raised more than $700,000 for humanitarian aid. True, this amounts to what some individual Jewish federations raise in a few weeks for Israel-related campaigns, but among political crises outside the Jewish world, none has sparked a similar level of concern in the Jewish community since the killings in Kosovo during the mid-1990s.

The collections for Darfur in Jewish circles began in earnest during April, when the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda forced the world’s attention to the killings in Darfur. Bands of militias backed by the Sudanese government were terrorizing black Muslim residents of Darfur and razing to the ground entire towns in the western province. The crisis continues today. Thus far, more than a million refugees have been chased from their homes, and it is estimated that some 70,000 have died.

The Jewish community was provoked to respond when the Committee on Conscience at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum released a “genocide alert” about Darfur in April. The American Jewish World Service began collecting money in April, and has raised $415,000 since then. The Jewish Coalition for Sudan Relief, a joint effort of numerous Jewish organizations, has its own collection efforts and has raised $170,000. The Reform movement is the one religious stream to become heavily involved in the issue, and since it opened an account for Sudan in August, the movement has collected $120,000.

Donations to all three groups have come pouring in from private individuals like Sorell. After Sorell’s gift — which she sent to the American Jewish World Service — gained some media attention, the organization received another check for $3,043, matching Sorell’s gift exactly. Ronni Strongin, the spokeswoman for the World Service, said that the most remarkable element of the collections has been the number of individual contributions made on the Internet. Strongin’s organization revamped its Web site earlier this year for just such fund-raising drives, and this campaign has raised more via the Internet than any previous one.

Beyond individuals, local Jewish communities also have responded in a more coordinated fashion to the situation. In Cleveland, for example, the Jewish federation gave $35,000 from its endowment fund to the Jewish Coalition for Sudan Relief.

“There was a sense that this was something we couldn’t remain silent on,” said Eric Bell, chairman of Cleveland’s Jewish Community Relations Council. “It had risen to a level that required action.”

There also have been a series of local fund-raising drives drawn together in a more improptu fashion. The group Jews Against Genocide is about to hold its second event in New York, featuring performances by African drummers; the first such event, held in June, raised more than $5,000.

Some Jewish groups that have raised money for Darfur have donated their funds to non-Jewish organizations. Rabbi John Cooper organized an interfaith service at the beginning of September at Durham, N.C.’s Judea Reform Congregation, which also featured African drummers; the event raised $1,100, which went to the relief group Church World Service.

Cooper was inspired to organize his event not by any national leadership on the issue, but instead by the newspaper reports he read from Darfur.

“Most of us in the West feel as though we overlooked the genocide in Rwanda,” Cooper said, “and no one wants that to happen again.”

The Reform movement gave its largest grant of $50,000 to the International Rescue Committee to fund a center for orphan children in the city of El Fasher. It also has given $15,000 to both CARE and Catholic Relief Services.

One Jewish organization has taken the first steps toward setting up its own operations in the region. The Jewish Coalition for Sudan Relief says they are providing $75,000 of the seed money for a Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society program that will be setting up shop in the region to provide psychological help to refugees.

At most of the fund-raising events that have occurred in the United States, there has been a dual effort to raise money and awareness. The situation is not just a humanitarian crisis — it is also a political crisis that has yet to be resolved. The American Jewish World Service helped establish the Save Darfur Coalition, comprising more than 100 American organizations to lobby the American government and the United Nations.

Strongin said that the political dimensions of the issue make it more difficult to raise money than is the case during natural disasters, when suffering does not come accompanied by complicated political arguments. When a mammoth earthquake hit Turkey a few years ago, for instance, Strongin’s organization alone raised $1 million.

A number of Jewish leaders met with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan last month, and he said that at least $200 million would be needed for sanitation needs in Darfur alone. This, though, covers only the humanitarian needs. The crisis itself is still going on. A cease-fire signed by the government in April has broken down recently, and relief agencies estimate that 10,000 people are dying each month.

For Sorell, who was one of the only members of her family to survive World War II after being deported from Romania, said that on television that August night, “I suddenly saw in front of my eyes, thousands of Jews in the camp — dirty and hungry and bitten and separated from their family.

“I don’t want another genocide,” she said.

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