WELLS, Maine — On Friday, Nov.7, students at Wells High School had the opportunity to listen to a man who as a child survived the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan and escaped to the United States.
Elfadel Arbab spoke to a group of students who are studying the atrocities of genocide. Before the presentation, a music video called “Living Darfur” was shown depicting villagers going about their daily lives. Images of children laughing and playing moved across the screen as a man sung the words, “see the nation through the people’s eyes.”
When the video finished, Arbab rose and said it was honor to be at the school and to share with the students his experience escaping the genocide in Darfur. Arbab told the audience that when he was 12 years old the Janjaweed militia came and destroyed his village.
Arbab is one of nine children, eight boys and one girl. He said his mother woke them up and he was the last one to get out of the house. He explained that the Janjaweed would form two circles around a village. In the first circle the militia had guns and machetes, and would force the villagers into houses, which were then lit on fire to burn the captives alive.
If anyone managed to penetrate the first circle, there was a second circle of Janjaweed on horseback or camels who would chase those who escaped and kill them.
Arbab said the Janjaweed chased him and threw him in a house that was on fire. Arbab said his body was burned from his clothes and hair that caught fire.
“I was asking myself, ‘why are they doing this?’” he said.
Arbab said he thought about how to escape and he saw black smoke pouring out from the structure that housed their food and supplies. He used the smoke as a cover, running through it so no one could see him. He knew he had to get to a tree on the outskirts of the village where his mother said they should all meet if separated.
Arbab stayed at the tree for three days, surviving on eating bits of the tree.
He then remembered lessons taught by the village elders, that to find help, climb the tree to look for a fire in the distance.
Arbab said in Darfur fire meant everything to them. It was used to cook food and stay warm. Arbab climbed the tree and saw a fire in the distance. He headed toward the firelight, eventually reaching a town a week later.
Arbab was helped by another young man who was a dishwasher at a restaurant. The dishwasher gave him food, helped him find a job, and eventually a ticket to Kudok, where he hoped to locate his parents.
When he reached Kudok he said, “it was like a nightmare there.” Arbab only spoke the language of his village, which no one else spoke.
He said people went through trash bags from restaurants looking for leftover food in order to survive. He said the water was dirty and a lot of kids got sick and died.
One morning Arbab found some children who spoke his language and he went to live with them in an open field. There were no beds or blankets and the children dug holes in the ground in the winter and slept inside them.
“We were like lost boys living with lost girls,” he said.
Arbab explained that they would have to run and hide when the government was nearby or else they would be taken and forced into becoming soldiers.
“We lived in fear like that for years,” he said.
After three years, Arbab overheard some people talking about his family in the marketplace. They told him his mother was alive and living in a refugee camp. He traveled to the camp and was finally reunited with his mother.
His mother was reluctant to let Arbab out of her sight after being gone for three years and presumed dead. Arbab said even now in the United States if he goes somewhere and his mom can’t see him, he has to call her.
“That’s what genocide does. It’s not easy. You can’t see it or touch it but you feel it,” Arbab said.
In 2004, when Arbab was 21 years old, he came to the United States and now lives in Portland. He told the students that when he arrived in the United States he couldn’t sleep or eat because he kept thinking about all of the people he left behind in Darfur.
The only thing that helped Arbab feel better was to tell his story. “When I tell my story, the nightmares go away,” he said. “I feel relief.”
Students asked Arbab questions about transitioning to life in the United States. He told them the story of his first night in the U.S. He and his family had arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City and were taken to a hotel. A man from the hotel brought Arbab to his room and showed him the refrigerator, bed, and how to use the remote to control the television. It was the first time he had watched television. He said he watched TV all night. The show “Tom and Jerry” was playing. He didn’t touch the remote all night for fear that if he did the pictures would go away.
“It was amazing,” he said.
Adjusting to Maine
When asked by a student about the most difficult part about living in Maine, Arbab simply said, “snow.”
Arbab arrived in the U.S. during the month of September. The other kids kept telling him about snow and even rented a video about Christmas and Santa Claus. He said he couldn’t wait for the snow to arrive.
The day after Christmas it snowed all night. Arbab woke up and his room was very bright from the reflection of the sun on the snow. Not realizing this, Arbab tried to flip the light switch off because he thought someone had turned on the light.
When he saw the snow, Arbab went outside in his pajamas with no socks or shoes and saw all of the other kids wearing their winter gear. He thought to himself, “Why are they wearing so many clothes?”
After a few minutes, Arbab was very cold but felt his feet burning so he ran back inside the house and turned the heat up to 90 degrees.
Arbab lives in Portland and works at a bowling alley. He studied for three years and became a U.S. citizen in 2009.
Even after 10 years of living in the United States, Arbab still has difficulty mastering the English language. He said in his village one word only had one meaning unlike the complexities of English. He said he is motivated to continue his studies and hopes to one day graduate with his high school diploma and go to college to get a degree in human rights and cultural studies.
Arbab’s motivation to learn stems from wanting to eliminate genocide. He said when he did not talk about what he experienced in Darfur, he was not able to eat or sleep and he felt emotional pain.
“If you have a story and didn’t tell, it’s eating your body inside,” he said. “When you start talking about it you feel like you’re doing something and want to do more.”