The 20th century saw some of the most horrendous crimes committed against humanity: several populations fell victim to Genocide and millions of people were displaced from their homes. The advent of the new century brings little relief. But even in the most difficult situations there are glimmers of hope and light cast by those who refuse to stand idly by and get actively involved in helping others persevere while putting their own lives at risk.
Such is the case of Gabriel Stauring, an American citizen who decided to leave the comfort of his home in California and go to Darfuri refugee camps to help promote peace and justice. An armed conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan began in February 2003, when the Sudan Liberation Movement and Justice and Equality Movement rebel groups rose up against the Sudanese government, accusing it of discriminating against Darfur's non-Arab population. In response, the government implemented a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur's non-Arabs. The UN estimates that the conflict has so far claimed 450,000 lives and displaced almost three million people. The International Criminal Court has indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for Genocide and crimes against humanity. The conflict is ongoing.
Gabriel Stauring founded iACT
, a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles that utilizes innovative thinking and develops collaborative relationships to co-create replicable and cost-effective programs in refugee camps. Since 2005, iACT has facilitated refuge-led education, sports, and human rights programs that build resilience and cultivate the recovery of Darfuri refugees in eastern Chad.
Gabriel Stauring at the camp for refugees from Darfur
We are part of the problem
Widespread media coverage of the 10th anniversary of the Genocide in Rwanda in 2004 had a profound effect on Gabriel. At the same time, he started learning about the situation in Darfur and came to the conclusion that his inaction was part of the problem: “Guilt was an important motivator behind my getting involved in the Darfur crisis. I knew I had no excuse and I had to act. I did not know exactly how, so I began learning as much as I could and connecting with others who felt the same way. I decided I needed to find a way to make it personal, to put faces to numbers, so we headed out to the refugee camps on the border between Sudan and Chad so that everyone could see and hear the real people who are the victims and survivors of Darfur,” says Gabriel.
This trip, which was supposed to be his first and last one, changed Gabriel’s life. He recalls the experience: “Walking into one of the refugee camps, home to over 20,000 people, mostly women and children, it hit me that all of them had experienced horrors I would never want to imagine. It was a sea of tents in the middle of the desert. But I saw that they were very much alive and had hopes and dreams about a new future. They never imagined that more than a decade after being expelled from Darfur they would still be living in refugee camps, more forgotten than ever.”
Children at the refugee camp in Darfur
Within a foot of death
Because the camps are located in remote areas, developing any kind of action is an extremely complex challenge that carries high risks. Throughout the years, Gabriel has faced grave dangers and almost lost his life. “The whole region is very volatile. When I began traveling to the refugee camps, Chad was extremely unstable, with rebels engaged in regular attacks across the country. Humanitarians were often victims of violence; we were very close to those incidents on numerous occasions. In 2008, we were more than close and actually got stranded in the country during a coup attempt by Chadian rebels. The whole city was overtaken, our hotel was attacked
and one bullet came within a foot of where my colleague (now wife) Katie-Jay and I lay on the floor,” Gabriel remembers.
Even though these attacks took place a while back, the reality the locals face today remains very complex. “Sadly, after 13 years of violence the situation in Darfur has not improved and violence is actually on the rise in some regions. There are almost three million people displaced, and there are another 380,000 refugees across the border in Chad. Even more so, there are ever dwindling resources to address the needs of the millions of people who are desperate for the basics of survival, not to mention education and other programs that might offer hope for the future. In the camps that we visit, food rations have been cut by over 60 percent,” Gabriel laments.
Big little ripples
Gabriel’s iACT has two main programs: “Little Ripples
,” which focuses on early childhood development by training and employing refugee women to provide home-based preschool education to improve the early development of refugee children, and “Darfur United
,” a soccer club made up of refugees and a soccer academy for children and young adults. The club offers a safe place to play, move and heal under the leadership of men and women who teach soccer, peace building and health skills.
A drawing made by a Darfuri refugee child
It all started when, during his very first trip to Darfur, Gabriel brought out a soccer ball and began playing with refugees. He witnessed an immediate transformation: they were no longer victims and refugees, they were soccer players. It was then that he saw the power of sports in developing resilience. “Sport is the best tool for education and it has been proven to be essential for trauma recovery and healing for both children and adults. We use sport to teach about mindfulness, leadership, teamwork, physical and mental health. Children love it! They come, play, learn and then take those skills and benefits and use them in the rest of their daily lives,” Gabriel explains.
Civilians make a difference
Before he departs on his 23rd trip to Darfur, Gabriel ponders the difference that regular civilians can make in difficult situations: “Participation on behalf of the civilian population is key to addressing humanitarian emergencies and helping prevent future crises. As we have seen over and over again throughout history, our leaders will not always do what is right. We need to push them to act in a way that reflects humanitarian values and principles.
‘Regular’ people also have so much to offer, if they only give themselves the opportunity to act. Teachers, coaches, engineers, computer programmers and others have skills that are directly related to needs in refugee camps, no matter how remote.
iACT believes that a new culture of participation is needed if we are to stop cycles of violence, poverty and neglect,” Gabriel affirms.
Gabriel’s involvement in the humanitarian field was not accidental. A graduate of California State University in Dominguez Hills with specialization in behavioral sciences, he worked as a family counselor and offered professional therapy services in a home for abused children and their families before devoting his life to helping refugees in Darfur.
Gabriel Stauring at the camp for refugees from Darfur
Gabriel cannot help thinking that children currently living in refugee camps could be his children, further encouraging him to carry on his noble cause: “There are now more than 60 million refugees around the world, challenging us to work harder and to be more creative in finding solutions to problems that now affect everyone around the world. Empathy and compassion are key components to any solution and to all programs implemented in support of those displaced by violence. If we are to take positive steps toward a more hopeful and peaceful world, we must realize that every child contains all the empathy necessary to fuel a lifetime of peace, if they are nurtured and allowed to thrive,” he believes.
On behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors, the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity will be granted annually to an individual whose actions have had an exceptional impact on preserving human life and advancing humanitarian causes. The Aurora Prize Laureate will be honored with a $100,000 grant. In addition, that individual will have the unique opportunity to continue the cycle of giving by selecting an organization that inspired their work to receive a $1,000,000 award. The inaugural Aurora Prize ceremony will take place in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 24, 2016.