by Robert Nevel
MIAMI, Fla. – The faces stayed with Marc Furmanski long after he saw the movie. It was a documentary about human rights atrocities in the Darfur region of Sudan, an African country in which he had lived from ages 5 to 7 while his father worked for Lufthansa Airlines.
Although he lived in the capital Khartoum outside of Darfur, he was shocked to learn that genocide was taking place there by government backed Arab militias against the black tribal population.
Having always had a drive to help the less fortunate, Furmanski, 26, approached friend, artist, and fellow philanthropist Diani Safdeye, 25, to start work on a project that expressed those sorrowful faces from the film. This small art project developed into an independent Miami-based organization to raise funds and send aid to Darfur.
“We started very small with a lot of big dreams,” said Safdeye this past Saturday.
“At the beginning we researched a lot to partner up with other groups,” added Furmanski.
That is initially what they did. Beginning as a chapter of the New Jersey based “Help Darfur Now” in January last year, they were the only independent chapter not affiliated with any schools. Eventually they established the organization as its own entity, but retained part of the name, calling their new group “Miami Help Darfur Now.”
A small collective, Miami Help Darfur Now is run by presidents Furmanski and Safdeye. Their meager homegrown efforts managed to raise an estimated $4,000 from setting up booths at local music festivals and other events as well as hosting barbecues and free activities like yoga sessions. However money is not their only goal.
“We’re also just spreading the word,” explained Furmanski, “It’s all about education. The sad truth is they don’t teach about it in school. When we first started this, everyone was like ‘help who?’”
According to a BBC news article last year, the UN claimed at least 300,000 tribal Africans are dead from the violence and according to the New York Times, almost 3 million are still in refugee camps all over the region and in neighboring countries, most notably Chad. As early as July 2004 the United States Congress declared the violence genocide. In September of 2004, then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed that the violence in Darfur was indeed genocide.
Not only has Miami Help Darfur Now seen a general lack of knowledge about the issue, they have also been the targets of criticism from some who approach them.
“Some of the criticism we get,” said Furmanski, “are people saying, ‘people can’t eat here,‘ but the worst, when we have a petition, ‘what is signing that going to change?’ Sometimes we can get through to people and some people leave satisfied, others leave with ignorance like ‘huh, idiots.’”
They set up their booth at events like Board Up Miami (a water sports event), North Miami Beach Community Festival, and the annual Bob Marley Movement Carribbean Festival in Bayfront Park.
Florida International University student Matt Ashley, 24, said, “They need to go to places where people will be more willing to actually help. Churches for example.”
But Furmanski and Safdeye are outwardly positive people and they find a bright side in the criticism.
“The ‘no’s’ make the ‘yes’s’ that much more valuable,” explained Furmanski, referring to the example of a petition.
Choosing a positive approach instead of hanging pictures of dead bodies and political violence, Safdeye uses her artistic ability to make booths at events colorful and vibrant. She sometimes does face painting and takes the opportunity to educate people about the cause. A banner hangs in each booth that explains what is going on in Darfur. Subtlety has been their method of dissemination.
“At some of our independent events, like our barbecues, we’ll have a keg, and on each cup for example it will say a different fact, for example ‘over 300,000 reported dead in Darfur,’” said Furmanski.
“People sometimes challenge us, like, ‘how are you going to help?’” said Diani.
With corruption of humanitarian efforts being brought to light recently as a result of media coverage in the wake of Haiti’s disaster, skepticism about such organizations is to be expected. As to where their money goes Safdeye assured, “We do our research.”
“We are very anal about our money,” added Furmanski, “We speak to the heads of small aid organizations. If the person we’re speaking to hasn’t even been to Darfur, we don’t deal with them nearly as easily.”
After the International Criminal Court charged Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir with crimes against humanity, 10 large humanitarian organizations were expelled from the country. Small aid groups and development programs are the only means Furmanski and Safdeye see to be able to help.
One of the programs they support is the donation of materials and instruction for the building of solar cookers to refugee camps.
“It’s aluminum foil-like, and it helps them cook without needing fuel for energy,” said Safdeye.
When the women go into the woods to collect firewood they get raped and killed, explained Safdeye.
“It’s a more direct link,” said Safdeye of donations to smaller, hands-on groups.