I was thinking today that exactly thirty years ago this week my husband and I, as young twenty-somethings, stood in a passport control and “welcome to the iron curtain” line at Moscow’s International Airport; we had dozens of Zionist and Judaic books and other such “subversive” documents sewn into the linings of our clothes and hidden in our bags. We carried a list of names of the thirty refuseniks with whom we were to make contact over the next ten days. I am not embarrassed to say, we were scared.
I have been thinking a lot about that experience 30 years ago as I anticipate my trip to see the Darfuri refugees at the Iridimi and Touloum refugee camps in Chad. Of course, there are major differences between that trip and the one we are about to take: for one, we are not bringing anything that could be considered contraband into Chad; second, the people who are the targets of our mission to Chad are not refuseniks who could easily have been (and maybe were) my actual cousins, or at the very least, fellow Jews; and finally, in the case of the Soviet Union, my husband’s parents and my grandparents were all born in the geography that we would be traversing; we were very aware of the fact that we could just as easily have been amongst those trapped behind the iron curtain as we were amongst those who were visiting with contraband and support.
But, with all of those differences, right now, for me, the similarities are more striking. First and foremost, these two trips are the two most “dangerous” things I have done in my life. Yesterday, Tzivia, Rachel and I were assured by a relief worker that Chad is no more dangerous than a walk through downtown L.A. (he didn’t say if the walk was in the daytime, nighttime, or what part of downtown…yikes!! Was this supposed be comforting?!?) But honestly, as an upper middle class Jewish daughter, wife, mom, attorney, community volunteer…raised in Pacific Palisades, and now hailing from Encino, I don’t usually find myself sneaking contraband into foreign countries, or, for that matter, booking travel to places which are rife with political instability, rebel armies, and refugee camps! We have always made a point of avoiding such situations….except twice…then… and now.
But, despite the twice daily calls from my very nervous octogenarian parents and in-laws who repeatedly assure me that they will not rest comfortably until we return safely from the trip, I do not feel scared about our physical safety. I do, however, feel anxious and am having a difficult time sleeping this week. My anxiety is related not to getting to the camps, but rather, to leaving the camps. I anticipate the misery of the people we will meet. I anticipate how sad and sorry and painful their stories will be. And, I anticipate that when we leave, to go back to our husbands, our children, our loving families, our beautiful homes and our more or less orderly and predictable lives, the starkness of the contrast between the refugees and us will be overwhelming…and that will be very difficult and very painful.
When we left Anatoly Scharansky and Ida Nudel 30 years ago in their Moscow apartments, I remember that same feeling I anticipate now…profound sadness and fear for what would become of them. In that case, a week after we left, Anatoly was arrested, tried, and then taken to the Gulag where he spent years of his life in solitary confinement.
So, as I anticipate what the faces of genocide will look like when we encounter them next week, I want so much to be able to leave Chad feeling a sense of hope that one day they will be able to be restored to the life they and their families knew for so many hundreds of years….But…I also am frightened that I will find the face of hopelessness and dread. Will we know how to comfort the grieving mother? What will we tell her we can do for her? How do I explain that we care so deeply for her well-being? How do I tell her that we are trying to awaken our government and others to their plight…