April 2, 2008
Bringing Light To Darfur
by Tom Tugend
The simplest innovations sometimes lead to the greatest rewards, as Rachel Andres learned recently when she was named the 2008 recipient of the $100,000 Charles Bronfman Prize.
The annual prize is awarded to a person or team of people younger than 50 whose Jewish values spark humanitarian efforts that help improve the world.
Andres’ work provides succor to some of the most helpless and brutalized people in the world: 10,000 refugee families, mostly fatherless, who have escaped the massacres in Darfur.
The genocide in the Sudanese province, now in its fifth year, has claimed an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 civilians. Some 2.5 million refugees, predominantly women and children, have been displaced.
For the past two years Andres, 45, has directed the Solar Cooker Project of
Jewish World Watch, which has expanded from a small Los Angeles base to synagogues, churches, schools, Girl Scout troops, civic organizations and individual contributors across the United States, as well as parts of Canada and Australia.
The solar cooker concept is an elegantly simple response to a terrifying fact of life facing the women and young girls in the Iridimi and Touloum refugee camps on the Sudan-Chad border. While foraging for scarce firewood outside the camps for basic cooking and water purification, the women and girls were in constant danger of gang rapes by roving bands of Arab militiamen.
If the women could find an alternative source of heating within the camps, they could largely eliminate the assaults, reasoned Andres and her colleagues. Her answer was a sun-powered cooker, made of cardboard and aluminum foil, at a cost of $15 each.
Andres discovered a small Dutch company to furnish the material, which is shipped to the refugee camps. The cookers are assembled in small camp plants by the women and girls older than 14, who get paid for the work and thus become income earners for their families.
Some 15,000 cookers have been distributed, also proving an environmental boon by slowing the deforestation of the region and reducing the time women have to spend over open brick fireplaces.
Since each family needs two of the $15 cookers, Jewish World Watch has pitched its donation appeal at $30. More than $1 million has been received to date from some 20,000 contributors, mainly in $30 donations, though there have been larger gifts.
In the Los Angeles area, nearly 60 synagogues from all the major movements have joined up with Jewish World Watch.
Andres, born and raised in Dallas, has been an activist since graduating from University of California Los Angeles with a degree in political science. She credits her paternal grandmother for her sense of Jewish responsibility toward others, regardless of their race or religion.
“Bubbe left Suwalki in northern Poland in 1919 and came to Texas,” she said. “Most of her family stayed behind, and 22 relatives perished in the Holocaust.”
Andres said her grandmother had three sons, worked in her husband’s grocery store, wrote four books of Yiddish poetry, met new immigrants at the airport and helped settle them, and was involved in the Workmen’s Circle.
“Her legacy to me was her sense of social justice,” Andres said. “She was larger than life.”
Andres worked for 10 years at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles as the director of its Commission on Cults and Missionaries, and subsequently as a volunteer for AIDS Project Los Angeles and various other projects, including the Museum for the History of Polish Jews.
Andres and her husband, Ben Tysch, the chief administrator for the regional Planned Parenthood, live in Los Angeles with their two children, Ezra, 10, and Rebecca, 6. Andres serves on the board of Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation.
Asked how she manages her many responsibilities, Andres laughs.
“I really don’t know. I’ll have to think about that,” she says, adding after a pause, “It’s a bit of a juggling job, but I’m focused on whatever I’m doing. I try to give it my all.”
Andres says she will use the $100,000 prize money “to expand the solar cooker project to more camps and to publicize the desperate needs of the refugees.”
The Charles Bronfman Prize was established by the children of the Canadian philanthropist in honor of his 70th birthday.
Andres is the fourth person and the first woman to receive the prize, which will be formally awarded May 6 in New York.
Rachel Andres' Solar Cooker Project helps women earn a livelihood
and protects them from roving bands of Arab militiamen.