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Stories without borders

After two decades of domestic violence crisis work in the Springs, Janet Kerr turned her sights to Darfur


  • Photo courtesy of Janet Kerr

Nearly a year ago, Janet Kerr arrived in Sudans Darfur region to start a mental health program at the largest refugee camp on the globe.

With international aid group Doctors Without Borders, the Colorado Springs native traveled into a genocidal civil war that has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced 2 million in the past three years. Each day, Kerr rode from the nearby city of Nyala to a clinic in the Kalma camp, a 4-mile stretch of rakubas, or grass huts, that host some 115,000 people driven from their villages by the government-backed Arab militia.

As the former director of TESSA, a local domestic violence and rape crisis and advocacy center, Kerr was assigned work with, amongst others, the camps rape victims, women who were attacked in groups when they walked to collect firewood. Kerr shared her experience after she returned to Colorado Springs last month to await her next deployment.

Indy: What were the differences between working with women in Colorado Springs and women in Darfur?

JK: I was prepared for lots of differences. What I found was lots of similarities. Women that are raped in Colorado Springs respond in the same way that women who are raped in Sudan do. But here we work on an empowerment model. There, because of the cultural differences the whole idea of empowerment is really foreign. So the issues were always around safety ...

About half of the women who came in [to the clinic] felt really supported by their communities. The other half was very stigmatized. They had husbands who would say things like You are his wife now. ... One woman committed suicide because she saw absolutely no alternative. Her family had turned her away.

Indy: What are the challenges of counseling people who are oppressed by their own government?

JK: We realized because of the ongoing oppression and violence and insecurity that it wasnt going to be possible to address peoples psychological needs on any deep level. The goal of the program was to shore up peoples coping skills and hopefully see a reduction in their symptoms. If they were feeling depressed or anxious, we wanted to see them functioning better day in and day out ...

There was one 12-year-old boy who was having nightmares, and so his mother and father brought him in [to the clinic]. In his nightmare, there was a big bird coming at him and picking him up by the talons and carrying him away from his family. The next time he came in the nightmare had changed it was a helicopter coming in and dropping a bomb. His village had been destroyed that way.

Once he figured out that the bird was the representation of the helicopter, we started

talking to him about the attack. Eventually he stopped having the nightmare. The poor kid is still traumatized, and who knows what the long-term effects are going to be. But we got him sleeping through the night.

Kerr and one of her colleagues from the Kalma mental - health program. Each week, a total of 30 women - reported rapes to the camps three clinics. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JANET KERR
  • Photo courtesy of Janet Kerr
  • Kerr and one of her colleagues from the Kalma mental health program. Each week, a total of 30 women reported rapes to the camps three clinics.

Indy: Despite international pressure, the United Nations has not sent troops to the area. Nor has the United States taken decisive action. Can you comment on the situation?

JK: I know that the people in Darfur very much want the United Nations to come in. And they want it to be led by U.S. forces. There were pro-U.N. demonstrations in the camp with people waving painted American flags with signs in Arabic and English that read We love the U.S.

Indy: What would it take for people in Colorado Springs to become passionate about the situation in Darfur?

JK: I dont know how to make Americans get out of our little bubble and see what is going on in the world. I wish I did. The only thing I know how to do is to tell stories ...

There was one 18-year-old man who was paralyzed. He had a medical exam, and there was nothing wrong with his legs. We went to visit him at his home, and he told us about the day his village was attacked. He and his brother ran out of the hut and he grabbed a hijab, which is a protection amulet made out of leather, with scripture from the Koran inside.

When he stopped, he realized his brother wasnt behind him; he had been shot and killed before they cleared the village. He felt incredible guilt because he had grabbed the protection necklace. His mind caused his legs to become paralyzed, so he wouldnt be doing any more running. The good news is after a couple of months, he was walking again.

Indy: How do you make the choice between helping those in the greatest need and helping people locally?

JK: When I was getting ready to leave, my brother said, Why are you going there? There are plenty of people here who need your help. I said, I spent a lot of time helping people here. Just because they dont live here doesnt mean they are not deserving of help.

I have always wanted to do work that is important ... I am not that proud of it, but there is a part of me, too, that wants to see the world. I want some adventure in my life, and this is an avenue that allows me to do work that I love, help people who need help and I get the benefit of having an adventure.

Indy: How does it feel to be back in the United States?

JK: I cant ever imagine saying again, I dont have enough stuff, or I need more money, or I need more things. I lived like a queen in Darfur compared to the way people in the refugee camps are living.

There, if you are lucky enough to have a bed or something that is raised off the ground, you dont sleep on it because it is too dangerous. There is too much gunfire at night. And when you sleep on the ground, there are worms that come up and burrow through your skin.

I knew that I was lucky to have been born a white person in the United States, but I had no idea what that meant until I lived in Darfur for nine months.

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