Documenting Darfur 

Local exhibit depicts war-ravaged region

Between loads of laundry, recent Boise State grad Imad El Nour joked about the dismal job market.

"Finding a job is a full-time job," he laughed. In the past six years, El Nour has gone from being homeless on the streets of Egypt to throwing around English truisms with casual ease. El Nour, a Sudanese refugee from the war-torn Darfur region, is quick to credit the Boise community for his success.

"The environment here just helps bring the best out of your ability," said El Nour. "You can succeed so much easier."

Now that El Nour is on his way to becoming a respiratory care specialist and has fully acclimated to life in Boise, he wants to give back. Recently, he spoke at a teacher's conference centered on the Idaho Historical Museum's newest traveling exhibition, "Darfur: Photo-journalists Respond." El Nour hopes that telling his story will help Boiseans to better understand the atrocities happening in Darfur brought on largely by the Sudanese government.

"The wound was really raw. I didn't want to open up and speak about it. But right now, I feel like I'm in a better place," said El Nour. "We need to increase awareness for people that there's a genocide and there's deaths. It's something that's really important that you need to know. I'm ready now just to excel and go out there and speak about it and be an advocate for Darfurian people."

The Idaho Historical Museum has also made it their mission to educate the Boise community on Darfur. The photo exhibit--co-sponsored by the Idaho Human Rights Education Center and on loan from the Houston Holocaust Museum--chronicles the displacement of 2 million people from Darfur, a region the size of Texas in western Sudan. Since the conflict began in 2003, the United Nations estimates roughly 300,000 people have been killed by fighting between Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's Janjaweed army and rebel groups. Though there's some debate over whether the conflict qualifies as genocide, the exhibition takes the resolute stance that it does--reprinting the U.N.'s five-point definition of genocide on the exhibit's opening informational plaque. The show snakes around a large open room, with brightly saturated color photos of women carrying plastic jugs of water through refugee camps and somber black and white photos of burned villages painting a harrowing tale of the destruction caused by the conflict.

"People think of us as the Lewis and Clark and the Oregon Trail museum, but we're all about Idaho history from very old history to very recent history," explained Kurt Zwolfer, education specialist at the historical museum. "Certainly we want to stir people, but what's important to us, especially, is there's a community in town that's directly connected to this [exhibit], and that's what we hope to reflect."

With new refugees coming to Boise each month from places as varied as Iraq, Burundi and Sudan, Idaho history is quickly becoming enriched by the world cultures congregating here. And while volunteers in the Boise community have generously helped refugees acclimate to the American lifestyle, it is also important for Boiseans to understand the history of their newest citizens.

"The Boise community has a deeper connection to issues going on in Africa than maybe folks realize," said Amy Herzfeld, executive director of the Idaho Human Rights Education Center.

In conjunction with the 80th anniversary of Anne Frank's birthday, the center partnered with the museum to bring the "Darfur: Photo-journalists Respond" exhibition to town in an effort to illuminate modern genocides and human-rights abuses. For its fifth annual Summer Institute, a conference for teachers from across Idaho, the center invited local refugees El Nour and poet and BW blogger Fidel Nshombo to tell their stories.

"The teachers who were attending the institute from around the state were really impressed by the exhibition, and they really valued the opportunity to interact personally with local members of the refugee community," said Herzfeld. "That really made the story come to life in a very powerful way."

For Zwolfer, involving members of the Sudanese refugee community in the exhibit has been invaluable. On a large plaque, with a smiling picture of El Nour, he explains his journey to Boise and the struggles he encountered on his way here. Relating the chilling scenes depicted in the photos snapped by internationally renowned photojournalists to the lives of Boise citizens adds a certain relevance that's missing from the images alone.

"People tend to see something like this and they think it's horrible, but then they walk out of the exhibit and they forget it instantly," said Zwolfer. "The way for it to resonate with people is to make a connection with a person, especially a person in their community."

On a recent weekday morning, a summer camp class of kids in matching lime green T-shirts wandered through the exhibition and made some connections of their own. Using their indoor voices, a couple of youngsters stopped in front of one of Sven Torfinn's photos of a destroyed village and lamented, "Aw, that's where their home was." As a young adult counselor herded the kids into the museum's next exhibition room, he exclaimed, "Wow, I thought Darfur was in Germany." In an effort to clear up misconceptions about Darfur, El Nour has made himself available to area teachers and organizations year round to give talks about his experience.

"People, they need to hear individual experiences," said El Nour. "We have a lot of people [in Boise] from Darfur, people who survived the genocide. The images and pictures work—it makes you moved and concerned—but when you hear somebody tell you his story, of how he escaped and how he lost his family and how he suffered and how he was determined to make it out through all the bloody scenes, I think that makes a difference."

Though the war in Darfur is far more complex than celebrity endorsements or "Save Darfur" bumper stickers would have us believe, exhibitions like "Darfur: Photo-journalists Respond" are helping to shed light on the conflict's central issues and encourage people to find out more. For Boiseans, that can be as easy as talking to our new Sudanese neighbors.

"We're hoping an exhibit like this can open a few people's eyes so that they can make that connection to the people in their community," said Zwolfer. "These are people that are now members of our community that we should respect that are now bringing a lot of their culture in with them."

For El Nour, speaking up about his experiences in Darfur is the least he can do to show gratitude to the community that has embraced him over the last six years.

"You've got to be proud that you belong to this community because Boise has been helpful for refugees in terms of providing a lot of help," said El Nour. "People volunteer to teach English, and people are so friendly and passionate about newcomers."

Through July 31. Open until 9 p.m. First Thursday. Admission is free. Idaho Historical Museum, 610 N. Julia Davis Dr., 208-334-2120, idahohistory.net.

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