Professor and Carl Wilkens Fellow Lee Ann de Reus reflects on why she has become a leading advocate for ending genocide and crimes against humanity:
“People often ask me why I do this type of work and how I got started. I tell them there’s no short answer and that I’m not entirely sure I understand it myself! I have no single childhood trauma to offer as a compelling reason, or great religious conviction— but rather a strong feeling of moral obligation and sense of fairness that years of therapy might eventually connect to any number of personal insecurities or a fear of who knows what. What I do know is there’s a drive I can’t deny. This took me first to work for years in the Dominican Republic and Tanzania.
“It was a student who came to me about her interest in ‘doing something’ about the genocide in Darfur. I shared her passion and seized the opportunity to work with a like-minded soul. We organized our first event and managed to get ‘the’ John Prendergast to make an appearance! Unbelievably, his beloved Aunt Mary, who was a longtime activist herself, was my neighbor. As this issue of genocide became ever more real to me and the gravity began to sink in, so did my need to get involved. But to advocate with any authority, for me, meant having some direct experience and connection with the people and issues. I knew I was returning to Tanzania.
Could I possibly get to the Darfur refugee camps in Chad? I was already going to be on the continent, so . . . why not? I knew my decision would depend on John’s opinion. So I made certain it was I who drove him from the airport to our event venue. Little did he know how significant his words in the car would be. When I asked John if he thought I could pull off the trip, he said unequivocally, ‘Yes!’ It was the only endorsement I needed! That was April 1, 2007. By June 30, I was in a refugee camp in Chad with a Penn State student and a colleague.
“In other words, this is ALL John’s fault.
“Our travel to and from the Gaga refugee camp was actually against all odds. And at times I was worried I’d gotten my companions— Lorraine (a colleague) and Wendy (a returning adult student)—and me in over our heads. Despite our advanced planning, the unpredictability, instability, and chaos we encountered in Chad proved almost impossible to navigate. To travel within the country, we had to ‘hitch’ rides on eight-seater UN World Food program planes. The unpredictability of when we might fly and whether we’d have to split up added to the vulnerability we already felt. The night before we finally arrived at the camps, a guard for an NGO was shot and killed, raising the local security level and anxieties. Four UN vehicles had been hijacked in the previous weeks, requiring us to travel by convoy. On our ninety-minute drive to Gaga, we passed an unexploded bomb on the side of the road. The temperature was 130 degrees. Water cost $4.50 per bottle and tasted like gasoline as petroleum leached from the plastic. Getting cash was next to impossible and had to be exchanged on the black market. At one point we were banned from UN flights due to a misunderstanding. And while we had an interpreter for part of the trip, we knew little French and no Arabic. We all took a turn at being violently sick, and in the end, we missed our international flight home.
“But as we sat on mats with the women of Gaga, listening to their powerful stories, Lorraine, Wendy, and I knew, through our shared tearful glances, that it had all been worthwhile. Our frustrations and inconveniences were miniscule compared to what the women had experienced. What a privilege it was for us to connect with them emotionally for a brief moment. We all laughed at our absurd attempts to communicate via sign language, felt a shared delight as we bounced their babies on our laps, and enjoyed serving each other sweet tea. I have never been more profoundly humbled or moved.
“This was truly my Enough Moment. Through my connection with these survivors, I had tapped the very core of my meaning and realized a depth of purpose I’d known previously in only small, fleeting glimpses. But now, the self exposed and a mystery revealed, there was no turning back from the gift the women of Gaga gave me. My hope is that in some small way their gift is paid forward and a gift is returned with the telling of their stories.”
This profile and many others were compiled for The Enough Moment, a book by John Prendergast and Don Cheadle about engaged citizens – known and unknown, in the U.S. and abroad – who are mobilizing to help end genocide, rape, and the use of child soldiers in Africa. Visit the Enough Moment Wall to hear people describe their “Enough moment” and to upload a video, photo, or written testimonial of your own.