Human rights activist Hawa Salih of Darfur has found a new home in Philadelphia with Rabbi Mordechai Liebling and his wife.
Sitting on the porch of a Mount Airy home during a pleasant summer twilight, human rights activist Hawa Salih recounts fragments of her complicated story as a survivor of the Sudanese genocidal campaign in the Darfur region.
Speaking of the final time she was arrested by authorities for calling attention to the plight of women and children in refugee camps, Salih says, matter of factly, that she was “sentenced by the government of Sudan to death. So this is really very serious.”
A few seconds pass by, as Salih’s Philadelphia hosts, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling and his wife, Lynne Iser, with whom she has been living since April, appear to be pondering how to respond to this obvious understatement.
Finally, Liebling, no longer able to stop himself, laughs. “I’d say it’s pretty serious.”
Salih, who doesn’t know her exact birthday and says she’s either 30 or 31, also laughs, as she often does, despite some of the grim events she describes. Those who know her say she’s an upbeat person who, while trying to call attention to ongoing atrocities in her homeland, is looking forward, not back.
She has come to refer to Liebling and Iser as her family, even though her parents and 12 siblings are still alive in Sudan. She has only sporadic and mostly indirect contact with them, because she is worried a direct letter, phone call or email could endanger their safety.
She has come to know the couple’s five adult children, particularly Lior, the now 22-year-old who was the subject of the 2008 documentary Praying With Lior, about dealing with special needs and becoming a Bar Mitzvah. (Lior’s mother — Liebling’s first wife, Rabbi Devora Bartnoff — died of cancer in 1997.)
A Muslim, Salih has helped prepare Shabbat dinners, and has attended services at Mishkan Shalom in Roxborough. She is also planning to fast and go with family members to synagogue on Yom Kippur.
“She’s an easy person to live with,” said Iser, who specializes in what she calls elder activism.“We have enjoyed some of her cooking and she has enjoyed some of ours.”
The relationship Salih has with her “adopted” family is one of a number of examples of area Jews helping refugees and other immigrants. As the son of Holocaust survivors, Liebling, 64, said he’s particularly sensitive to the plight of genocide victims.
Salih spends much of her time calling attention — with speeches and by keeping tabs on other refugees and developments at home — to government-sponsored violence in Darfur, which she and other experts say is the worst it’s been since the mid-2000s, when the issue made headlines and galvanized many Jewish organizations.
“I want the Jewish community to mobilize again on the issue of Darfur. The genocide is still happening. There is no peace,” said Salih. “The people are saying never again and never again. It is still again and again.”
Events on the ground in Darfur are murky and have received little news coverage in recent years. But activists say the last year has seen stepped-up intertribal violence that has resulted in civilian displacement and deaths. This has come as Sudan has faced increasing diplomatic isolation and continues to have tense relations with South Sudan, which became an independent state in 2011.
Liebling, who heads the social justice program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, added, “The Jewish community five years ago was very out front and active about what was going on. And it needs to happen again.”
In 2003, Salih and her family fled their home village. The college graduate spent most of her young adulthood at the Abu Shouk refugee camp in her homeland, where she emerged as a human rights advocate — in particular calling attention to the widespread sexual assaults against women.
Because of her activism, she says, she was kidnapped twice, arrested by the government three times and assaulted and tortured while in prison. Activists called attention to her plight and, in 2011, she was released under international pressure. Feeling she could no longer safely carry on in Sudan, she fled to Egypt.
“I never decided to be in my position,” she said, referring to her flight from Sudan. “I was never expecting one day I will leave my country.”
Then she learned she’d been named one of 10 winners of the International Women of Courage Award by U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. She was flown to Washington, D.C., for the March 5, 2012 ceremony and appeared onstage with Clinton — who lauded her courage — and First Lady Michelle Obama.
As Obama held her arm around Salih during the ceremony, Clinton said, “Thank you for giving voice to the women and children of Darfur and for your fearless advocacy for the rights of all marginalized Darfuris.”
Once on American soil, Salih immediately applied for asylum. It was granted nearly a year later: The Philadelphia law firm Ballard Spahr handled her case pro bono.
Asylum status, her lawyers told her, made her eligible for a short-term federal matching grant program administered by HIAS Pennsylvania and that she could receive other refugee support services from the group.
But she was living in New Jersey and needed a Philadelphia address to make it all work.
Judi Bernstein-Baker, HIAS’s executive director, sent out a targeted email looking for someone who would be willing to host a refugee for an indefinite period, and the Lieblings were the first to answer the call.
Liebling already had a particular interest in Darfur. Eight years ago, in a different capacity, he was the only rabbi invited to take part in an interfaith delegation to meet with Sudanese officials, including Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, to press for an end to the violence. The group also visited a refugee camp.
Of that experience, Liebling said, “Governments have an amazing ability to lie, and the elite of any society is in deep denial about the crimes their country is committing.”
It’s not clear how long Salih will stay in Mount Airy or what her next steps will be. She said she hopes to find a way to earn a master’s degree and continue her activism — though her federal grants are set to expire at the end of the month.
“It is really hard sometimes. I miss home. I miss family. I miss friends,” she said. Still, she’s “excited and appreciative” for these few months that she’s been granted thanks to Liebling and Iser’s generosity.
Though she hopes soon to have the resources to live on her own, she said, “surely, I will come to visit again and get some dinner with them.”