A day with Darfur activist Hawa Abdalah Mohammed Salih: When a source feels like a friend


I woke up last Tuesday, thinking I’d have a pretty low-key day, with some time to catch up on assignments and maybe go for a walk. I get very busy these days, so I was looking forward to a mental health day where I got to just relax and not have too much stimulus. Ah, but sometimes you just never know what’s going to happen, do you?

I was sipping my tea, and going through my email when I saw a message from my editor, sent out to several TC Daily Planet writers, saying that a human rights activist from Darfur named Hawa Abdalah Mohammed Salih, who just had recently received the 2012 International Women of Courage award from Hillary Rodham Clinton, was going to be in town and was available for an interview.

I should mention I was reading this around noon, and the email had been sent several hours before. On the one hand, I thought it would be an exciting opportunity to meet this woman. On the other hand, it would mean I would have to forgo the catching up work I had planned to do. I emailed Mary Turck and said I was interested, and to my surprise, none of the other writers were able to do it.

When I talked to Daniel Getahun, from the Minnesota International Center, about setting up the interview, he told me that Hawa’s schedule was very full, so the interview would only be able to take a few minutes. I thought that was disappointing — how much can you really get out of an interview that only lasts a few minutes? But at least I could take a nice photo and get a few quotes.

The first thing I did was check Wikipedia to get a crash course about Sudan and Darfur and the conflict in the region. The only reason I had ever heard of Darfur was because I knew that Nicholas Kristof had written about it, so I read some articles, and googled Hawa’s name, although I could only find short notices about the award she received.

I did go for a walk, and then met Daniel downtown in a hotel lobby. He’s a board member for TC Media Alliance, and thanked me for coming, saying that press releases went to all the major news sources, but TC Daily Planet was the only one to follow up with an interview. He told me a little bit more about about the U.S. State Department-sponsored International Visitor Leadership Program, which the Minnesota International Center facilitates locally. Basically, what happens is that emerging leaders are brought to the United States, and set up in meetings in different cities to learn about a variety of topics. In Minnesota, there are a number of young leaders who come to find out about issues surrounding refugee communities, for example. One aspect of the program that I thought was interesting was that part of the programs is to make sure that the leaders have a good experience, so that as they go on to become leaders in their home country, they will think fondly of their experience in the United States.

When Hawa and her translator arrived, she wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Actually, I’m not sure what I was expecting- perhaps a stoic-looking figure, hardened by trauma. What I found was a very sweet, diminutive woman who gave me a huge hug as soon as I met her. At 28, she looks much younger, and smiles all the time.

We spoke for nearly an hour — you can read all about it in the article I published this week. For most of the interview, the translator was not there. She had gone to her room to put the suitcase they had bought that day away and do some housekeeping things. Hawa’s English was very good, although sometimes I couldn’t quite understand her. It was a relief when the translator came back- and Hawa seemed relieved to speak freely without the concentration required to speak in English.

It was all so fascinating and unbelievable to me — all the horrible things that happened to this woman, and how strong she was, and how brave, and also, how she exuded an aura of peaceful happiness.

At around seven, Hawa said she had to meet this other woman from Sudan and her family for dinner. She explained that Sara Mansour Ali, a Sudanese feminist author who, like Hawa, has been arrested and tortured, is temporarily living in Burnsville with her husband and family. By coincidence, Sara recognized Hawa at the Mall of America from seeing her on television.

On hearing that Hawa had to go, I thanked her and the translator profusely for taking the time. “I feel like I could talk to you for another several hours!” I said.

Hawa said she wanted me to meet Sara, who was just around the corner in a different lobby. Sara wanted to take Hawa to her favorite restaurant- a place called Marina, in Fridley.

Hawa turned to me: “Will you come?”

I was a little taken aback. This was not in the plan! On the one hand, it was exciting, and I thought it would be wonderful to talk to both of them more. But also it was scary to go all the way to Fridley with people I didn’t know in their car (as I had ridden my bike). In the end, I realized it was a situation that only comes around once, and I decided to go with them.

Marina is a cute little restaurant that serves buffet style. We loaded up our plates, and Sara and Hawa began chattering away in their own language. However, every once in a while, they would remember to switch to English, and would tell me more about their experiences. Sara showed me the scars on her arms where she was tortured. Hawa told me more about what she plans to do going forward.

At one point I asked Hawa if she ever thought about having kids herself, or getting married. I realized as soon as I asked it that it was an inappropriate question to ask someone who has gone through what she has. But she wasn’t taken aback. She responded simply that sometimes she doesn’t think of herself as a human being, let alone a woman. She isn’t concerned about her own happiness, she said. All she cares about is making the lives better for the people that live in her country. It’s hard for me to comprehend a statement like that. This is what altruism looks like, I thought.

She’s one of the most open, kind-hearted people I’ve ever met. I was sad to go home that night, knowing I would probably never see her again.

I don’t think journalists are supposed to feel that way about their interview subjects. By the end of the evening, I felt she was my friend. But how can you care about someone you’ve only just met? But that’s just what happened. Hawa is a special person, and I’m so glad I got the chance to meet her.