New York, NY - As the world stands aghast watching the genocide unfold in Darfur, one determined woman will be awarded the 2008 Charles Bronfman Prize for her visionary humanitarian efforts to improve the lives of thousands of Darfur’s female survivors.
The prize celebrates the vision and talent of an individual or team under 50 years of age, whose humanitarian work has contributed significantly to the betterment of the world. Its goal is to bring public recognition to young, dynamic individuals whose Jewish values infuse their humanitarian accomplishments and provide inspiration to the next generations. It is accompanied by a $100,000 award.
Rachel Andres, 45, will receive the award in New York on May 6. Andres led the team that launched the Solar Cooker Project (SCP) of Jewish World Watch to help the women who escaped the genocide and fled to refugee camps, only to find themselves victims of rape and attack when they went in search of firewood in the vast emptiness of the African desert.
Since the launch of the project less than two years ago, the risk of violence was dramatically reduced for almost 5,000 families, and their lives were transformed by the introduction of simple solar cooking equipment.
Seventeen thousand refugees, 80% of whom are widows and children, live in the Iridimi Refugee Camp along Chad’s border with Sudan. Because firewood is scarce, women had to walk miles to collect wood for their families’ traditional three-stone cooking fires.
Andres and an evaluation team including colleagues from Jewish World Watch, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Solar Cookers International, Chad government Ministries of Environment and Refugees, Tchad Solaire and CARE International traveled to the camps in October 2007 to measure the success of the Project’s first phase.
They found an astonishing 86% reduction in the number of journeys away from the safety of the camp since the Solar Cooker Project was launched, significantly diminishing the risk of rape and attack on those sent to forage for wood. Subsequently, Andres and her colleagues were invited to Geneva to present to The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children of the International Rescue Committee, and the UNHCR Deputy High Commissioner. The meetings were turning points as the influential stakeholders heard of the successful model and are now considering their participation.
Refugee women report that the project has improved their health and community by minimizing the time spent over the fire; it has helped preserve the delicate environmental balance aimed at slowing the deforestation and desertification which was taking place when firewood was used as the only fuel source for cooking food; built a manufacturing base within the camps; taught women and girls over the age of 14 new skills; and developed an economic strategy enabling refugees to become income earners for their families. These are critical issues in a country that has no trash collection, no paved roads and some predict will have no trees within two years.
'A step towards peace in the region'
Informed by the Jewish values that lead her to a life of advocacy on behalf of others, inspired by a deep sense of compassion, and motivated by the lessons learned from her grandmother - who lost her entire family in the Holocaust - Andres commented on the universal lessons learned from Jewish values that have infused her life and on why she persisted with the project, even in the face of initial rejection from international relief organizations.
“We can’t be so insular that we don’t see the problems of others, especially those who don’t have powerful voices to stand up for them,” said Andres. “Just as I promised my grandmother I would bear witness and tell our family’s story, I promised the women of Iridimi that we would bear witness to the stories of the 4,669 families in their camp. Nobody was there to save my family, but I hope to play a role in protecting these families.”
Andres continued to say that “my vision is that within two to three years, we will have solar cooker projects functioning in all 12 refugee camps in Chad and through that, empower the women of Darfur and help them recover from the atrocities they have endured.”
Commenting on being named recipient of the Prize, Andres said, “Launching the Solar Cooker Project and traveling to Chad to evaluate the project and bear witness to the genocide have been life changing for me. To be recognized for my work is wonderful, yet I am even more pleased that the plight of the people of Darfur, the refugees, and Jewish World Watch will receive more attention. I can only hope this prestigious award will help bring more security to the women and girls and perhaps be a step towards peace in the region."
“To work towards realizing the goal of Never Again, we must first recognize that the adage does not apply only to Jewish genocide; then, we must take steps to ensure that no group of people ever be isolated, marginalized, and targeted for extinction without people of conscience rising up in passionate protest,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis.
'Rachel has created a movement'
Schulweis, along with Janice Kamenir-Reznik, nominated Andres for the Prize and founded Jewish World Watch to combat genocide and other egregious violations of human rights around the world through education, advocacy, and refugee relief. “Rachel took these ideals and ran with them in a manner which has brought tremendous benefits both to the Jewish community and to the women in the refugee camps.”
Pursuing the Jewish maxim, do not stand idly by in the face of the suffering of others, Andres, who lives in Los Angeles, searched for an international solar cooker organization working on behalf of Darfuri refugees until she eventually made contact with Solar Cookers International and Dr. Derk Rijks of KoZon, a small Dutch organization which agreed to collaborate with JWW.
With a partner to execute the project on the ground, Andres and her team at JWW raised over one million dollars, largely in increments of $30, enough to provide each family with two solar cookers, through countless grassroots fundraising efforts.
The Solar Cooker Project has inspired Bar and Bat Mitzvah teens, Girl Scout troops, school and university social action groups, and synagogues and churches throughout North America, to take this on as their own,” said Andres.
In this year that marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the fifth year of the genocide in Darfur, Prize Founders were moved by Andres’ principled leadership and breadth of effort to build a successful coalition to address global issues of human rights, economic development and the environment.
“It is fitting that we recognize a person whose leadership has stimulated national and international communities to realize these objectives and address the dire circumstances of the refugees,” said the Prize Founders.
Charles Bronfman commented on the judges’ selection of Andres: “Rachel has created a movement, and inspired young people to help women tens of thousands of miles away; women whose names will never be known to them. This is the highest form of the Jewish concept of tzedakah – social justice.”
Praising the impact of the project on future endeavors, James Wolfensohn, chair of the selection committee and former President of the World Bank, said: “The Solar Cooker Project is a fine example of how a good, simple idea can have an important impact on the lives of people living in harsh conditions in Africa and beyond. Our hope is that this project will influence others to collaborate in the development of initiatives which, in accordance with Jewish tradition, will lead to better lives for those in need.”
The thread woven throughout Rachel’s personal life and professional career is that of uplifting others, especially the neediest, so that each individual may live to their fullest,” said Dan Meridor, a Prize judge who served as Israel’s Minister of Justice and Minister of Finance. “Caring for others is among the highest of Jewish ideals and Rachel’s work embodies that fully.”
Rachel Andres is the fourth recipient and the first woman to receive the prize.