When Harvard law student Jesse Gabriel organized a "Dinner for Darfur" fundraiser in April, he was amazed that 17 student groups got together and raised $16,000 in one night.
When nurse Harriet Lavin showed footage of Darfur at a song-and-prayer evening in Kenosha, Wis., she was struck by the "instant generosity" of 70 rural residents who opened their pocketbooks to the tune of $2,500 for a cause they hadn't known anything about.
And when Los Angeles 11th-grader Shelby Layne raised $15,000 from three jewelry sales to help Darfur refugees, it "was successful beyond my wildest dreams," she says.
The three activists are among thousands nationwide who have raised money for a project that addresses the rape, mutilation, and murder of Darfuri women – now among at least 2 million Sudanese displaced by the conflict. The aim: Supply families with solar cookers and teach women in refugee camps new cooking skills so they don't have to burn wood.
This reduces the need for women to hunt for firewood outside the camps, where the risk of attack and rape is greater.
A recent report by the humanitarian group Refugees International identified rape as a weapon of systematic ethnic cleansing being used by Sudanese government-backed janjaweed militiamen. "The raping of Darfuri women is not sporadic or random, but is inexorably linked to the systematic destruction of their communities," the report says.
More cookers being distributed
Some 200,000 women and children live in refugee camps across the border from Sudan. More than 6,000 cookers have been distributed in the Iridimi refugee camp, a that has almost no vegetation but sunshine 330 days a year. Another 10,000 are expected to be supplied in the Touloum camp nearby over the next year.
"The fact that the use of these cookers has grown so fast in Iridimi is a testament to the need for safety," says Rachel Andres, director of the solar cooker project for Jewish World Watch (JWW), a nonprofit coalition of synagogues in southern California, which is a cosponsor of the project.
Two solar cookers can save a ton of wood per year, according to JWW. They free women from tending fires to do other tasks, and provide income for female refugees because the cookers are manufactured on-site. Envision foil-covered cardboard (about four feet by two feet) folded upward to direct sun's rays on a black pot, placed in the center, and covered in a plastic bag. Millet, rice, eggs, and other ingredients are put in the pot, surrounded by the water-moistened plastic bag that provides softening condensation.
Why project is unique
The solar cooker project is unique in the annals of global aid efforts, say international aid experts and individual fundraisers.
For one thing, the United States and humanitarian groups have declared the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan a genocide. More than 350,000 people have died. Second, the Sudanese government puts restrictions on humanitarian aid workers, making grass-roots groups and private donations, especially to those in refugee camps, more important.
"The Sudanese government is allowing the conditions in the camps to be one of their main mechanisms of genocide," says Adam Sterling, executive director of the Sudan Divestment Task Force. "It is the type of grass-roots efforts like the solar cooker project supported by private donations that is sustaining [the refugees]."
The idea originated with Rabbi Harold Schulweis and activist/attorney Janice Kamenir-Reznick, who formed Jewish World Watch in 2004.
Since then, the organization has reached out to major churches and universities across the US, and says it seeks to "combat genocide" through community education and activism. So far, $750,000 has been raised in individual contributions of $30 – the cost of two solar cookers, training, and two pot holders, which support one family.
"In my 50 years as a rabbi, I have never seen an idea or project or program ignite so broadly or contagiously," says Mr. Schulweis. "This has been a moving experience for Jews by uniting different congregations who usually have their own separate projects … as well as for reaching out to other religions. It is an issue that has proven to transcend denominationalism."
After the JWW identified Darfur as a genocide, it began to support a small pilot project there led by KoZon, a Dutch organization that provides women in developing countries with inexpensive cooking techniques using the sun.
"The women were apprehensive at first, and couldn't believe you could really cook with the sun," says Ms. Andres. When JWW began to help the project, KoZon was testing the cookers with about 350 families. (A typical family consists of one woman as head of the household, two or three of her own children and one or two orphans, she says. Only 1 in 5 households has an adult male.)
"They tried the food, realized it tasted good, and that you didn't have to stand over a fire for hours," Andres says. The staples of such camps are millet, rice, and bean rations that are trucked in from long distances – and have to be cooked.
Fundraising efforts take off
Once the solar cooker project proved to be feasible, fundraising efforts spread to purchase the cookers, build manufacturing facilities on-site in neighboring Chad, and teach women to assemble them.
Shelby, the 11th-grader, heard about the solar cooker project from her father, and sold jewelry she made by hand or collected from friends and relatives. "The response by people is an immediate and solemn recognition about the horrors of racial strife and ethnic cleansing going on right now, in their own world," she says.
Shelby was motivated to raise money because she thought she could have an impact – even with a small donation. She now gives talks to school, civic, and church groups on the Darfur crisis.
"I thought if I just raised $100 and purchased three solar cookers, then that would really make a big difference for somebody," Shelby says. "People love the idea that no matter what age they are, how much money they have, that their small contribution will honestly make a difference to someone."