The children swarmed around the bus, carrying Suzani Asmlash Grant and a handful of fellow passengers. The crowd cheered the bus onward with expectant faces and hands holding signs.
The children had scribbled their pleas onto white paper. With a simple word, one sign stood out: “Food.”
With $2,000 of her own money, Suzani bought rice, beans, medicine, diapers, and girls’ underwear, but as she scanned the tents, each housing 50–100 refugees, she realized it wouldn’t be enough. She visited the refugee camps’ two medical facilities – makeshift tents – comprising a dozen or so volunteers and doctors, doing what they can for 60,000-plus refugees.
Suzani sighed with resignation. The scene was all too familiar, paralleling her journey in the mid-’80s from Ethiopia to Sudan. She still remembers the sense of desperation, hunger, and hopelessness. When Suzani heard about the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, she had to see it for herself. How could history have repeated itself? And so soon?
She traveled for six hours with a few aid workers and U.S. journalists from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, to the Um Rakuba and Al Tanideba refugee camps in Gedaref. The state borders the western slopes of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. They traversed miles and miles of mud-flat, barren lands, with dust billowing around the moving vehicle.
“It’s the worst place to live on earth. It is a dry dust bowl; even the Sudanese won’t live here,” Suzani says. “They all live in the cities, where there is running water and food.”
But this is where displaced refugees – most of them women and children – have sought refuge from the fighting in Tigray. They will remain in the camps for not months but years. In addition to food and drinking water, the refugees lack basic needs, like sanitary napkins and underwear. ”
The children don’t have a school – they don’t have anything,” Suzani says,” and this isn’t a temporary situation.”
Suzani knows this well. In the ’80s, when civil war broke out in the Tigray region, she fled. She walked for weeks, traveling at night to avoid the military crossfire. She carried no belongings and nearly starved to death, but “after a week, you become numb to the gnawing,” she says.
But that doesn’t stop your body from becoming weak, wasting away. Gaunt faces. Eyes too big.
With the help of Catholic Charities, Suzani left behind the refugee camp for Amsterdam. She learned to be a cook, then later immigrated to Nevada and Texas. Today, she operates two successful Ethiopian restaurants, Lucy’s and the Horn of Africa, in southwest Houston.
“But once you’re a refugee, you’re always a refugee. You can never forget,” Suzani says. “It stays with you.”
In February, Suzani spent two weeks in Sudan, talking to refugees and aid workers and assessing the situation at the refugee camps. Upon returning to the U.S., she and her husband, Gary Grant, founded The Lives You Save through their Asmlash-Grant Foundation.
“Summer is coming,” Suzani says. “It will get hotter and harder for the refugees in Sudan.”