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Kenyan Who Survived Nairobi U.S. Embassy Blast Makes His Mark
By Chris Herlinger, Church World Service Emergency Response Program
HARRISONBURG, Va. - When Douglas Sidialo heard the news of the Sept. 11 attacks, he felt angry and mournful - but also empathetic. "I felt an instant sense of identity," said the Kenyan. "I knew the Americans were our brothers."
That sentiment was not merely due to a sense of compassion or solidarity: Sidialo was himself blinded as the result of the Aug. 7, 1998, bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. The terrorist bombing there and at the U.S. embassy in Tanzania killed 231 people.
A former marketing executive for Yahama, Sidialo was running an errand to the bank when the bomb went off, which not only caused the causalities and injuries -- a companion driving with Sidialo was among those killed -- but also destroyed nearby buildings and damaged the embassy compound.
Sidialo, 32, has since become a leader of survivors of the Kenya disaster, so it was fitting that he should be a participant in the second trauma and recovery jointly sponsored by the Church World Service (CWS) Emergency Response Program and the Conflict Transformation Program of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU).
Church World Service is a ministry of the 36 member communions of the National Council of Churches. CWS supports emergency response, development and refugee assistance work in more than 80 countries, including the United States.
The Seminars on Trauma Awareness & Recovery (STAR) are being held at the EMU campus in Harrisonburg and build upon the work of CWS's Interfaith Trauma Response Trainings held in the New York City and Washington, D.C., areas since Sept. 11.
The focus of the two-year STAR training program is to equip religious leaders in New York, Washington and other cities with the tools needed to deal with the ongoing trauma caused by the events of Sept. 11. The STAR curriculum focuses on trauma and healing as well as an introduction to broad justice, security and peace-building issues.
In addition, the program has a strong international component, and Sidialos presence at the second training - held March 18-22, 2002 - was a potent and concrete reminder that the terror now known in the United States is an international experience, said Carolyn Yoder, who is coordinating the STAR program.
"His presence in the group was a powerful reminder that others have also suffered - and continue to suffer," Yoder said, noting that the Kenyan survivors of the embassy bombing have received little monetary compensation. The loss of Sidialos job has been a severe economic blow to his young family, she said.
Yet, she said, Sidialo "has an incredible attitude and spirit, taking his blindness as a challenge and working with other survivors, traveling alone internationally, speaking articulately about what happened to him."
But Sidialo does not just focus on his own experiences. In his public appearances, he makes clear that Americans and Kenyans have been "brought together by these events."
"Its up to us in other countries to show our solidarity (with the United States)," he says. A self-described "ecumenical" Roman Catholic, Sidialo said he felt something akin to a body blow on Sept. 11 and wanted to travel immediately to the United States. He was not able to immediately, though he and other embassy bombing survivors and family members organized an ecumenical memorial service in Nairobi that included participation by the Anglican, Baptist and Methodist churches.
Sidialo, who had visited the United States in 2000 during an earlier CWS- and EMU-sponsored program that brought together survivors of the Oklahoma City and Kenya embassy bombings in both Oklahoma City and Nairobi, was finally able to make the trip in March. After his arrival in the United States and prior to the STAR seminar, Sidialo laid a wreath at the Pentagon to honor the victims of the Sept. 11 disaster who were killed there.
Such gestures mean the world to Sidialo, a man who exudes both passion and tranquility - or as fellow STAR participant Sandy Carles, a lay United Methodist pastor in New York City, described him: someone with "a vibrant energy level, and loving presence."
"He is," Carles said, "a compassionate and insightful human being." While Sidialo and other Kenyan survivors and family members continue a long quest for some compensation from the United States government for their injuries and long-term recovery needs - they claim they were, in Sidialos words, "victims of circumstances" - Sidialo made clear that his love for the United States and its people is firm.
"I am just happy and honored to be with America right now." And so he was during his time at EMU: speaking with reporters, meeting with members of a local Harrisonburg church who had heard him speak the previous week and spreading his message that the survivors and grieving relatives of the Sept. 11 disaster, the embassy bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing must "come together as a family."
Why is that important? Sidialo said his trip to Oklahoma City two years ago was something of a turning point, recalling that the way he and other Kenyans were received by their American hosts gave him "much hope," in part because the sharing of experiences proved to be so crucial in their psychological recovery. Sidialo said reaching out to their American counterparts is necessary because it is important for survivors to feel they are not isolated in their anguish.
"If they feel alone, their trauma will never end," he said. For his own recovery, Sidialo said his religious faith has sustained him. Having accepted his blindness and the need to "move on," he has felt inspired to share his belief that violence is not the way to respond to the type of acts that robbed him of his sight.
"If we dont have advocates - champions - of peace, we should be prepared for doom," he said, calling war a short-term solution to seemingly intractable problems. "I never thought this would happen to me," Sidialo said of his experiences, "but in fact, they have transformed me."
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