Creating Peace Amid Conflict

Sankar Raman
Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

Djimet Dogo will never forget seeing the boy, no more than 8 years old, who had been whipped by a soldier until he was bleeding from the chest. The boy and his family had come from a nearby village to a food distribution site during a severe drought in northern Chad, where Dogo lived. Fifty years later, that image from his childhood continues to spur Dogo’s advocacy for nonviolence.

Dogo was born in Massenya, Chad in July 1966 and grew up with his father and stepmother. Though his parents were originally from the Christian south, they were a Muslim household. Because his father was a military officer, the family moved frequently throughout northern Chad.

Dogo used to ride his pet donkey the three miles to his school out in the desert. He and his classmates would arrive early in the morning to dig their desks out from the mountains of sand that blew in during the night.

When Dogo was 12, during the civil war in Chad, his father was thrown in jail by rebels, and Dogo was imprisoned along with him. It was not until two years later that Dogo was released with the assistance of the Red Cross and reunited with his biological mother in southern Chad.

Dogo had not seen his mother since his parents separated when he was 2 years old. When they reunited, she started crying; she thought that Dogo and his father were killed and had held funerals for them both.

“And then here I am,” Dogo says, “coming like a ghost.”

That would not be the last time Dogo was considered dead.

After graduating from high school, Dogo could not forget the image of the boy being whipped while in line for food, and he knew he had to do something about this kind of injustice. In 1991, he was in the Chadian capital city, N’Djamena, waiting for the University of Chad to start in the midst of a government coup and teacher strike. Dogo and a few of his peers took the opportunity to found the organization Chad Nonviolence. The only libraries available to them were at the French and American embassies, where they found resources about Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez. Since most of the books about nonviolent methods were written in English, Dogo decided to earn a bachelor’s degree in English.

Dogo’s commitment to nonviolence was not easy. Everyone had expected him to become a military officer like his father. 

“Many of my friends, including my family members, they think that I am a coward, a weak person,” Dogo says.

But the picture of the whipped and bleeding child had stuck in Dogo’s head, and he was determined to be an advocate for nonviolence. Nonviolence is not at all about being weak, Dogo says.

“Nonviolence is somebody that is stronger than the violent person,” he says.

With his connections, and as the only English-speaking member of Chad Nonviolence, Dogo began receiving international invitations to study — and later teach — nonviolence. He attended European Peace University and human rights institutes in Austria and France, traveling to Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungary too. In between his trips abroad, Dogo married a woman from his neighborhood in N’Djamena, and they had two daughters together.

In 1998, the American embassy sent Dogo to Johannesburg, South Africa, for a meeting of the Coalition for Peace in Africa, which included other activists like Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela. 

 After the Chadian government authorized extrajudicial executions for those suspected of crimes such as theft, Dogo documented the execution of nine people who were falsely accused of stealing a cow. He took pictures of the incident and, along with other Chadian activists, traveled to the European Parliament to present the case of human rights abuse.

Soon after Dogo’s return to Chad, the Chadian secret service broke into his office and killed his assistant. They took the body to the morgue, thinking they had killed Dogo himself. 

That was the second time Dogo was presumed dead.

With his life in danger, Dogo needed protection. U.S. Embassy officials agreed to send him to study conflict resolution at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Once there, he could apply for asylum.

Dogo arrived at the airport without any luggage, carrying only a copy of the Chadian Constitution and a government newspaper. But he had taped the film he took of the nine wrongfully executed Chadians between the Constitution and the newspaper. In this way he was able to smuggle the film past security.

“Even when I entered the plane,” Dogo recalls, “I was not yet sure that I’m leaving, because so many people have disappeared after they walked to the tarmac.”

The fear stayed with him as he transferred planes in Paris and only dissipated once he landed in Washington, D.C.

Shortly after his arrival, Dogo relocated to the West Coast and moved in with a cousin living in Portland, Oregon. He was joined by his wife and daughters in 2001.

After receiving asylum, he began working as a case manager for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) and tried repeatedly to organize Portland’s African community. But conflict among the different groups of African immigrants made this task difficult.

“People come from across the continent of Africa,” Dogo explains. “The same people fighting one another there were brought here by the system, expecting that … they’re going to get along. It doesn’t work this way.”

Eventually, Dogo decided to focus on newcomers, who were younger and more willing to change. With a new vision in sight, he created an advisory board and established Africa House under IRCO in October 2006. With Dogo’s background in peace building, he knew it was possible.

“We have to let people express themselves, express their anger … ask for forgiveness, and move forward,” he explains.

Today, Dogo serves as the executive director of Africa House, which reaches thousands of community members each year. More than 50 employees work at the organization, most of them young adults under the age of 30.

“I focus more on the youth,” Dogo says. “They don’t see the division of clan or tribe or region.”

Recently, Dogo and his children went out to eat in celebration of his daughter’s graduation, and Dogo says another customer, a white man, kept staring at them before coming over and saying, “The only thing I like about Black people is their [white] teeth when they smile.” 

Before the aggressor could leave, several white, teenaged employees blocked his exit and threatened not to serve him anymore.

“I was so happy that they … don’t tolerate this kind of behavior,” Dogo says.

He considers the incident further proof that youth will help instigate change. “Because of this kind of thing,” he says, “I have big hope, hope that the youth see things completely differently. They want to live together in peace and harmony.”