Fierce Arab militiamen kidnapped Francis Bok when he was 7 from a town near his home in southern Sudan. The day had started brightly, with the young boy excited to head to the market by himself for the first time. As he sat selling goods from his family's farm, Francis was suddenly alarmed by gunshots and smoke. "I looked behind me and I saw horsemen, camelsmen, and others on foot. They were carrying machine guns and started shooting at people in the market," he recounted in a radio interview last year. "One of the horsemen came over to me, and I stood up and tried to run away... He grabbed my hand and dragged me away."
The armed men carried Francis and hundreds of other women and children to an Arab town in northern Sudan to be slaves. "Most people in the United States think that slavery ended 200 years ago in 1865," says Francis, now a 25-year-old free man, in a recent magazine article. "If you think slavery ended, think again. It's still alive today."
For ten years, Francis was enslaved in Sudan, an African country just south of Egypt- where the Israelites were slaves 3,400 years ago. As Jews, we understand firsthand the inhumanity of slavery and hold the value of freedom high. Each Pesach, we relive our Exodus from slavery as we gather around the Seder table.
Our emergence from Egyptian slavery has inspired others in their freedom quest, including Francis. "Moses prayed to God: 'Let my people go!'- and the waves withdrew," says Francis. "But for my people, the sea has not yet opened." Although Francis made his way to freedom in 1996, about 100,000 Sudanese are still enslaved.
The Road to Liberty
Even eight years after reaching freedom, the misery of slavery is etched in Francis' mind. He recalls with horror how his master's children beat him with sticks and taunted him, shouting abeed, Arabic for "black person" and "slave." Abeed has the same root as the Hebrew word eved (slave).
Francis spent his days herding sheep, cattle, and goats. At night, he ate rotten meat for dinner, and slept near the animals. "This dirty place... made me miss my family even more," he recounts in his book, Escape from Slavery. Like the Jews in Egypt, Francis felt like a stranger in a strange land. No one spoke his language. "Even if I had something to laugh about, I had no one to laugh with," he recalls.
After ten years, Francis finally escaped, reaching freedom in the Sudanese town of Jaborona. The town was "crowded and dirty and noisy," says Francis, but the sight of freedom made it "the most beautiful place in the world."
Today, Francis travels around the country speaking about slavery to audiences, including middle school students at the Milken Community High School of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles. Every two years, the school conducts a two-week program leading to Pesach called Dream Freedom.
Through Dream Freedom, Milken's middle school students become abolitionists. They make bracelets with the names of enslaved people, compose readings about freedom, and debate whether slaves should be bought from their masters and freed.
The practice of buying the freedom of slaves is controversial. Opponents argue that buying freedom simply encourages raiders to capture more slaves. On the other hand, advocates counter that the suffering of individual slaves must end now. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides said that redeeming captives is one of the most important things a Jew can do, points out Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group.
"We've helped redeem 10,000 slaves," says Jacobs. "Redeeming slaves is not the solution to ending slave trade, but for thousands of individuals, it's the solution to their freedom." However, the practice is currently on hold while peace talks occur between northern and southern Sudanese.
Jacobs, who is Jewish, traveled to Sudan during Pesach 2001 to attend a ceremony where 3,000 slaves were freed. "We were 800 miles from where the Jews were enslaved by the pharaohs," he recounts. As he watched the freed Sudanese dance with joy, "I thought of my own Exodus as a Jew."
Jacobs applauds Milken's students for raising awareness about modern-day slavery. "It is simply stunning that the media mostly ignores atrocities of this magnitude committed by Sudan's Islamic regime," says Jacobs. "Instead it casts a critical eye on other things, such as Israel's defensive actions."
The Milken middle-schoolers raised almost $15,000- enough to buy freedom for about 40 slaves at $36 each. Danielle Sheldon, now a tenth-grader at the school, recalls how hearing Francis speak about slavery stirred thoughts of the Exodus and the Holocaust. "Being a Jew and knowing history, it hits all the more hard," says Danielle.
This year, when Danielle sits at her Seder table and sings "Avadim Hayinu" (we were slaves), the joy for her own freedom will be tempered by her thoughts of the thousands enslaved in Sudan. "In the Jewish tradition," she says, "we are taught that no one is free unless all are free."
There are 27 million slaves throughout the world. Here’s what you can do to help free these captives.
- Donate money to abolitionist organizations like the American Anti-Slavery Group.
- Discuss modern-day slavery at your Seder. Babaganewz.com has a special reading some families recite to remind themselves that slavery still exists.
- Read the novel Dream Freedom by Sonia Levitin about slavery in Sudan. The book inspired Milken Community High School’s Dream Freedom program.
- Contact the American Anti-Slavery Group and arrange to have an abolitionist or former slave speak at your school.