When we first caught up with the South Sudanese refugees in Uganda in 2014, we could not imagine a more traumatized and devastated people. Men, women, and children had all suffered trauma that was hard to hear or even imagine. Every story we heard was more horrifying than the previous. So our 2014 trip was spent mostly listening to their stories, helping them cope with the continuing effects of the trauma, and letting them know that we truly cared and would walk with them into whatever the future might bring. While the trauma continued for many, suicide was drastically reduced after the trip.
When we went back in 2015 and again in 2016, there was a new energy among the people. They were working together to build a community out of what had been just a camp made up of individual tukuls built by the UN. The women who had been trained by the SSLCD nurses were again caring for women in pregnancy and assisting at births. Schools were built and everyone was working together to build a church, using mostly scrap materials since there was no outside assistance in this effort. SSLCD provided a solar collector and charging system so that electricity was available for the church and to charge cell phones. Even as they celebrated these considerable accomplishments, their hearts and ours were heavy as we saw the huge number of orphans and disabled adults who had no one to care for them. Our hearts were heavy as we realized we had no viable answer to this overwhelming need.
We did not realize it at the time, but what seemed like an insurmountable problem gave birth to a huge step forward that is shaping all our future plans with the refugees. Rather than developing a “plan” based on our experience and culture, we waited to see what the refugees themselves would develop. Their solution was to begin with the energy and creativity of their own people by forming them into coops focused on their immediate needs for better food and nutrition that could also produce cash income to meet other needs such as school fees for children. And then they decided to develop specialized coops for families that would care for orphans and the disabled, giving them access to garden plots on which to grow additional food for the household.
SSLCD chipped in with cash to rent the land and purchase seeds and tools. This year we also donated money to set up chicken-raising coops to further expand food production and to raise cash from selling eggs.
The lesson we have learned is quite simple, yet profound. Listen more, speak less, don’t offer “solutions”, but provide encouragement and suggestions, and resources that are not otherwise available. This will be our guiding principle in the future. And must also guide efforts to rebuild the nation of South Sudan.
Denise and John spent two weeks in the Olua and Mungula Settlements of South Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda from January 18 thru February 1, 2018. The purpose of our trip was to assist the refugees in healing from their past and continuing trauma as well as to impart new skills and information to assist in developing their communities within their current refugee situation and to prepare for eventual return to South Sudan. We also did additional planning and training with our two SSLCD staff organizers who are also refugees living in these camps. This trip was both inspiring and heartbreaking. First the inspiration. Despite the incredible and on-going suffering of nearly everyone in the settlements (more about that later), the refugees have made impressive progress in building community and organizing to meet their own needs. They have a huge problem caring for the large and growing number of orphan children, whose parents have been killed or are simply missing. In fact, more war orphans show up each day.
One such child was Emmanuel. He is twelve years old. We met him in the Kampala bus station while we were waiting for our bus to Adjumani. He had lost contact with his parents during the fighting in South Sudan. He does not know what happened to them. He traveled with no money or clothing in various convoys of refugees from South Sudan and eventually made his way to Kampala. There he lived on the streets, assisted by various strangers for over a month before we met him. We arranged for him to join us on the bus to Adjumani, since he had relatives living in a settlement in the area. Tragically, Emmanuel’s story is one of thousands, many children as young as 6, making similar journeys alone. When they show up in the settlements, they are always welcomed and integrated into the community, even when they have no relatives living there. But the burden of caring for these children, in addition to adults who are crippled, blind, or suffering from dementia, is huge and growing.
When we first heard these stories, we struggled to think of a way to help meet such enormous needs. But we quickly learned that the leaders we have been working with already had developed a plan. They had recruited members of the community who were willing to provide care for these needy individuals, in spite of the fact that there would be no monetary payment or even extra food allotments. They were formed into self-help groups who could work together in various ways to support themselves. Some became part of the soap making project and are making soap with materials we have provided, and selling that soap in the market. Others are part of the savings and loan association initiated and supported by SSLSCD, through which they receive small loans to start various businesses. We were excited to be able to commit to support expansion of these existing efforts and to start a new project raising chickens and selling the eggs in the market.
We also learned of on-going and additional needs regarding maternal and child health. The women who had previously been trained as maternal/child health educators by the SSLCD team from the University of Michigan School of nursing have accomplished a great deal teaching women ways of improving their birth outcomes and getting to the health centers in time for delivery. But we also learned that many of the women who give birth in the health centers are having C-sections, some of which may not be necessary. In response, our nurse-midwife team is planning to do additional training to help pregnant women avoid a C-section. They will also be expanding their training to the entire community, including men, about ways the community needs to work together to help women and young children thrive.
One of the major factors affecting birth outcomes is the health and nutritional status of pregnant women. Many are severely malnourished resulting from inadequate food provided by the UN as well as very limited yield from community gardens in 2017 due to spotty rains and a late-season infestation of army worms. Again, community leaders came up with a creative solution. Every pregnant woman will be part of a gardening cooperative. Each coop will be given access to a garden plot, tools, and nutritious vegetable seeds, all provided by SSLCD. Supplementing the grains provided by the UN with these vegetables will greatly improve the health of the pregnant women and thus their birth outcomes and ability to breast feed.
SSLCD will also be expanding community and leadership development efforts in coming months. The first step will be a very extensive needs assessment process which will involve many meetings with the residents of smaller communities within each settlement to hear about their needs and concerns and also to identify new potential leaders. The outcome of the this process will be a very detailed list of needs as well as new leaders who will be trained to help develop and implement new and expanded projects to meet these needs.
As mentioned earlier, the trip was also heartbreaking. In last year’s work, we heard horrific stories of what happened to the refugees before they left South Sudan. The training we did at that time made a big difference. People who had been deep into trauma and almost unable to function, often considering suicide, were in many cases now working actively as part of the community. This year we heard from many people who are suffering new trauma as a result of terrible events occurring back in South Sudan. In the most recent event, over 40 people were killed and many more injured or abducted in a raid on a village in Duc County, from which many residents of the refugee settlements have come. We heard horrific accounts of relatives killed, maimed, or simply missing resulting from this attack.
Our response was again doing trauma healing and helping leaders make plans to support these victims in the future.
In addition to what has been accomplished with the various projects, we are very excited about the level of competence of our organizers, Jacob Ajak and Simon Mark. They are providing incredible vision and hope to even the most traumatized refugees, and have helped them develop new and creative solutions to the most intractable challenges. In addition, we have the prospect of adding Daniel Kuir to this staff when he finishes his studies in October. Together this team will make exciting new developments possible. They will also be able to function for the most part without much hands-on assistance or direction, lessening the necessity of Denise and I spending two weeks in the settlements each year. We may be able to reduce the frequency and duration of these trips, thus freeing up funds for the work in the communities.
The disaster in Houston has become very personal for my wife and me. Our daughter, Mary, and her son had moved to Houston in early August and were not yet settled when Hurricane Harvey struck. Suddenly we found ourselves worried each day whether they would be safe, would they have a place to live, food, water? All the things we take for granted were suddenly very much in question. Of course, we immediately sent money and supplies. Even as we focused on our daughter and her immediate needs we were again reminded of the on-going desperate situation faced by the refugees in South Sudan. We remembered that they are facing the future with so little hope that they often contemplate or attempt suicide. As bad as the situation is for those affected by the hurricane, the vast majority know that assistance will come eventually and they will rebuild their lives. For the refugees any hope for return to their former lives is at best very far off. For many this is their second or even third time being forced to flee from their homes. Some cannot remember any other life.
Our hearts are broken for all who suffer, in Houston no less than in South Sudan. But our ability to respond is obviously limited. All we can do is respond as our hearts lead us. Right now, we need to focus on our daughter. We have already helped her through the worst of the crisis. Today she returns to her new job. It will still be a challenge to get through flooded streets, and to find school and child care for her young son. But she will be soon be fine. And then we will again turn back to the needs of the South Sudanese. This is a dilemma for all who care about the suffering of others. We know we cannot meet all the needs of family members or others in need. We can only respond with love and concern, within the limits of our means. But we can rest in the faith that many millions of others in this country and around the world will be doing the same. SSLCD allows us to join these efforts with programs and strategies that are very direct, constantly evaluated and proven effective.
“How long, O Lord, How Long”? The ancient biblical cry of the Jewish Prophet expressing the frustration and desperation of the people in exile expresses the feelings of so many refugees all over the world. Africa today witnesses untold numbers of refugees, in nations throughout the continent, perhaps none so tragic or seemingly hopeless as South Sudan. But less than fifteen years ago, Liberia was torn by a 14-year civil war that had brought untold violence and destruction to the country with no end in sight. The government of Charles Taylor was being opposed by a rebel group , LURD. Both sides had committed terrible atrocities, and both forcibly recruited children to serve as soldiers. Under great international pressure, peace talks had begun, but no progress was evident and the violence continued unabated. No one had a plan to move forward, and the situation seemed as hopeless as South Sudan seems today.
When all the “experts” and international diplomats had run out of ideas (most of which involved some form of violence), a small group of Liberian women decided to take action with what they had. First, their voices. They began speaking at churches and mosques, declaring a cease-fire from the grass-roots of the people. They then spoke with their bodies, sitting in at public places, and eventually taking over the seat of government in Monrovia. After extracting a promise from President Taylor to attend peace talks with the rebels, they moved their non-violent witness to the site of the talks in Accra Ghana. Eventually they forced the president to resign, which led to the eventual election of the first female president of an African nation, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Could such a movement help bring about peace in South Sudan? No one can say for sure, but nothing else is working: the situation gets worse by the day.
SSLCD is thinking how to prepare the women of Olua and Mungula Settlements to participate in such a movement. We began the process in January and February with trauma healing that has freed many of the women from the effects of what happened to them and their families, which was making their daily lives extremely difficult, and preventing them from taking part in community life. On our next trip, we will help them move as individuals toward forgiveness and reconciliation, laying the ground work for a similar process for the Nation of South Sudan once peace has been restored. And we will help them begin to see themselves as real leaders who have the capacity to emulate their sisters in Liberia who brought peace when everyone else had failed. Starting with a few hundred women living in exile seems so miniscule, totally inadequate to the task of restoring peace, when so many efforts and billions of dollars have utterly failed. But the prophets of Israel and the women of Liberia did not get discouraged. We dare not either.
It was a huge celebration. Dancing, singing, embracing, ululating. As we entered the Olua and Mungula Settlements of South Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda in January, we wondered what was the cause for the pure joy being expressed by these refugees whose lives had been filled with terror and trauma of every imaginable sort? It took a while, but after a few days we had built enough rapport to ask the question. The answer at first astounded us, but now is beginning to make sense. The women of the two settlements all said that just our presence was the reason for the celebration.
While we traveled to the camps, we had been aware of the vast difference between us and the refugees; we were radically different in every imaginable way, and we worried that the gulf separating us might be get in the way of the work we hoped to do. But for them the most important thing was simply our presence. Just the fact that we knew about their plight and cared enough to leave our homes and travel thousands of miles to be with them changed their sense of themselves and their lives, helping them move from despair and depression, often moving toward suicide, to hope for the future and even joy in the present. We realized that even before we had done anything, just our presence had already madea difference and set the stage for the work we had come to do. Now that we have had time for further reflection, we realize that the differences we had been concerned about were really very insignificant compared to the bonds of common humanity and the strength of mutual love and concern that we all shared together. This was just the first of many invaluable life lessons we learned from the refugees.
Yesterday there was a new report on human trafficking among migrants from all over Africa who have traveled to Libya hoping to make the perilous crossing to Europe. In spite of the horrendous experiences so many of them have had at the hands of the traffickers, the flow of migrants continues and even grows daily. The question naturally occurs: what could cause people to take such risks? Our experience with the South Sudanese refugees in the refugee camps of Northern Uganda suggests some answers. When we first visited the refugee camps where we are now working, we were struck by the powerful desire among nearly everyone we met, even those who had experienced horrible trauma before they fled, to return to their homes in South Sudan. At first this seemed so illogical we could not understand it. And, as the reports of continued violence and loss of loved ones who had stayed behind continued daily this desire has almost disappeared. Now the desire is to create a future for themselves and their children within the refugee camp and the surrounding area.
This motivation has made it possible for our project to make considerable progress in several important areas, including raising food crops, learning English, and various small business ventures which have produced cash income to send children to school. While we celebrate these achievements accomplished by the refugees working together, we also know that there are limits on how many can be involved and how much can be achieved. We worry especially about the vast majority of the men who are living elsewhere and visit their families in the camps only sporadically. They see no future in the refugee camps, and so seek other possibilities in South Sudan and elsewhere. They are the ones who might be tempted to try to migrate to a place where more opportunity exists, despite the danger of falling into the hands of traffickers or drowning in an attempt to reach Europe.
The only way to stop the flow of migrants is to give them some hope for the future where they live. That is the challenge to the world community. What can be achieved by SSLCD is very limited. But we are called to do what we can where we can, and we will continue with whatever resources we obtain from supporters such as you. We are constantly inspired by the determination of the people we work with. One example that has stayed with us over a number of years is the women who were trained back in their home village in South Sudan before the war broke out by our University of Michigan team to assist other women in giving birth. At their last training session they formed themselves into an organization they named “Nygrathial” which means in English, “Hope for the future”.