Today began with a trip to the Office of the Prime Minister, where we planned to get permission to enter the camps.
Well, it was supposed to begin that way, but our van ran out of gas before getting three blocks from our hotel. I said a prayer of thanks that our driver’s failure to check for gas was noticed that quickly, instead of, say, on a dirt road to the camps, 20 kilometers from nowhere.
After refueling, we set out. We waited a long time in the chairs outside the office. I joked that it was good to know that some things never change.
When I returned from Africa last time, I said one of the greatest personal growth characteristics I hoped to get out of the experience was learning more patience when waiting in lines. And though I sometimes get frustrated now (mainly when people cut in line), I still consider my patience when I have to wait a virtue of character I gained in Africa.
The prime minister’s representative, Titus, was a godly and compassionate man. He shared with us the burden of his office. There are nearly 1 million Sudanese refugees in Uganda. During a two-month period in the fall, more than 250,000 people crossed the border fleeing violence. And in the last two weeks, another 54,000 have poured in.
As he lamented the violence these people — mainly children and women (their husbands have often been killed, more often than not in front of their own eyes) — are fleeing, he said simply, “What else can we do? We can’t close our borders to them. That would not be humane. That would not be right.”
He and the people of Uganda clearly understand that they are burdened by the human tragedy unfolding in South Sudan, and rather than turn their backs on people in need, they open their hearts and their land to them. The people of Uganda are largely Christian, and they have embraced Christ’s call: “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.”
Uganda is not a rich nation. But the people are rich in care, compassion and values that make them part of the human family. Those are truly the riches that are worthwhile. And that is what makes Uganda a truly great nation.
When a family arrives, each member is given a small plot of land — 50 feet by 30 feet — on which to grow food in a refugee village. Their basic needs are provided by the United Nations and assisted by groups such as Lutheran World Relief and Save the Children. They are received and treated as human beings, even if the conditions of the camp are hard. They are not forced to hide in the shadow with the fear of deportation.
Titus told us that one of the things we are tasked with, working on issues of peace and reconciliation, is vital since the conflict that affects South Sudan trickles down to villages and families. We need to learn to address conflict and deal with dignity.
He also shared with us an old African proverb: When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled. The war in South Sudan, funded by alternative forces from around the world that benefit from the destabilization of Africa, thus allowing them to obtain the oil and minerals, leaves the people as the trampled grass.
We were embraced and received with open arms by the government and sent to the camps to do our work. Last year, when John was here, he was told what the refugees need more than anything is help dealing with trauma that is rooted in the Bible, and that is what Denise and I have come to do.
When we arrived, we were greeted with hugs and handshakes. I’d venture to guess I shook the hands of about half of the village of 3,000 at the camp we are visiting.
We then entered the church, which was the first building erected when the refugees came to the camp, and sat with the pastors and the leaders of the women. We worshipped a bit, and when I was asked to share, I used the passage, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” I talked about how tired they must be and of the rest that we find in the loving arms of Jesus.
Our purpose today was to listen so that tomorrow we can help lead two days of training for the women of the camp, followed by two days with the pastors from the area.
Dividing the group in two, Denise and I first listened to what the women wanted. Their needs ranged from materials such as mattresses on which to sleep and enough food to eat, to family-focused: a place for their children to be educated, an opportunity to take more Lost Boys so that they could send money back to support their families, as so many have. And also economic needs, such as materials to help them make soap so they could have a trade or computers for the younger women to learn.
Hearing the stories was hard. Some are impossible. The camp has no electricity, so computers are out of the question. Our government has become heartless and cruel and no longer wants to welcome refugees from South Sudan. Others left me room to think and ponder. Perhaps soap-making is something we could pursue.
But the main thing the people wanted was for us to share their stories with the world because they feel forgotten. And for us to share with them the stories of Jesus that will give them courage and strength in the pain of the world.
The stories I heard of where they have been and what they have seen were general but horrific. Tales of rape so violent my insides curdled up. Of fleeing a village as the soldiers came to rape, pillage and burn as family went this way and that, so that they were separated and had no idea who is alive or where they were. Of trekking to Uganda as their numbers depleted due to infection, dehydration or lions snatching them from the line.
These refugees, like all refugees, did not voluntarily leave their homes. They had a place — and they want to return to it. But men with guns came and took that place away. And now, they truly have become the wretched of the earth.
I met one woman who had an eye plucked out — a leader in the church whose love for God is palpable. One of the men I met was a Lost Boy, just like the ones I read about in “What is the What.” But he was never chosen to leave, as his friends were, and remains here in Africa, in a camp, trying to proclaim the Gospel.
The pastors told us of the burdens they carried and said of their own stories, “They are so awful, but we cannot share them as we need to bear the burdens of others.” My own pastor heart grieved at the loss and the pain they carried, as Jesus carries our burdens, and how faithful they are.
At the end, we had a chance to speak. I told them that I am a storyteller. And I am there to tell them the stories of Jesus but also to hear their stories and tell them to others. To make the connections.
These are not tangential facts or economic statistics. These are flesh and blood men and women.
I told them I had a loud voice and a persistent spirit, and so far as I am able, I will tell their stories and do whatever I can to make it harder to ignore their humanity.
So, dear reader, thank you for listening to this story. And be assured, unlike the car that did not start, I will not run out of gas nor will I run out of patience as I plan to spend the rest of my life telling the stories of those whom God never forgets.