Last July, I had the privilege of visiting two of the Refugee settlements that International Medical Corps supports in Uganda- Nakivale and Kyaka II. The visit still lives vivid in my mind, and I thought it was important to share with you all a little of what I experienced while in Uganda and why your support is needed for the campaign . . . .
So what is it that inspires us?
As a management consultant . . . I ask my clients this question on a daily basis. For me it was a little over 2 years ago that I was inspired to launch the Climb Take Action Campaign, after reading an article Eve Ensler wrote for Glamour magazine. The article detailed the horror women were facing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and how rape was being used as a weapon of war by the militia. As a woman, the details in this article were so atrocious and offensive, I became consumed with the notion of trying to do something to help women like those I had read about. Their stories were my inspiration to go out and pursue my dream of reaching the highest peak on each continent in order to raise funds and awareness to their situation in hopes of making a positive impact on their lives. Well here I am two plus years down the road. . having reached the highest peak of four continents with 3 more to go . . . and now being inspired not only by these women and children, but by those working diligently on a daily basis to help them.
After summiting Kilimanjaro last summer in July, Genevieve, Brooke, and I headed to Kampala to meet Stephanie Bowen of International Medical Corps and prepare for our journey to the Nakivale and Kyaka II Refugee Settlements in Western and Southern Uganda. Both of these settlements, although in Uganda, are hosts to a large Congolese refugee population. We arrived on 19th of July and departed on the 25th of July. When I look back on my life and look for instances and sources of inspiration. . .well this week will be at the top of my list. The aim of my visit was to meet the women and children the campaign was supporting, learn more about their needs, and share their story in hopes of raising additional support and awareness for them and International Medical Corps.
A little more about the Journey to Uganda….
I really had no idea what to expect upon arrival in Kampala, Uganda. I had now been to Kenya and Tanzania, and Senegal, and quickly realized each African country if very unique in its own right… so I was in for a surprise. I arrived in the evening in Kampala and was greeting by airport staff all wearing white masks. . .I was then told I would need to fill out a health questionnaire prior to going through customs (due to swine flu scare). It was all very organized though and the airport was nothing like Dakar THANK GOD! After about an hour of this and customs I finally was able to retrieve my bags and be on my way. I found the landscape of Uganda very beautiful and it saddens me a bit to see that a beautiful country had been destroyed by years of civil conflict. Kampala, I felt was a very well organized and a somewhat modern city for Africa- you could not feel the effects of the conflict in this city. This would not be the case once we arrive at the Refugee Settlements. There was a vast difference between the “haves” and “have-nots”, but that is very common I have found in third world countries. It was easy to get around in a vehicle (as long as you are good at swerving into oncoming traffic and passing other cars : ) After spending one night in Kampala, we met with the International Medical Corp team in the morning for a briefing and then were off for our 6 hour car journey to the refugee settlements. The 6 hour drive took us far outside the city center and gave us a taste as to what life in rural Uganda was like, but more importantly as to what life was like for those displaced by civil conflict and now living in Refugee Settlements.
International Medical Corps Staff
Like I’ve mentioned I work in management consulting, thus I am exposed to various business organizations all the time, each facing various issues. All I can say is that the Uganda team for International Medical Corps is lean and mean and working miracles with the limited resources they have to work with. They also are incredibly humble and dedicated to their work, from Dr. JoJo (Clinical Director) to Claire (Program Director for SGBV) to Jennifer (Coordinator) to Betty (Psycho Social Worker) to everyone else we met . . . there is a common DNA in all of them, they love what they do, they are passionate about those they support, and experts at optimizing the use of any resources that become available in order to deploy them in a manner that will have the greatest impact. They are a team, by every definition. Their work has a tremendous impact on a daily basis and it was incredible humbling and inspirational to spend a week with them.
What was most powerful, was listening to survivors at these refugee settlements describe how International Medical Corps had impacted their lives and how grateful they were for their services. In addition, as International Medical Corps works in partnerships with various NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) at these settlements, it was remarkable to meet with the various directors from these NGOs and governmental agencies and learn the high regard they hold International Medical Corps in. Everyone we met held the utmost respect and gratitude to International Medical Corps and their dedicated work and commitment to the communities they serve.
Their dedicated Uganda Team was indeed an inspiration of selfless individuals working hard every day, leaving their families behind in some cases for long periods of time in an effort to help others. AMAZING!
The Women and Children...
Strength, Courage, Determination, Resilience, and Inspiration . . . all words to describe the incredible women and children I met at Nakivale and Kyaka II. It’s honestly very difficult to know where to start describing our week at the Refugee Settlements, I rather not give a play by play of all that happened each day, but rather share the stories of some of the women and children we met, and tell you a little bit more about how these settlements operate and have a tremendous impact in the life of thousands. I will tell you the most challenging part of this visit was not being able to immediately help some of the survivors we met, as was leaving them behind….had I not had to go straight back to work, I would have happily spent more time there and then gone to Congo (DRC) as well….but time did not allow for that on this visit and I hope I can return sometime soon.
Let me start with telling you that these Refugee Settlements are run and operate through a series of partnerships between various NGOs (non-profit organizations). International Medical Corps played a critical role at the two settlements we visited by providing Psycho-Social services, AIDs treatment, Nutritional Programs. In the settlements they support in the Congo, they also provide direct medical support and train local health professionals to create sustainable solutions for the communities they serve.
Life at these settlements is hard no doubt and resources limited. New arrivals are given some supplies to construct a straw/adobe like hut, food rations, water rations, mosquito net (prevent Malaria). They also undergo an assessment to determine the type of care if any needed. The Office of the Prime Minister plays a vital role in the management of the two settlements we visited.
While at Nakivale and Kyaka II I encountered survivors with similar stories to the women of the article I had read about almost 2 years ago that started me on this journey.
In summary, a little snap shot of the women and girls I met:
- A mother who shared her story of having to flee the Congo back in 2007 after her town was attacked by rebel militia. She recounted the story of being raped during the attack, seeing many of the men in her village shot, having two of her children murdered, and losing her husband and two other children for over a year and then reunited with them at the Refugee Settlement. Not only had she and some of her daughters been raped during the brutal attack, but she was then raped again in her transit to Uganda. She was left to survive in the bush for days at a time completely alone, and somehow managed to cross the Congolese border and enter Uganda, where kind strangers provided her with transit and referrals to churches and other NGOs that eventually helped her and her remaining family arrive at this Refugee Settlement.
- International Medical Corps had played a vital role in her recovery upon arrival to the settlement, as she was suffering from abdominal injuries from the rape; she was psychologically scared and was not speaking. She confirmed how grateful she was to International Medical Corps for securing the appropriate medical care, psychological support, and linkage within the settlement community. They had helped her survive and still be able to take care of her family. Her younger daughter was then suffering of Malaria and so she was seeking support for her little girl.
- We also sadly met a young little girl of 5 that had just been raped while living at this settlement …really shocking to see her innocent face and imagine why anyone would do such a thing. Again International Medical Corps’ role in training community leaders in the settlement that Sexual-Gender-Based violence is wrong is vital to stopping rape amongst the refugee communities. They also were now providing psycho-social support to the little girl and her family and ensuring appropriate care was available.
- We also met a young mother whose little daughter of only a few months was HIV free thanks to the preventive care provided by International Medical Corps to help reduce the risks of HIV Positive mothers, passing on the disease to their babies. This was a heartwarming success story and the little baby girl was adorable and thriving, which would not have been the case had International Medical Corps not intervene.
- Then there were other stories of women, who we did not personally meet, but which community educators or psycho-social worker told us about that were recovering still from traumatic attacks faced back in the Congo and now trying to build a life at this refugee settlement. The one that lives most vividly with me is the story of a wife and mother that was forced to kill her husband and four children with a machete by the militia when they attacked her town and raped her. International Medical Corps is helping her recover from this emotional scaring and providing her with the appropriate support. I was amazed to hear she was still alive, I could not imagine being able or wanting to survive after such an unbearable situation.
- The settlements also have some schooling for the children that live there, we were able to visit one of the schools and meet with some of the children that are part of an AIDS Club. Their role is to educate other children about AIDS and how to protect yourself against it by producing songs, skits, etc. The club has been very successful and the children were kind enough to present us with some of the songs they had written to educate their fellow peers. They then had a Q&A session with us and Dr. JoJo from International Medical Corps. It was interesting to hear their questions and concerns. The question that jumped out at me the most…..”Is there AIDS in America?” As we all know, of course there is….but it was interesting to know that maybe these young children feel that only their communities have to deal with this deadly disease.
- We also met many little children living in the settlement, some born there, some orphans, but all precious and still able to SMILE…still curious to see who these strange visitors were, still able to want their picture taken and immediately see the results (some may not have known what they look like), still wanting to hold your hand and be your friend. The innocence of these children considering some of their life situations is severely touching and heartfelt.
- On our last day at the settlements, we visited an area of the settlement where it was a mainly Congolese population. They were kind enough to let the International Medical Corps team, Genevieve, Brooke, and I participate in some of the skits the community leaders had put together to educate the community on sexual gender based violence, they also shared with us their song and dance. All I can say is that despite all the hardships life may have handed these women, men, and children….their spirit lives strong! It was a true privilege to get a glance at what life must have been like for these people before they were forced out of their homes by war. I say this because in this small community they had been resourceful and recreated some of their instruments from available materials and together played music, sang, and DANCED! They can still smile and celebrate being alive….it was incredibly admirable. To see people with so little, having been through some very awful life circumstances, joined together as a new community and making the most of what they had.
I could write pages and pages more, as it was truly a remarkable experience to visit these refugee settlements. More importantly it confirmed that any support this campaign brings in, can and will have an impact in an individual’s life. If you can even touch the life of one person, then in my mind it was all worth it.
My week with these refugees and International Medical Corps was a whirlwind and I never expected how emotionally draining it might be. The hardest part again was meeting the survivors and not being able to immediately help them. I had never spoken or met a rape survivor before…what do you say to this woman or girl to bring comfort? How can you provide a sense of security? How can you ensure they receive the appropriate medical care in a timely fashion? These are all things International Medical Corps addresses on a daily basis and from everyone we met in Uganda….they all confirmed they are doing an amazing job!! It is incredibly hard work, especially with limited resources. Yet they are getting the job done daily!
I hope you will join me in supporting International Medical Corps’ efforts, because their work does save lives and is helping a population that has been neglected! These are amazing women and children, like our mothers, our sisters, our friends. They deserve a chance at health and happiness...wouldn’t you agree??!!
These women and children are my endless source of inspiration as is the International Medical Corp team. Anything I can do to continue to support them, I will and hope you will too!!
All the best to you all and thanks for your continued support!! Donate now if you can :)