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Tahoma students giving hope to victims of war in Uganda
Half a world away from the Ugandan bush Tahoma School District students are reaching into their pockets to help victims of war.
For students at Tahoma Junior High, the idea of coming together to make a global impact came from participating in We Day Seattle last year. The event challenges students to start a movement of serving not only their community, but the global community as well.
Northern Uganda is a region torn apart by civil war. For more than 20 years the country was terrorized by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa’s longest war. Tens of thousands of children were reportedly kidnapped over the course of the conflict and forced to join the ranks of the rebels, serving as child soldiers. Many were made to murder their families, and young girls were taken as wives by rebel commanders. Warrants were issued for Kony and several other LRA leaders in 2005 by the International Criminal Court. Kony and the LRA reportedly left Uganda for neighboring countries in 2006. That same year the LRA signed a cessation of hostilities agreement, but ultimately failed to sign a final peace accord in 2008.
Those children who survived the conflict and returned to their homes often found there was nothing left — no family, no village, and no one who trusted them.
Years before Joseph Kony’s name would go viral through a video campaign by the nonprofit organization Invisible Children, Suzy Benson Gillies found herself gripped by what she was learning about the land-locked country in East Africa.
On a trip to Uganda, Benson Gillies met a man who was living in a camp for people who had been displaced by the war. He challenged her to tell Americans what was happening in his country. Benson Gillies promised him she would. It was a promise Benson Gillies took seriously. Upon her return to the states she founded African Promise Foundation.
“I just felt like it was unfair that in a world as big as ours 40,00-60,000 kids could be kidnapped and we didn’t notice,” Benson Gillies said.
African Promise, which is run entirely by volunteers, buys beads from Ugandan women as a means for the women to support themselves. Jewelry made from the beads is sold by the organization and the profits are used to sponsor students at schools in Northern Uganda. Last year 35 students were sponsored. This year Benson Gillies said her goal is to see that number continue to grow.
In Gulu, Uganda Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, a Catholic nun who serves with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, runs Saint Monica’s Girls Tailoring Center for women and their children who are the victims of Kony and the LRA. At the school women learn to sew, as well as a variety of other skills including how to do secretarial work and hair dressing. The school also offers the women and their children a chance to talk about and process their experiences, beginning a journey of healing.
Nyirumbe has gained international attention for her work standing up to the LRA and serving the war’s victims. Among that attention was recognition as a CNN hero in 2007 and a book and documentary film, both titled “Sewing Hope.”
Two years ago Benson Gillies and a group of volunteers were visiting Uganda when their plans for where they would be staying fell through. A friend of Benson Gillies put her in touch with Nyirumbe, who offered a room at Saint Monica’s for the group to stay in.
“When I realized that the person who was offering us a place to stay was the Sister Rosemary I was freaking out to my volunteers,” Benson Gillies said.
From there a new partnership was born. Nyirumbe has been in the states this month, promoting the documentary and raising awareness of her work. Nyirumbe’s connection with African Promise brought her to the Seattle area, and to the gym at Tahoma Junior High on Tuesday.
“It was not a coincidence,” Nyirumbe told the eighth and ninth graders of her meeting Benson Gillies. “It was just a little bit of kindness, a simple act of kindness that put me in contact with African Promise.”
That little bit of kindness led to Nyirumbe speaking to the largest group of students she has ever addressed. And, she said Tahoma schools are the first school to desire to sponsor students at Saint Monica’s.
Nyirumbe explained to Tahoma students how at her school the school becomes a family.
“You young people are supposed to be loved, you aren’t supposed to be forced to commit atrocities,” Nyirumbe said.
The sister’s doors are always open, there is no limit to how long students can stay at Saint Monica’s. The more important thing is that the women have a chance to heal and to learn skills to support themselves.
“In the first place they need love, healing and connection,” Nyirumbe said.
Currently, Nyirumbe said, the school is serving 250 women and 250 children.
Nyirumbe said that she sees students at Saint Monica’s learn to relate to other people again and gain self confidence.
“They get their dignity back,” Nyirumbe said.
Her message to Tahoma students? They are more important than they know.
“I strongly believe that children are the future of a society,” Nyirumbe told students at Tahoma Junior High. “You young people are powerful.”
That, she said after the assembly, is the thing she hopes Tahoma students learn from Saint Monica’s.
“They are very lucky and they should use that luck,” she said of American students.
Nyirumbe was also scheduled to speak at Tahoma High School on Thursday, after the Reporter’s press deadline. Both schools are undertaking a fundraiser to sponsor students to attend Saint Monica’s through African Promise.
“We’re hoping that this relationship isn’t a one time thing,” Benson Gillies said.
She’s hoping to raise $4,000 dollars between the two schools, a figure that could support 13 students in Uganda for a year.
Benson Gillies is also planning another trip to Uganda in May where she is planning to meet the students Tahoma sponsors and put a face and a specific story to the effort for Tahoma students.
Nyirumbe said in an interview after the assembly at Tahoma Junior High that her faith has played a major role in who she has become and that she never imagined God would use her in this way.
“It has helped me know that I can accept these children as my own,” Nyirumbe said of her faith. “Every day I walk in a different path.”