There are days that fill you with hope -- with a hope that the world will one day wake up and become accountable for all the violence and hate. A day in which inspiration reigns and true heroes show themselves.
Today was one such day for me in Congo. We spent a very long day today with two of our partner organizations, each of which is working to provide a new life for former child soldiers and young women who were abused by the armed groups.
We first visited LAV (Laissez L’Afrique Vivre), a program that equips vulnerable youth with skills training and education to reduce poverty and foster peace. Almost all the male youth working with LAV are former child soldiers or children who worked in the mines in conflict-ridden areas. The girls are survivors of sexual violence.
All the youth are taught skills for six months. Upon graduation, LAV works with them to organize into collectives of 3 or 4, given a "kit" with whatever equipment they may need to start a life, and then helped to find and pay for a place to live and work for the next year. This “collective” model allows the children to start businesses that can take on larger projects, but it also gives them community. And with that community, comes both the support and the accountability they need to succeed.
It is really an amazing, supportive environment not unlike organizations I work with in Los Angeles, but one that is very unique in Congo. The skills the youth were learning were impressive. I took special joy in the fact that there was a dynamic young woman who had chosen carpentry as her craft and a young man learning to be a cook.
But equally if not more important was the dynamic I witnessed at the restaurant founded and run by graduates of LAV’s hospitality training program. Five of LAV’s graduates and current students came to share lunch with us and tell us about the impact LAV had their lives. The stories were similar to the ones we hear over and over again in Congo: a boy abducted at age 14 by an armed group after they had killed his parents; another forced by the militia to join them and to carry the goods looted from his family after they had killed his father; a girl raped at 18 by the militia now raising the child of her perpetrator. Each person was extremely grateful to LAV for the opportunity and support they had been given.
All the graduates were successful -- each one having started a profitable business. Of the graduates, now several years later, three were welders, one a seamstress and one worked in the restaurant. One of the most impressive things was that each one added that they were committed to giving back by now helping to train other youth in their own workshops.
Of course, none of the young men spoke about their actions in the army. We could only assume that they had killed and in fact been some of the perpetrators of the violence to the women. But it was obvious that thanks to the work LAV does with them on the very critical psycho-social aspects of their reintegration into society, these young men had taken great steps to heal not only their physical lives but their minds as well. Our young female carpenter told us that all the boys in her class treated her like a sister. These young men were examples that with proper attention to the immense psychological aspects of their own trauma (seeing their parents killed, being taken as a child and made to kill) perhaps one day the young men who are being demobilized or released back into society will truly be able to take accountability for their actions and Congo can move forward.
Later that afternoon, we went to see land that Jewish World Watch has helped purchase for BVES (Bureau Pour le Volontariat au Service de L'Enfance et de la Sante). BVES is another amazing program, created by Dr. Murhabazi Namegabe, to save and rehabilitate boys who were abducted by the armed groups and forced to become child soldiers and girls who had also been captured and forced to become sex slaves. In one of his two facilities, Dr. Namegabe houses these young women, many of whom were impregnated by their rapists and are now raising these children and orphans whose parents were killed or who were somehow separated from them - children found wandering alone or in pairs after the devastation had abated.
The facility is bare bones and cramped. The girls sleep in bunks with the babies, and there is no place for the children to play except a dusty cement area. On our trip in June 2013, Dr. Namegabe told us that his dream was to buy land outside the city where the children could be safe and play like children should -- a home with grass and a garden and fresh fruit and vegetables. With Jewish World Watch’s support, Dr. Namegabe has just purchased this land and is beginning construction.
It is so moving to me that we are able to help this true hero of the children of Congo manifest his dream. In providing a better place for these kids, perhaps we are taking a small step towards helping to improve the future for these children and as a result, the future of Congo. I am so grateful to be involved with an organization that has found such remarkable partners. It is impossible not to be hopeful on a day like today.