Those of us who have traveled with young children know that it is not easy. I have done it many times with my three children, two of whom are now in their teens.
When they were little, we would visit family in Jamaica and Kenya, well stocked with diaper bags, changes of clothing (for parents and children), juice and finger foods, toys, books and crayons. Nowadays my kids are content with soccer and fashion magazines and fully charged iPods--I hardly hear a peep from them until we land.
We now live in Kenya and my job as communications manager for the International Rescue Committee in East Africa allows me to meet people throughout this vast region. Earlier this month, I visited the Yida refugee settlement, a sprawling camp in South Sudan. Here I spoke with dozens of mothers who also had traveled with their children, but under very different circumstances than those I just described.
On my first day there, I stopped by the registration point where newly arrived refugees are welcomed. More than 5,000 had been registered in the last two weeks and thousands more are expected by January. On arrival they are given a ration card and children are checked for illnesses and malnutrition.
It was at the clinic that I met 32-year-old Awas Jibren and her six lovely children. One of her little girls smiled at me and pointed--my invitation to sit with them and have a chat.
Awas told me that she had arrived from the Nuba Mountains, in Sudan's South Kordofan state, the day before. Since June of last year, almost 70,000 people have fled the fighting between government and opposition forces in this region. Heavy bombing meant that people could not get to their farms, let alone plant crops, and the lack of food compounded their dilemma.
"Our life back in the village has been bad," Awas told me. "There is hunger and the bombs are going off. The children were scared and used to hide in holes."
From the playful laughter of the children by her side, it is clear that they are relieved to be as far away from the fighting as possible. I asked her whether she would go back one day. She patiently told me that there is nothing to go back to. Her husband is a soldier, and she left him behind--he will soon be going to war, she explained.
Awas and the children traveled to Yida by bus, a journey that only took five hours. But they had to wait at a station for over a week for a bus to come--sleeping there until it arrived. Many families travel by foot, a journey that can take anywhere from three to five days.
It is mostly women with children who journey to Yida. One mother told me that she lost her shoes along the way and walked to Yida barefoot, carrying her baby on her back and pulling along her weary toddlers. Others recalled how their children were bitten by mosquitoes and subsequently contracted malaria. Some were pregnant crossing the border, several giving birth along the way.
Refugee women face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. At work in over 40 countries and 22 U.S. cities to restore safety, dignity and hope, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) leads the way from harm to home. The IRC provides services aimed at women and girls. We offer ante- and postnatal care and safe childbirth, as well as family planning, counseling and medical care to survivors of sexual and domestic violence. Since starting our services in April, our midwives have delivered more than 500 healthy babies. Since 1998, Johnson & Johnson's support of the IRC has been instrumental in helping to improve the health and well-being of women, children and their communities. Donate here to help the IRC support refugee women who are rebuilding their lives in the U.S., and your gift will be matched by Johnson & Johnson.
Awas's 12-year-old son, Samuel, is one year older than my youngest, Solomon. He told me that he was happy to be in Yida--his broad smile couldn't hide that fact. "It is much better to be here because I want to go to school," he said. When I asked him what his favorite subject is, he said without hesitation, "Mathematics!"
This holiday season, thousands of us will be traveling with our children to visit family and friends. In East Africa, thousands of women will be making the treacherous journey from the Nuba Mountains with their children. Like us, they will be happy and relieved to reach their destination--because they will be safe.
Catapult is where you can get involved in empowering women and girls. Launched in October 2012, Catapult is the first online funding site dedicated specifically to advancing gender equality, and already features 70 projects in more than 30 countries.
Catapult and Johnson & Johnson have teamed up to double your impact this giving season. Johnson & Johnson is supporting a matching gifts donation to their partners on Catapult-up to $50,000-from December 6 through January 31.