JFK to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Kigali, Kigali to Entebbe, and suddenly, who knows how many hours later, I've made it to Uganda.
As I walk through customs, nothing looks particularly exotic other than billboards welcoming me to the "pearl of Africa". By some miracle, my forty-nine pound suitcase made it through all the connections and in minutes, there was Bolingo, executive director of Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence (HOCW) holding up a sign with my name on it. I thought of the people I know that had at one point been at this same airport--all such dedicated, loving and brave individuals--and I realized that this was really happening.
The compound in Ndejje is far smaller than I had imagined. It has two buildings: one where volunteers sleep and take cold showers, and another where Bolingo, his wife, and two children live. Behind our building is a narrow alley way that doubles as a class room for all the refugees that come here to take classes.
During the day, the tiny compound is swarming with people. Most young children are in primary school (primary school is free for the first four children in a family), so for now, it is mostly teenagers that hang at our heels. The majority of the refugees that benefit from HOCW's programs are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which means that most of them speak French. The instant I began translating instructions on how to use the water filters we just received, I was swarmed by teenagers so thrilled to hear someone speak their language. While Uganda is an English-speaking, former British colony, many of the refugees haven't been in classes here long enough to speak English with ease.
Having worked with refugees for a few years now, I often have to remind myself that although refugees are people just like me, they have also experienced more hardship than I can ever begin to imagine. One fourteen year old girl here is notorious for crossing the line a bit with volunteers: writing love letters, hanging around the compound until after dark, and constantly hugging and following us around. I find whenever I work with children, there is a girl around her age that does this to me. Maybe it's just a clingy age, I thought. However, when you begin to ask questions, you quickly learn that there is much more to Yvette than your average teenaged girl. Yvette is from Burundi, and while she is fourteen and has been in Uganda for about a year, she has a first grade reading level, and doesn't really speak or understand French or English well yet. Her mother died, so all that is left are her brothers and father. As the only girl, this leaves her as the primary caretaker in her family, and it is clear she values the community HOCW has to offer.
The staff here is made up of former refugees as well. They are not strangers to the hardship that plagues children like Yvette. A photo of Bolingo's father hangs above the dining room table at which we share our meals. While Bolingo was still in DRC, his father was killed, forcing him to flee and hide in a crowded school bus until he met a priest who helped him relocate to an abandoned school building for six months. He started this organization and moved onto this compound to give hope and a second chance to refugees like himself. His beautiful wife, Emily, cooks three meals a day on the red dirt ground behind their home over two minuscule clay stoves. Their two children, ages two and four, each speak four languages, and are googly eyed for anyone that will play with them. More often than not, Sam (the two-year-old) can be found wearing mismatched shoes with his oversized pants at his knees (he insists upon dressing himself), and his round bottom out for all to see.
There is nothing glamorous about this place. In fact, all costs accounted for (staff pay and all), the total annual cost to run the HOCW compound and programs is just around $7,000. Volunteer program fees account for the bulk of that cost ($100-150 per week depending on length of stay, including room & board). The sponsorship of one child's schooling (any schooling past primary school must be paid out of pocket) for an entire year--this includes all school fees and lunch every week day--is a mere $300, and yet only about forty children that are registered for HOCW's programs have been sponsored thus far.
Bolingo is desperate to expand the compound. It serves far too many people than it can comfortably hold already, and there are so many more local refugees whose lives could be changed by having this community. Up the road is a much larger compound owned by the same priest who rescued Bolingo and gave him this place. He can't afford to hand Bolingo the compound for free, but has offered him the place for $10,000. Our goal is to make this happen before we leave here. $10,000 is a number that is so out of HOCW's league, but to citizens of the first world, this is such an achievable fundraising goal that would go an incredibly long way.
Aside from the work I will be doing on the compound, I already have a long list of all the places I have to visit during my time here. While six weeks may sound like a long time, I can already tell it is going to fly by, so I will have to prioritize. I feel it would be a sin to leave here without doing a safari, so that is up on my list. Hiking water falls, climbing mountains, and exploring the Nile River are some of the adventures you will see documented in the next few weeks! Stay tuned.