As I see report after report of the destruction caused by hurricanes, earthquakes, and flooding, my thoughts turn to the crisis in South Sudan.
The images are chillingly similar. A woman stands amid the wreckage of her home in Houston, knee deep in water. A child in South Sudan stands beside a tarp upheld by a few sticks, wading in muddy water.
One year ago, World Concern staff were evacuated from Wau, South Sudan, when armed conflict broke out in the area where we’re working. Although our team was able to resume work within a few weeks, for tens of thousands of people, life is far from returning to normal. More than 40,000 are still homeless and living in squalid camps around Wau. Continue reading Homeless – but not without hope – in South Sudan
Psalm 116:15 says, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful servants.”
Many of you have heard the sad news of the death of a World Concern staff member in South Sudan. Akol Akol was playing soccer and sustained an injury, was rushed to the local hospital where he died 30 minutes later. He was a much beloved staff member who knew the Lord, and worked as a peace maker in his community.
Peter Macharia, our Africa Area Director, wrote this word of tribute:
“I’ll miss Akol Akol. He started soccer teams in Magai and Mayen and the young team loved it a lot. Through soccer he would share the love of Christ and engage young men on how to better their lives and stay away from crime. When I last visited South Sudan he asked me for more soccer balls. He also brought me his new wife to say ‘hi.’ They were expecting a baby.
He was deeply loved by all those that met him. He was also deeply passionate about his work, loved World Concern, was always eager to learn, and full of laughter. When he joined World Concern in 2012, he couldn’t speak a word of English, but within a very short time, he would engage in an English conversation as if it was his mother tongue. He longed to see Magai and Mayen transformed. We will definitely miss him. We are praying for his dear wife.”
Our team in South Sudan thanks you for your prayers. They spent today with Akol Akol’s family. We are praying for God’s comfort and the peace that passes all understanding to stand guard over their hearts. Through it all, we trust in the goodness and mercy of our Lord, knowing that this is not the end. We take comfort in that blessed hope of life everlasting with our Lord.
We are so grateful for the opportunity to have known and served with such a kind and good heart. We pray now for his family and our precious team in South Sudan as they grieve this great loss.
A few weeks ago I made an urgent trip to South Sudan.
As much as you can prepare to visit a country that’s been ravaged by war, and now has over two million of its people displaced … I simply wasn’t ready for the scale of this crisis.
The statistics alone are overwhelming—thousands of people killed, more than two million displaced, 700% inflation—but when you realize there are real stories behind these numbers, it takes your breath away.
I was hiking back out to the road after visiting a remote World Concern project when I saw her.
She was standing alone beside a simple mud hut, so I slowly began walking towards her. As I came closer, I noticed she was standing next to two mounds of dirt … graves. One was dry and sunbaked. The other was smaller, and piled with fresh dirt.
I looked up at her, searching her face for signs of what had happened. Her name was Uduru.
In whispers she told me that her husband had died a year ago. But then, her eyes shifted to the tiny, fresh grave. She said that just a week ago she buried her sweet 2-year-old boy. He had died hungry, the victim of a combination of malnutrition and a water-borne disease. On top of his grave were two tiny plastic shoes, this grieving mother’s only physical memory of her baby boy.
Uduru has three other children, each one is fighting to survive. I couldn’t speak. And just held this poor woman in my arms as she wept.
It’s in places like South Sudan where World Concern is working to meet the urgent needs of people like Uduru and her children.
But we can’t do it alone.
We’re working through local churches to reach families displaced by the crisis with emergency aid—tents and tarps for shelter from the rain, mosquito nets to protect them from malaria and other deadly diseases, hygiene kits, and life-saving food. But sometimes there is just not enough, and that’s why your help is needed.
The crisis in South Sudan is very real. During our emergency distribution I held a small child in my arms. He was probably only 3 years old. His pencil thin arm told me that he is already severely malnourished.
His mother had been standing in line all day but sadly by the time she got to the front of the line, our supplies had run out. We simply didn’t have enough to meet the need. She came to me pleading if we had more. She had been left out. I looked at her and the others behind her that had the same question. In faith I told her, we will be back.
I woke up last Saturday morning in my 72 degree house, safe in my cozy bed. Birds chirping outside my window and thoughts of doing yard work today on this peaceful Saturday.
Little did I know, at that very moment, gunfire was erupting in a town in South Sudan. Bodies were strewn in the streets and families were running for their lives to the bush.
But God knew, and He redirected my thoughts. I had fallen asleep the night before reading an intense book about World War II. My pleasant early-morning meditations were interrupted by images of the horrors people suffer in war—especially children, who don’t understand what’s happening around them. All they know is that their parents are scared, chaos surrounds them, and “home” is wherever they can find a place to curl up and sleep that night.
These images haunted me as I got up to pour a cup of coffee. As a mom, I have such a strong instinct to protect my children. My heart aches for moms who are unable to keep their children safe. And it’s happening to millions of children around the world today.
Working at World Concern, I have to be mindful not to become anesthetized to the circumstances I hear about every day. A mother scooping up her child and fleeing gunfire in terror. Waking up the next day on the hard ground, enveloped in sweltering heat to hear her child crying because of hunger pains. Panic when she realizes the child is not just hungry, but sick with fever.
I can’t ever let this become “normal” to me.
I took a sip of my coffee and thought of the people in South Sudan whose tragic circumstances seem to get worse each day. A colleague who had recently returned from a visit told me he saw children picking leaves off of trees to eat to quell the hunger pains. I felt sick. He showed me a video he’d shot on his iPhone of a 14-year-old girl scooping scum-covered water from a hole in the ground, bees swirling around her head as she waited for the hole to fill up again.
“Sometimes I wait several hours for enough water to fill the hole again so I can scoop more,” she told him.
I pondered this as I sipped my cream-sweetened coffee, which suddenly tasted extraordinarily decadent.
And then I pick up my phone to see an email that our team was evacuated as violence erupted in Wau town, the base for several new villages in our One Village Transformed program. I prayed for the hundreds of families who lost loved ones in the fighting and for those who had fled in terror.
Earlier this month, I had barely noticed the automatic withdrawal from my checking account. $33. That’s my humble gift each month to that 14-year-old girl’s village outside of Wau.
It’s not much. I spent about that on a new shower curtain liner and cat litter at Fred Meyer yesterday.
But I felt a twinge of relief when I thought about that gift this morning. God reminded me I was doing something. That $33, combined with yours and someone else’s and others, is enough to do some amazing things in this one village. Not just a meal far better than leaves for today, but empowerment for the parents in her village to plant colorful, vibrant vegetable gardens that will supply many nutritious meals. It will help them dig a well where she can collect cool, fresh, disease-free water every day—without having to wait for a mud puddle to fill up. It will enable her to attend school, learn to read and write. And she’ll be introduced to a group of neighbors who meet twice a week under the shade of a giant tree to sing worship songs and study the Bible in her native language, allowing this child of war to experience peace in the midst of turmoil.
She will see her neighbors working and starting small businesses and thinking about the future, and it will all be new and different and hope-filled. She will begin to see the possibility for a better life and focus beyond waiting for the water hole to fill or picking leaves from a tree to eat.
I’ll never miss that $33 from my checking account each month. But it will mean a child of war is fed and cared for and a village in South Sudan is transformed.
You’ll hear this idiom more than anything else at my house. But I heard something this week that has convicted me of many things; most notably the way we speak.
But first let me assure you, I do feed my children … and they’re not starving.
I’m sure if they think hard enough, they’ll remember that they ate today. Many times. Their bellies are full, their eyes are bright and they’re able to move … not crippled over in pain from not having food in days … or weeks. They aren’t drinking fetid water from a hole in the ground that’s teeming with insects. Or pulling dry leaves from a nearby tree to stay alive.
No, they aren’t starving.
“You want to know how sick and hungry we are? Then let me show you the tombs of my two children.”
I quite literally gasped when I heard this.
My hand then covered my mouth … I felt sick … I couldn’t speak … tears filled my eyes.
The dad that uttered these horrifying words lives in a South Sudanese village. His name is Martin, and he has such a grieved stare in his eyes that I could barely stand to look at. His children were hungry. And he’d lost them because of it.
And when I think of these little ones … their tiny graves … and this father’s despair … I can’t help but feel completely distressed about it. And so I should.
I could have kept his children alive. But if only I knew …
If you’ve read this far I now have to tell you the rest of this story—his village is full of hungry children.
After wrestling with the guilt that I probably threw away enough food to have kept this man’s children alive, I realized something greater. That I owe him so much more than just my feelings.
I have to tell his story … and honor his children.
South Sudan is a mess right now. A young country that should still be bathing in the celebration of independence is instead caught in a web of raging violence … economic disaster … and dire food shortages. Poverty is tightening its grip and the poorest people can barely breathe.
I recently visited remote villages in South Sudan; a brief visit that has left me journeying through unexplored trails in my own heart.
One experience especially stands out.
It started during a village meeting, in which several ladies in Mayen offered to take me to their homes, to witness the impact of our projects – each terming her household as the “most transformed.” So I settled on visiting just three who stated that their houses were nearby.
Strapped for energy and time, my plan was to make a quick dash and back; but some plans don’t unwind as neatly – at least not in the field.
In an entourage of about 10, composed of residents and World Concern staff, we set off and immediately picked pace.
We walked and walked, trudging through snaky paths set on brownish grass amidst isolated huts and trees as the hot South Sudan sun stared down at us.
After a non-stop 45 minute walk, I let my protests be known. “I will go no further,” I swore. “Let’s turn back now!”
“But we’re just near,” the translator said, a line he repeated whenever I aired my calls of surrender, which was several times more.
It would be an eternity before Angelina Mir’s house came over to meet us. By then I had protested a handful more times hesitatingly agreeing to keep going each time. What’s the use of walking all this way and returning without a story? I kept thinking.
We finally arrived, worn and dusty. My interior was that of an angry man.
Angry at myself for suggesting the trek, angry at myself for forgetting to carry a water bottle, angry at the residents for ‘lying’ about the distance, angry at our vehicle for being unable to snake through the slender paths, and thorny shrubs – places never before driven on. . .
Then it dawned on me.
This heavy trudge for me was a normal walk for residents. My discomfort at having no drinking water for just a few hours, was a way of life for them (we only came across only two shallow wells, whose water we wouldn’t pour on our heads let alone drink). The hunger I felt was a lifestyle for them.
The people we serve live with these inconveniences every day.
Yet under the seemingly hopeless situation, they are determined to make their lives beautiful.
Angelina for instance borrowed a loan of 200 SSP ($36) from a micro-finance group started through World Concern. That loan ended up saving her son’s life. Four-year-old Marco Anae urgently needed surgery. His stomach had swelled and become intolerably painful from an intestinal blockage. He vomited spurts of blood and lost consciousness as it swelled on.
Although the normal reaction for community members is to sell livestock when in need of money, being a member of the Buak kukopadh (Let us go after something good) micro-finance group saved her income, as well as her son’s life. “I didn’t sell a goat. It’s a long process which involves taking the goat to the town center where it may stay for up to two days before anyone purchases it,” she explained.
Within only a day of borrowing, she was on her way to hospital – a journey that entailed a two hour long trek carrying Marco before boarding a vehicle to the next town. The loan helped facilitate expenses to the hospital and Marco’s new nutritional demands as the surgery was offered at no charge.
Her group of 21 women has so far saved 2205 SSP ($400) from which they borrow loans to boost their business and repay with interest. Angelina owns a total of 13 goats, one cow and lots of chickens. Besides boosting individual finances, some of the members have their spiritual lives nourished at nearby Pascal Catholic church. Through afternoon adult literacy classes at the church, Angelina is now able to write all her group members’ names!
Some views along the way:
On our way back, my mind was heavy in thought contemplating how impatient I have been whenever residents show up an hour or two later than scheduled. I realized it takes them just as long to walk to our meeting areas – even longer when rain falls; and mostly they come with parched mouths, empty stomachs, having already handled hundreds of roles, that especially make a woman who she is in the areas we work.
Yet they smile.
They have a strong will to keep going no matter how rough the trudge is.
This experience has brought me face to face with myself. Until now I thought I was patient, determined and perseverant among other countless virtues, but the people I met in South Sudan beat me at it. They roundly beat me at it.
Through One Village Transformed, World Concern and several partner churches are supporting Mayen village through protection of clean water, food production, livelihoods and robust microfinance. The project is a journey we’re taking alongside the community. You can be part of it. Here’s how.
With the support of our donors, lives were saved, protected, and transformed in some of the world’s poorest places in 2014. Hungry families were fed, people in crisis were given shelter, and entire communities received abundant clean water.
One of the biggest challenges of 2014 was reaching families displaced by civil war in South Sudan. The problems affecting the world’s newest nation are extremely complex. Many families are still homeless, living in tents or under trees with no shelters. Prices have skyrocketed because of the war, leaving poor families unable to buy food or essential commodities. There is also a looming threat of famine – because they were displaced during the rainy season, many were not able to plant crops. As a result, the annual hunger gap, which is fast approaching in April, is expected to be worse than usual.
Achol was nine months pregnant when she fled with her children after fighting broke out in her village in South Sudan’s Unity State. “I ran when I heard gunfire and saw people running,” she said. “I left with nothing.” Achol gave birth outside – alone – after arriving in a makeshift camp. “I had no food and no blankets. I delivered my baby and spent two days outside. Then I made this shelter,” she said, looking up at the flimsy tent made of sticks and tarps that sheltered her children.
Donations in 2014 helped provide food, shelter, and emergency assistance for many families like Achol’s. Now, families like hers need to move beyond life-saving, emergency aid and rebuild their lives with plans for a better future. As we usher in the new year, we are leading communities in South Sudan to move beyond crisis and relying on short-term hand-outs towards lasting change. Our focus in 2015 includes long-term initiatives, such as:
Providing seeds, tools, and training in sustainable agriculture to farmers
Sharing peacebuilding skills and reconciliation in communities torn apart by violence
Educating children, turning their dreams of a better future into real opportunities
It’s clear that the situation is South Sudan is complex. People like Achol face immense challenges and have great needs. But at World Concern, we refuse to shy away from complex problems because things are too hard. Rather, we tackle these challenges head-on, walking alongside the families in South Sudan into recovery and helping them rebuild their lives.
Though these situations can seem hopeless and overwhelming, we put our full confidence in God – He alone can change lives and circumstances. He can bring peace to any situation, and nothing is too complex for Him. He has called us to be His hands and feet, and equips us with what we need to help the families in South Sudan and other challenging places. As we enter 2015, we rely on the ongoing support of our donors to help families and communities to move beyond crisis towards restoration, healing, and transformation.
In December 2013, the world’s newest nation, only two years into a season without war, plunged back into crisis-mode. Though the explanation for this eruption of conflict is far from definitive, one thing is clear – South Sudan is still hurting.
As we approach the one year anniversary of this newest conflict in South Sudan – a land that has suffered almost continuous war for over two decades – we (the world) need to remember that this war persists and tensions are only growing. And, as we so strongly believe at World Concern, we remind ourselves that war is about so much more than politics and land and resources. It is about the thousands, if not millions, of people whose lives are torn apart.
According to the UNHCR, South Sudan now has more than 1.4 million internally displaced people who have been forced to flee their homes. Additionally, tens of thousands of people (at this point an exact number is difficult to track) have lost their lives.
Though there has always been community tension and a scarcity of resources, we have never ceased to see the country for its potential to transform. When South Sudan gained independence in 2011, we celebrated with them. Unfortunately, the celebration was short-lived. South Sudan has faced immense challenges over the past three years. The recent conflict is bringing the nation to the brink of famine and starvation continues to be a very real risk.
Since the country’s independence, World Concern has focused on empowering South Sudanese communities to move beyond a state of relief and toward long-term development. Eager to farm their own land, feed their own children, and be educated, people have been more than willing to take part in their community’s development. In fact, many of the communities we partner with now have their own gardens, banks, savings groups, job opportunities, and thriving markets.
But many others were displaced from their homes and land when violence came dangerously close to their communities. As a result, hundreds of thousands were unable to plant crops before South Sudan’s annual rainy season. Because of this, many will go hungry this year. And too many are still homeless, living in squalid camps, waiting for peace.
Last February I traveled to South Sudan to visit Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps, sit with people, and listen to their stories. Among the many painful narratives shared, I will never forget Mary YarTur’s. Nine months pregnant when violence broke out in her village, Mary had no choice but to run.
“Both of my neighbors were killed when we were running,” she solemnly explained. “My uncle was also killed.”
After days on the run, Mary and others settled outside of a closed school building. Two days later, she went into labor.
“At the time I delivered I was feeling bad. My body was in pain and it was not well,” she shared. “During the time I came from my home in Unity State, I was running with little food. Then I delivered right away when I arrived here.”
In the three days I spent visiting camps, Mary was one of five women I met with newborn babies – a small representation of the thousands of children that have already been born without medical assistance beneath trees, outside of buildings, and underneath haphazard shelters.
“My child was delivered outside, now they have problems,” Mary told me. “I’m not feeling better now. The food we have to eat takes a very long time to cook – and when I eat it it gives me stomach pains. So, I don’t eat much – I feel weak and faint. I live in fear because I don’t know where my husband is and I sleep in the open, many days without food and no income.”
Sick, taking care of a newborn, husband-less, without food, homeless – it’s no wonder so many people feel hopeless.
A Bleak Future Without Development
Because of the recent crisis, funding for development projects has reduced. Life-saving disaster response efforts are vital, but without the ability to fund long-term projects, the country’s development comes to a halt.
Hundreds of thousands of displaced families have fled northern South Sudan to Warrap State, where we work. With no choice but to build makeshift shelters on land that was once someone else’s farms, their presence is a cause for tension and puts a strain on local resources.
The majority of the people we serve know at least one person who has been killed. Thus, a large portion of a family’s resources and time have been spent on hosting and traveling to burial services.
Additionally, the South Sudanese pound continues to lose value against the American dollar, skyrocketing import costs and consequently making many resources unbearably expensive.
“Foreign exchange is low. Prices of commodities are rising every day. Many markets are in short supply of essential commodities,” said a World Concern staff member in Warrap State. “The chamber of commerce has attributed this to lack of dollar in the market. Given that he country heavily relies on import of food, fuel, and almost all essential commodities, shortage of dollar in the market spells doom for ordinary citizens of the country.”
Much of South Sudan’s younger generation was born into war, thus all they know is war. When asked, many say they would love to live in a world without war, yet most of them have no idea what that would look like. Because of this, instilling the notion of hope and the possibility of change can be a very complex process.
We believe that we have been called to South Sudan for a reason. And we believe that reconciliation, peace, and healing are possible. We know that the One who created us all, can surely bring hope and peace to the seemingly hopeless circumstances in South Sudan. And despite the horrible things we, as humans, do, He is still holding out for us, waiting patiently and moving us toward a world renewed.
So today, this morning, this evening, whenever you read this, though you may feel bombarded by a world of painful things, we ask that you remember South Sudan and pray for peace.
And please continue to pray for South Sudan’s leaders – that they would lead with integrity. South Sudan was recently ranked the 5th most corrupt nation in the world. Also, pray for safety, healthy, and strength for our field staff – they are the hands and feet of world Concern.