From May 27th to June 13th, an eXile international team travelled to Uganda to work with the most traumatized hearts in the world. The team consisted of Bethany Haley, co-founder of eXile and private counselor, Jessie Risman, eXile’s new executive intern, Jessica Kuhnemund, a flight attendant, Lauren Zumbrun, a teacher and peace education expert, and Ryan Carter, an entrepreneur and former professional soccer player. Upon arriving in Uganda, our team was blessed to be joined by therapist and EMDR specialist, Karen Gongola, and her daughter, AlleaBelle Gongola. As you can see, our seven team members came from very diverse fields, which allowed each to bring a unique skill set to the team. Everyone’s distinct passions, experiences, and expertise came together beautifully to create a full spectrum program in trauma care. The irreplaceable role of each member of our team was proof that God had divinely brought seven strangers together to bring healing in a multitude of ways to the hearts of the children we worked with.
Bethany travelled to Uganda a few days earlier than the rest of the team to meet with potential partners on the ground and conduct research on the needs in Lira, another area heavily affected by the LRA. While there, she met with Jane Ekayu, an incredible woman fighting for the future of Northern Uganda’s children, who invited our team to later attend a board meeting with her new organization, Children of Peace. Bethany also met with Carl and Julie Gaede. Carl is the lead trauma counselor of Watoto and founder of the nonprofit Tutapona, who eXile partnered with as we led a trauma workshop at HEAL Africa hospital in Goma, Congo this past January. During her time in Lira, Bethany discovered a group of children affected by this war in an entirely different way: children who were born in the bush to the girls who were abducted. These girls are forced to become the wives of the rebel soldiers at ages as young as eleven. By the time they escape, they often have already given birth to one or two children. When the girls return to their villages, they are plagued with the label of “child mothers.” Their children who were born in the bush are often rejected and referred to as “choppers,” because they have been fathered by LRA commanders, who are known for chopping off the ears, noses, and lips of their victims. It was then that Bethany discovered a whole new generation of children in Northern Uganda who would never be able to escape the past destruction caused by the LRA, because those men will forever be remembered as their fathers.
Sports Outreach Ministry
Upon arriving to Gulu, Uganda, the team was fortunate to meet with Pastor Aloysius, a former professional soccer player and the founder of Sports Outreach Ministry. When Aloysius heard about the abduction of children by the LRA in Northern Uganda, he decided to use his background in professional soccer to bring a unique form of healing to former child soldiers and war-affected children in his home country. He established Sports Outreach Ministry to utilize the relational and healing power of sports to reach the hearts of these traumatized children. Aloysius creates drills and games that incorporate a theme related to the children’s life experiences. After playing the games, the children reflect on the experience of playing, apply it to their own life experiences, and then unpack a theory or principle to help them in the future. He also works hard to train youth in the program so that they can then lead younger children in the drills. Thus, the ministry utilizes sports not only to help the children heal from trauma, but also to build them into community leaders. We were so fortunate to meet him, to learn his techniques and goals, and to have two of his trained leaders join us at Village of Hope to conduct sports therapy with the children. Before meeting with Aloysius, eXile’s trauma program had yet to incorporate sports as a form of trauma healing. We are excited to announce that sports therapy will now be incorporated as an essential element in eXile’s program!
Children of Peace Uganda
We were honored to be invited to sit in on a board meeting for Children of Peace, an organization recently born out of the film Children of War, by filmmaker and director Bryan Single. eXile screened Children of War, winner of the 2010 Cinema for Peace Justice Award in Berlin, at Belcourt Theatere in the fall of 2010. Children of Peace was started by Jane Ekayu, a counselor who has worked with many of the children affected by the war in Northern Uganda, was featured in the film, and has spoken internationally on its behalf. Jane is a woman who shares the same heart as eXile international. Her passion shines through the look on her face whenever she talks about her dreams of rehabilitation–spiritual, psychological, and physical–for the children traumatized by the LRA in Northern Uganda. Jane is fighting harder than anyone in this world for the future of these children, to help them surpass their suffering as children of war and grow into Uganda’s children of peace. In this meeting, we sat around a table with an incredibly talented and dedicated group of Ugandan leaders, listening to their dreams, goals, and plans for the organization. They were an inspiring group of individuals, fighting for these children on the ground. eXile is very excited to partner with Children of Peace on their journey to help rehabilitate and advocate for the traumatized children of Northern Uganda.
Visiting Displacement Camps in Gulu
Each of our three nights in Gulu, we visited a different internally displaced person (IDP) camp. Upon arriving at all three displacement camps, our team was enthusiastically greeted by the beautiful singing and dancing of the orphaned children who lived there. It was the warmest welcome and most vibrant greeting any of us had ever received upon entering someone else’s home. In each camp, they set out seats of honor for our team to comfortably watch the passionate performances by the children. Some played African drums with sticks while the others danced with their natural rhythm. Their voices were strong and genuine as they sang a host of welcome songs to their visitors and songs of praise to the Lord. They sang with their hearts open. Surrendered. Desperate. Vulnerable. Pure.
After applauding their breathtaking performance, each of our team members briefly introduced themselves to the group of children. Bethany then gave the children a word of encouragement. She told them stories to give them strength and courage, expressed God’s love for each and every one of them, and reminded them of the beautiful plans God has for their futures. Thanks to generous donations, we were able to leave the displacement camps with soccer balls, beach balls, paper and crayons to draw their heartaches, hopes, and dreams, and Believe t-shirts to remind the children that we and God believe in them.
Arriving at Village of Hope Uganda
After a few days in Gulu, the team finally headed to Village of Hope, eXile’s partnering orphanage in Northern Uganda, who we support by selling beads made by the children. Founded by Cindy Cunningham in 2007, Village of Hope is now home to 154 children who have been orphaned because of the war and are former child soldiers, children once abducted by the LRA, or affected by the war in some way. The Village had gone through an incredible amount of growth and transformation since Bethany had been there a year before. At that time, there were only about 50 children who had to be bussed in to participate in eXile’s trauma care program at the Village. Now, 154 children live in five dormitory style homes: Grace, Love, Mercy, Hope, and Faith. The sixth dormitory, which will be named Victory, is currently being constructed. In each of the houses lives a housemother, who serves as a caretaker for the children, cooking all of their meals, washing their clothes, and providing them with love and attention. Child mothers, girls who gave birth in the bush, assist the housemothers in fulfilling all of these responsibilities. All of the children attend primary school at Village of Hope Primary, and construction on a secondary school is just about to begin.
On our first night in the Village, the children performed welcome songs and dances for us. Right before doing so, however, they asked us to prepare one of our country’s “traditional” dances to perform for them. We tried to tell them that America did not have traditional dances, but they did not take that as an excuse. So we decided to perform the electric slide for them. It was absolutely hysterical, but the children loved seeing us dance an American dance. After our performance, they shared the most beautiful singing, dancing, and drumming with our team. Many of our team members got up to join them, as they taught us how to dance the traditional Acholi dances of Northern Uganda.
Learning how to Truly Worship
On Sunday we joined the children, teachers, and staff at Village of Hope for church. Those who had never been to Africa before were astonished by the beauty of the children worshiping the Lord. Until you have been to an African church service, you have not seen true worship. The children worship with such a vibrant passion for the Lord. Their hearts are open. They sing to Him with their entire soul. They call out to Him in true desperation. They are completely vulnerable in church, indifferent to what others think, and concerned only with God’s presence and their desire to worship and praise Him. We in America do not know what true worship is. What it means to be desperate and vulnerable in front of the Lord. So focused on Him that we are not afraid to raise our hands and our voices in front of others. There was much to learn from watching those children worship and praise our God.
The Birth of a Prayer Garden
Later that day, we began our week with the children by introducing a special project to them: a prayer garden. We found a place outdoors next to the church to create a peaceful garden, in hopes that the children would go there to pray, spend time with God, and rest in Him. We gathered all of the children together to speak to them about giving their burdens over to God. We told them that we knew they had experienced much suffering, but that God was there to take those painful memories and transform them into something beautiful. They simply had to hand it over to Him and give Him permission to do so. We distributed a bright colored piece of special paper that contained wild flower seeds to each of the children. On their seed paper, the children wrote a word, a phrase, or a memory that they wanted to hand over to the Lord. Then each of them went outside to the prayer garden and buried their piece of paper underneath a thin layer of dirt. After the children were done burying their burdens, the prayer garden looked beautiful. In between two trees was a cross made out of sticks, surrounding the garden was a perimeter of small rocks, and scattered around were larger rocks with the names of the houses, faith, hope, love, grace, and mercy, painted in red—a beautiful reminder of all the ways God would transform the burdens these children buried into great blessings.
Staff Trainings and Trauma Program with Children
For the next three days, we conducted trainings with the Village of Hope staff and teachers in the mornings on peace education, unity and teamwork, and caring for traumatized children. In the evenings, we conducted our trauma program with the children. All 154 of the children were split up into three groups that rotated in and out of the various sections of our program. Lauren taught about peace, reconciliation, and unity; Karen conducted EMDR and taught the children a variety of coping skills to help them deal with flashbacks and bad dreams; Susan and Lilly, two leaders trained by Sports Outreach Ministry, ran sports therapy drills and began to train the children so that one day they might lead the program; and Bethany and Jessie led the children in art and expressive trauma therapy. Each of these components came together beautifully in the form of a full spectrum trauma care program that eXile hopes to replicate in other places for war-affected children.
A Beautiful Ending and a New Beginning
On the last day, Ryan, Jessica, and Jessie led the team’s favorite activity: washing the children’s feet. As a symbol of leaving their past of trauma and suffering behind and holding onto their hopes and dreams for the future, we washed each of the children’s feet and gave them a new pair of shoes to wear. The shoes were special, in that they displayed the colors of the gospel, which also represent the cycle of trauma. In sharing the meaning of each of these colors, we emphasized the children’s ability to heal and grow from their pasts and what a beautiful future God has planned for each of them. Though they had to work through their heartaches to get there, by the end of the week the children were excited and passionate about their hopes and dreams.
That evening, we gave each of the children one of our Believe t-shirts to remind them that we believe in them, and that more importantly, God believes in them and always will. We spent that last evening singing and worshiping with the children, each one wearing their new Believe t-shirts. It was truly the perfect ending to our time with the children at Village of Hope. Ask any one of our team members, and they will tell you that they learned far more from the children than the children learned from us. They taught us what it means to truly worship the Lord. They showed us true faith, strength, resilience, and hope. They are our teachers and our inspiration, and eXile is excited to continue working with and benefiting these precious children.