This Spring, Exile traveled to Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. The trip was tri-focused: providing trauma care for the war-affected children we serve in Congo; training Congolese counselors and caretakers in a trauma care program called EMPOWER; and meeting with our partners on the ground in Congo and Uganda to get a better understanding of their current needs.
- Conducted trauma workshop with 15 Rwandan youth ages 14-23
- Trained 20 Congolese counselors and caretakers in the EMPOWER program
- Met with leaders from Hope Counseling Center and Peace Lives Center to assess needs
- Conducted an art therapy workshop with 150 girls at the Dina Center; created a prayer garden together
- Visited 30 children at the Peace Lives Center; toured their new facilities; learned more about their current needs; created a prayer garden together
- Visited 30 former child soldiers in Kibumba; gave them new bibles and Believe t-shirts
- Met with Children of Peace to discuss the upcoming establishment of Peace Clubs in Northern Uganda, as well as recent and upcoming trainings in the Empower Program
This team trip included Bethany Haley (Exile’s Founder and Executive Director), Matthew Williams (Director of Operations), Morgan Fite (Administrative Manager), and Jessie Risman (Executive Assistant). It was a beautiful combination of diverse skill sets, including two trained therapists and a talented artist. We were incredibly blessed to have Ocen Benson, a Ugandan counselor, join our team upon arrival in Kigali to lead the EMPOWER training.
Due to the outbreaks of violence in Eastern Congo, our contact at the UN requested that we delay our entry into Congo. Upon flying into Rwanda, we were still unsure if we would be able to make it to Congo before heading back to the US. As a result, the EMPOWER training was relocated to Gisenyi, a village in Rwanda just across the border of DRC. Our partners on the ground worked tirelessly to refigure the plans they had been working so hard on for this training, and participants were asked to cross the border each day from Goma, Congo to Gisenyi, Rwanda for the 5-day training.
Trauma Workshop with 15 Rwandan Youth
The first weekend of the trip was spent in Kigali, Rwanda in preparation for the training. We were all praying that during this unexpected time in Kigali, God would connect us with children who were in need of healing from past trauma. In between planning meetings with our partners, we had the privilege of connecting with a Rwandan counselor named Baraka. With her help, we were able to do a condensed version of our trauma workshop with a group of about fifteen Rwandan youth between the ages of 14 and 23. Some of these youth had personally experienced the Rwandan genocide, but all suffered from the resulting trauma of surviving in post-genocide Rwanda. Some were orphans, and some lived in child-headed households taking care of their younger siblings.
During the month of April, Rwanda had been mourning the 18-year anniversary of their genocide. At this time especially, wounds were resurfacing, and the need for healing was huge. We watched these children draw pictures of their heartaches, as well as their dreams. They shared their stories, and believe us when we tell you that many of their hearts dream of using Rwanda’s past pain to encourage peace everywhere. We ended our time with these children by washing each of their feet as we prayed a prayer of peace and healing over them and then placed a pair of brand new shoes on their feet. This is always the most special part of our trauma workshop, as it symbolizes newness and is a reminder to the children that the beautiful futures God has planned for each of them will be entirely different from their very painful pasts.
Training of 20 Congolese Leaders in the EMPOWER Program
The following week was spent in the EMPOWER training. Benson, a counselor from Gulu, Uganda, came with us to Gisenyi to train the group of Congolese counselors and caretakers in the program. There is something so beautiful about having an African rather than an American train a group of Africans. While there were obvious cultural differences between Benson as a Ugandan and the Congolese trainees, he was able to genuinely connect with them as an African from a country also heavily affected by war. Benson’s incredible sense of humor and storytelling abilities made him an even more effective trainer. Our team was blessed to be trained by Benson in the EMPOWER program alongside roughly twenty Congolese participants. Each participant with different backgrounds, training, and experience, and each working with different populations, came together with their own stories to share and expertise to lend. Ultimately, however, each of us shared the same goal: to become better equipped to bring hope, healing, and rehabilitation to those affected by war.
Participants included counselors from Hope Counseling Center in Goma, leaders from the Peace Lives Center, pastors from the towns of Kibumba and Masisi, and Exile International staff. Representatives from each organization shared their dreams and vision for the war-affected people of Congo. Side by side, story by story, and day by day, we grew together into a team who listened deeply and respectfully, learning much from one another. The most powerful part of the week was hearing participants share their stories of healing and forgiveness, watching many find their own healing during the training, and knowing that this experience will allow them to walk others through that very process. After five days of training, we were all qualified to lead the war-affected groups we work with through the EMPOWER program. Before returning to our individual communities, however, we rejoiced through sharing a meal together alongside children from the Peace Lives Center, who traveled to Gisenyi to join us that afternoon in celebration.
By the time the training was over, we received approval from our contact at the UN that the situation was safer and we would be able to cross the border into Congo.
Art Therapy Workshop with 150 Girls at the Dina Center
On our first day in Goma, Congo we were able to visit the Dina Center, a home for girls who have been orphaned or abandoned because of the wars in DRC. Around 80% of these girls have been victims of rape, which is commonly used as a weapon of war in Congo. Exile partners with the center to provide weekly group trauma work conducted by local counselors through Hope Counseling Center. The girls welcomed us with beautiful singing and dancing. We watched them sing songs of worship to the Lord with their eyes closed tight and hearts fully opened. They know the true meaning of dependence on the Lord, and you can feel it as they sing with all of their might that many of them know God intimately as their one and only Father.
After singing, we conducted an art therapy workshop with the girls. The workshop focused on seeing oneself through the eyes of God in four main ways: as beautiful, precious, pure, and as a child of God. The goal was to encourage the girls to see themselves in the way that God sees them, rather than as a product of their painful past. They were given time to do an art project on a mirrored piece of cardstock, which they could keep as a reminder of the beautiful ways God sees them every time they look in the mirror. Many of the girls got up and shared the story behind their drawings.
We ended our time with the girls at the Dina Center by creating a prayer garden. Each girl was given a piece of seed paper to write down something that keeps them from seeing themselves the way God does, such as shame or guilt. By writing these words down, the girls were representing the struggle they were surrendering to God. We then prayed over the pieces of seed paper, and the girls buried them in an area that will now serve as a prayer garden where the girls can come to be reminded of how God sees them. Those pieces of seed paper will soon grow into wild flowers, a representation of God taking their painful past and turning it into a beautiful future.
Visiting the Peace Lives Center
Later that day we visited the Peace Lives Center, a home and rehabilitation center that now houses 30 war-affected children and former child soldiers, many of whom are sponsored by Exile. We were able to see first-hand their new dormitory, floored and filled with beds, a construction project which Exile funded this past year, as well as the new piece of land that had recently been purchased. These additions are helping to equip the Peace Lives Center with more space to shelter the children they serve.
After being welcomed by more singing, the children performed a drama they had prepared for us. The drama spoke of their experiences in war and on the street before coming to the center and expressed how becoming a part of the Peace Lives Center had transformed their lives. Didi, who runs the center, then spoke to us about the center’s history, mission, and vision. He also informed us of their current greatest needs so that we can better provide assistance.
We gave the children with a word of encouragement and discussed the purpose of a prayer garden. Like the girls at the Dina Center, they each wrote down something they wanted to surrender to God on a piece of seed paper. After a beautiful time of prayer, the children and the leaders of the center buried their seed paper in the new prayer garden. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to do the art therapy project we had planned, which involved using mixed media to tell their own stories, but we left them with paper, paints, and instructions to do the project on their own time.
Visiting 30 War-Affected Children in Kibumba
We traveled to the town of Kibumba with the children from the Peace Lives Center, where the PLC boys washed the feet of and prayed over 30 new children we are working with in Kibumba. It was a true celebration of peace, as former child soldiers who are now leaders for peace washed the feet of other former child soldiers dreaming of being leaders for peace. They were given new bibles and Believe T-shirts and were absolutely overjoyed. These former child soldiers are now receiving emotional and spiritual care as well as training in carpentry.
Meeting with Children of Peace in Uganda
A large part of this trip was meeting with our partners on the ground to conduct needs assessments and to plan future projects. While in Uganda, we met with Jane and Richard from Children of Peace (CPU), our partner in Lira, to plan the peace clubs we will soon be launching in Northern Uganda. We were also able to meet the three groups that CPU has started in Lira. A group of younger children is receiving rehabilitative care. Two groups of older children in their teens and 20s are receiving rehabilitative care and participating in a piggery project, with the goal of gaining emotional health and learning skills that will allow them to become self-sufficient. We discussed the EMPOWER program, which has been started with a group of child mothers in Gulu and Lira, and were briefed on the recent training in the EMPOWER program, which included participants from Village of Hope Uganda, Hope Counseling Center, Children of Peace Uganda, and the CPU group of child mothers. It was a productive time of prayer, planning, and learning from one another.