Just over a week ago, Mila and I went to the Rhino Refugee Settlement to help with a children’s program we do in cooperation with a local church there. Because so many children show up we split them into two groups based on age. The younger kids are up to about six years old but the groups are loosely divided. Mila and I typically stay with the younger kids.
As a Westerner living in the twenty-first century, it really is something else to watch these kids arrive. Some of them see our vehicle driving in and run to meet us. Others peek around corners to see where those kids are running to and then join them. We always start with songs so that when still more hear us singing they can come join in as well. Many are regulars, but there are always new faces too. We typically have 30-50 in our younger group alone. Most are dirty and unkempt with clothes ranging from once nice dresses to missing pants and shoes all together. Some, perhaps many, are orphans. The small church hosts something like 40 orphans among its members, all refugees themselves. Even in our younger group girls show up with babies on their hips and strapped to their backs. When the babies get fussy the girls pass them around in an effort to comfort and quiet them. Normally they are very protective of the babies and won’t let us adults and outsiders hold them. I have not yet seen a single parent or guardian accompany any of these children or check on them during the program or even when we run later than usual. Almost every child who comes bears a brilliant gleaming smile when they arrive.
Our lesson was on the power of praying together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We sang songs a capella style and danced, played games and had object lessons, read a Bible story and did crafts. Overall it’s very similar in format to most US Sunday school programs. I love sitting amidst the kids on the tarp that we spread on the ground. It is very amusing to be considered something exotic simply because your skin is white. The kids will scoot up close to you and inevitably one of them will try to sneak a touch to your arm or hair. I always poke them back and then offer my arms and hands to touch. While the idea that letting a child run their fingers through your hair or down your arm brings them joy is a bit bizarre, you learn to laugh and roll with it.
Whereas the children are generally well-behaved, on this particular day our group was very routy, as all children can sometimes be. Perhaps it was the weather, who knows? We kept relative order until we started getting close to the end. During the freedom of craft time, however, chaos broke out. Multiple little girls started crying for no apparent reason. Some allowed themselves to be comforted; others did not. Meanwhile a group of boys had physically started fighting over a boxcar that someone had brought. The program is held in a wall-less structure and the kids had scattered. We settled conflicts, comforted as many as would allow it and rounded the kids back onto the tarp to say our closing prayer. I was impressed with the gal that runs the program and the church volunteers. Personally, I would have probably dismissed the kids as we had seemingly lost their interest, but they insisted on rounding them up and re-establishing some order so we could pray with and for them before ending the program. And they did. When they asked for prayer requests the only response was muffled whining and arguments, distracted giggles and shuffling noises.
Then the most amazing thing happened. One little boy got up on his knees, raised his hand high and called out, “Books! Can we ask God for books?” This got everyone’s attention. The entire group, which had looked to be completely distracted only a moment prior, all shot their hands up and in one accord echoed, “Books! Yes please ask God for books! Books! Books!” Then they all clasped their hands, closed their eyes, bowed their heads and prayed with all their hearts that God would send them books. That may have been the most sincere prayer I have ever witnessed.
As I surveyed the praying kids, I was suddenly struck to the core. These children are resilient, beautiful and full of life, but the signs of trauma are everywhere. They will break into hopeless whining moans, like those of a baby who has been left too long to cry, without provocation. Arguments quickly turn violent. During this last trip one boy in particular caught my attention because others nearby were pointing and laughing at him. He was holding tight to a dead mouse, stroking it over and over like a pet hamster. These are kids who have survived the African bush, who have lost parents and loved ones. They live without running water, electricity or clean sanitation. Some lack clothes and shoes. Others have died from preventable and curable diseases. These are kids who’ve literally lost everything, been through hell, and when told they can ask God for anything at all, they ask for books.
I was undone. It took an enormous amount of self-possession to stop up the tears that welled in my eyes and suppress sobs that I felt forming in my gut. Most of the time, crying over things like this is not helpful in the moment. I don’t know how other missionaries and humanitarian workers handle it, but I try to stay focused on the moment in front of me. That moment, however, was probably the closest I’ve ever come to loosing it in front of children who were not my own.
As some of you may have already heard, we have recently started working to reopen a small community library in Arua. We have plans to run various programs through it for children, youth and adults. We had recently been tossing around the idea of starting a mobile library to the refugee camp. Practically speaking it requires a bit of logistics and we’ve been balancing the pro’s and con’s and praying for confirmation. When Mila and I returned home that afternoon I sat down with Sal and said, “Honey, I think we’ve got our confirmation.”
I shared with Sal what had happened and he agreed; God wanted us to be the vessels through which He answered these young children’s prayers. So, we have been diligently organizing the necessary logistics of starting a mobile library in the refugee camp. These kiddos who prayed so fervently for books will be the firsts to receive books. I can’t describe how anxious and excited I am to get some books into their hands. This coming Saturday we are meeting with a gentleman who lives in the camp to talk to him about checking up on the kids who receive library books. He will help us to learn who these kids are and where they live, help keep track of the books, teach the kids how to treat them and encourage parents and guardians to read with their children.
It is a library program, but it is also a door for discipleship, community development and transformation. Please be in prayer for this project. There are several start-up expenses as well as those involved for maintenance associated with the mobile library. We are trusting God to meet these financial needs and invite you to partner with us in these efforts. If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation to support this project, please click on our “donate” tab above. After choosing your donation amount it will allow you to make a note on the confirmation page. Just note that you want your donation to go towards the library project and we’ll make sure it is handled accordingly.
Thank you so much for your continued interest and support. It breaks one’s heart to see the need that is in the refugee camps, especially among the children. However, by God’s grace and power, we can make a positive difference here and now and for eternity. God bless you.
*Note: I’m afraid I didn’t take any pictures from this particular trip to the refugee camp, so all pictures are from other visits, but many of the children are the same ones as were there.