Monthly Archives: December 2014

One Year Later – Reflecting on the Anniversary of South Sudan’s Conflict

Below is a blog post I wrote for the World Concern blog regarding the one year anniversary of South Sudan’s most recent conflict. Please take a minute to read it and stay engaged. 

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.

Because today is 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 take time 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.

Mary (right) and her newborn son sit inside a vacated school they now call home.

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.

Women sit outside of the school where Mary gave birth.

Women sit outside of the school where Mary gave birth.

“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.

A silhouetted pregnant woman rests at an IDP site.

A silhouetted pregnant woman rests at an IDP site.

“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.

Please consider giving a gift to bring hope and life to the people of South Sudan.

In the midst of pain, in the depths of suffering, under the tarps of IDP camps and tin roofs of refugee shelters, we know that there exists a surpassing peace and hope for a world transformed.


It’s Giving More Than A Dam – Community Projects In Somaliland

Fresh soil sprays over my head and makes its way into the crevices of my camera. I am standing in the heart of what is soon to be a massive dam – and it appears that the entire community is out to dig.

We are in a remote village of Somaliland – one of 30 villages where World Concern has recently implemented cash-for-work and cash-for-livestock programs. And by the look of the community’s willingness to cooperate and the sheer amount of physical labor taking place, the new program seems to be going on well.

“After the men shovel the dam, I help carry the sand out of the dam and put it in a large pile,” Sahra, a middle-aged woman dressed in a maroon hijab, explains.

In Somaliland, male and female labor roles tend to be separate and defined – women cook and gather water while men deal with livestock – but here, in this oversized dirt pit, everyone is working together. Taking in my environment I watch men, women, youth, elderly, and even disabled folk hard at work. I see a woman who had to be at least 75-years-old and ask her to hold up her tool and pose for the camera. Without hesitation, she proudly looks at me as a huge gaped smile spreads across her face.

Later, taking a moment’s rest from the equatorial sun, inside of Sahra’s one room home, she tells me, “The work we are doing with World Concern is going well. We have built a large sand dam – we have worked 15 days every month for three months.”

Finding paid work in the remote villages of Somaliland is unlike any other job hunt – essentially, the market doesn’t exist. Thus, this cash-for-work and livestock program is a real game changer, and the community knows it.

Sahra and her children inside their home.

Sahra and her children inside their home.

“I am happy to do any work,” Sahra said. “Sometimes I sell a goat for money, but otherwise I don’t have a job outside of the home to do.”

Sahra is not alone. The majority of her community survives by participating in petty trade (such as selling flour, tea, and sugar) and rearing livestock. Though a single goat may bring enough money for a small family to survive for period of time, it is not a sustainable income.

Getting To Work

Men work together to carry dirt out of the dam.

Men work together to carry dirt out of the dam.

World Concern is currently partnering with 30 villages in Somaliland. Working with local leaders, they identify the most vulnerable households within each community. These households are then given the opportunity to work in return for cash or livestock. This is a two-fold project – 1) households are given jobs that enable them to better provide for their families and 2) World Concern teaches them how to be better stewards of their land and prevent future disasters.

This is a win-win.

“Before World Concern came, we did not have the proper materials or knowledge to prevent flooding,” Sahra explained. “This work is good because we are benefiting by stopping our floods, catching water, and gaining livestock as a payment.”

A woman rests above the dam.

A woman rests above the dam.

32-year-old Yasin, a member of the World Concern household identification committee, also shared his perspective on this new job opportunity, “There are many impoverished households in this community. Many are without an income.”

Yasin doing his part.

Yasin doing his part.

Taking a break from shoveling, he continued, “Along with other projects, we have learned to build dams for the animals. These dams will provide them with drinking water and more grass will grow for them to eat.”

When I asked him why it’s so important that they build such a large dam, Yasin told me, “In the past, floods would frequently ruin the things inside people’s homes and kill their livestock. This happened many times.”

After hearing this, I started to wonder if the dam was actually too small.Frequent floods?! Ruined homes!? But, according to the locals, the dams they have built are already serving their purpose in preventing disasters.

“Even after World Concern leaves,” said Yasin “we plan to continue with this work because it is good and we have been given many examples.”

A program that brings a diversity of community members together as a single, strong body – to build dams that will prevent potential disasters, catch clean water, feed their animals, and earn them an income? I’m sold.

Looking out from the dam. Yes - remote in the truest sense of the word.

Looking out from the dam. Yes – remote in the truest sense of the word.

Renewal in the Unrecognizable. // Tessou, Chad

I can’t honestly claim that I’ve ever been displaced. I’ve never been forced to leave my home, nor have I experienced the assumed feelings that are correlated with returning to a place that was once familiar, only to find that that place has transformed into something utterly unrecognizable.

To the most minor degree my recent return to Tessou, a small village tucked within the foothills of Eastern Chad, simulated these feelings of displacement, this sense of disorientation.  And the craziest thing is that these feelings came after I’d only been to Tessou ONCE before, for only ONE DAY.

The Tessou I saw one year ago.

The Tessou I saw one year ago.

In 2004, the Janjaweed (a horribly violent rebel group) attacked Tessou, forcing its residents to flee – leaving all possessions, and even some family members, behind. For years afterward the people of Tessou resided in neighboring villages and, primarily, Gassire Internally Displaced Persons camp.

Talk about displacement.

Weary and fed up with living off of someone else’s land, where they were unable to farm or provide for themselves, the community members slowly started returning to their home. But they came back to Tessou only to find it completely deserted and charred – all homes had been burned, livestock stolen, and possessions demolished.

Tessou one year ago.

Tessou one year ago.

But to the people of Tessou, no matter its ravaged appearance, the land remained their home. And in this once familiar, now unrecognizable village, it was time to begin anew.

I arrived in Tessou in July of 2013 to find a small number of dilapidated huts haphazardly situated on, what appeared to be, a massive dirt compound. Within the compound was a single tree – the only remaining evidence of a once populated and lively village. Everything I saw was brown – from the ground to the huts to the dirt covering people’s bodies. Because the nearest water source was an hour walk away, cleanliness was a low priority.

Last month I once again found myself  sitting in a World Concern vehicle, bumping along the road from Goz Beida to Tessou. I was anxious to return. Stories of had been circulating about the community’s transformations, but I had yet to see them for myself.

As our car pulled up to a village so densely surrounded in sorghum, trees, and maize, I figured we must be lost. This was not the Tessou I knew. Why were there so many homes? Where was the group of men and women sitting under the single tree? Why was everything so…green?

I did not recognize Tessou one bit. I felt disoriented. But this time it was for the best of reasons.

In the last year, partnering with World Concern’s One Village Transformed program, the people of Tessou have rebuilt their village from the ground up. In fact, they have far surpassed their state of development prior to the Janjaweed attacks!

Tena drinks from Tessou’s first clean water pump.

Firstly, Tessou now has clean and accessible water. This is huge.

“Before we got our new well, we used to walk one hour each way to collect water,” shared 20-year-old Tena. “But now Tessou is better. We have clean water that we can use for preparing our food, drinking, bathing, and for washing our clothes.”

According to Tena, people no longer get sick from drinking water, “If they get sick, it is caused by something else.”

“Now that we have a water pump we can use the water for food, we can wash our clothes, and we can bathe easily,” 35-year-old Fatuma said. “We no longer have to travel to collect water at the local, dirty source.”

In addition to improving overall community health, having access to clean water has allowed the people of Tessou to efficiently build thousands of bricks.

“We are working on making bricks to be used for a school and maybe even a health center,” Tena explained.  “If there is a school here, I want to go. I want to be a big woman like you.”

And then there are the agricultural improvements – since moving back to the village, many people have returned to farming. And because they now have accessible water, their farms are flourishing. And because their farms are flourishing, World Concern is partnering with the farmers to develop their skills even further.

One more thing – Tessou is now home to organized savings groups.

“I am the president of our community savings group,” shared Fatuma. “Each woman involved contributes money. Together we have bought some bags of seeds and have even hired people to cultivate our seeds.”

As a gathering of 25 women, Fatuma’s savings group hopes to save enough money to contribute to purchasing a community mill. The group also serves as a distributor of loans, “If a member is in trouble or wants to start a small business, she can borrow money from the group and pay it back later.“

Both Tena and Fatuma’s testimonies are two prime examples of the transformations that are possible when a community is empowered and willing to develop themselves. The unrecognizable Tessou that I recently experienced is so full energy and motivation that it is palpable – these people are ready to improve their way of life. And, most importantly, they are elated to be the hands and feet facilitating their own transformations.

Fatouma (in green) stands proudly next to some of the members in her savings group.