“Wings of Hope”
It’s always a little staggering when your feet touch the soil of Africa. You realize the light coming from the heavens is different, the sky a rare color of blue, and the plants, trees, and flowers radiate an unusual glow. The stars shimmer with a warm color that’s not found in the crayon box, or anywhere else that I know of. In so many ways,
God blessed Africa with the spirit and soul of its people, and the beauty of their land. What came with that, however were many hardships and challenges, but despite their injustices, they still exclaim –
“I am grateful for my life and I love my country!”
Oz, (Lara Bianco) my friend and volunteer for Tough Angels, and I left on a UN flight en route to the refugee camp, Kakuma, which is along the Sudanese border. What we saw were 180,000 destitute people crammed into a much too small area,
rampant with illness, poverty, fear and loss; asylum seekers, families, and abandoned children who’d lost their parents to war, terrorism, and other atrocities – all seeking refuge. Approximately 150 new refugees arrive daily, and overall, 71 percent of new arrivals are under the age of 18; almost a quarter are under five, according to a May 13th, 2014 update released by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)!
It is a disturbing and impossible reality to make sense of, but I saw hope, connection, and eyes that smile through the dirt, trauma, and brutality they’ve experienced. The children still express joy and are excited about having their pictures taken; they crave close contact, attention, and hugs. Mainly, I believe through it all they want to be seen and loved, just like the rest of us. They are made of courage, adaptability, and obvious forgiveness, and have probably known little else than struggle in their short lives. I’ve asked myself many times if they’re the special ones, sent here to teach the rest of us? They have taught me so much.
Some of the refugees were born in the camp, or have resided there for years. Others were standing in line at the reception tent after having just arrived. It’s natural to feel heartache for their circumstances, but it’s more humane to see them through the eyes of respect and honor for a fellow human being, who have endured more than what is fair, and further, thrown into situations they did not cause or ask for. I saw no one asking for pity. They were dealing with their reality the best they could. They were curious about our differences and wanted to touch my skin and hair. They are as enchanting and lovely as any child.
We visited the schools within the camp where up to 200 students fill the classroom with chaotic energy
and enthusiasm. They speak different dialects and are typically taught by 1-2 teachers. These are rooms
of sweltering heat and dirt floors, but it overflowed with their eagerness and yearning to learn. Humbling.
We over-viewed a newly implemented adult’s psychosocial program, facilitated by IsraAid. It has already shown measurable success, and listening to the students in the training, they expressed nothing but praise and examples of how it has helped them shift the dynamics of their villages within the camp. They proudly expressed their grasp of newly learned skills on how to deal with violence and conflict within the camp, and were eager to train others on ways to exist together under extreme conditions. (This same curriculum will be introduced in Lodwar, at the Wings of Hope center.)! We stayed in the UN compound, and Oz and I stayed up late into the night discussing the possibilities or lack thereof for the people in the camp. I saw 2 different little girls running through the camp in frilly, lacy party dresses, as if they’d just been plucked out of a friend’s birthday party; now their dresses ripped and covered in filth. Many of the refugees had prior established lives and careers, but were forced to leave their countries of residence. Some had fled to Nairobi and had begun new and successful lives only to later be deported into the camp by the government for lack of citizenship.
Seemingly, the people were trying to make the best of a prison-like existence, forced to flee their homes mainly by the actions of men at war. We left the camp and drove approximately 65 kilometers, which took over 3 hours because of the conditions of the makeshift road. We arrived covered in dust and bruises and aching backs from being thrown to and fro in the back of the truck. There was little to see along the route, other than desert. Refugee camps are set up in the most remote areas, and as far away as possible from their host communities.
The following day, we went to see the women’s sustainable agriculture project an arm of the gender violence project,
Wings of Hope, in Lodwar, Kenya. The fields are without
shade and the horizon carries on forever. When we arrived, I
felt such pride and respect for the Turkana women. They dotted the fields with their brightly colored skirts and head wraps.
I watched as they carried buckets of water on their heads
from the water pump to their beloved plants. Three of the women told me they were hungry and their stomachs were empty, evident by their bony bodies, but they
continued to work. They had planted watermelons and though the field had been
surrounded by a fence, small animals were coming in and chewing their plants
down to short stubs. This caused devastating disappointment to the hard working, women Resourceful as we are often forced
to be, they masterminded a way to protect their plants. They built huts over the watermelon vines with thorny branches,
mimicking the design of the huts they lived in. With their ancestral knowledge, creative thinking, and use of the resources they had, problem solved.
I planted a tree deep into the earth and offered a prayer that it might bring peace, hope and encouragement, and stand as proud and tall as they did. I also prayed it
would bless the field with a hearty harvest.
The first time I visited Lodwar as a member of the Kenya GBV steering committee, the community surrounded us, wildly dancing and singing. It was their celebration of hope. I photographed the people, their children, and their joy, and I captured a photo of one woman exuberantly dancing and singing; her name Mary. I was told she had lost one eye because her husband beat it out of her. The next time I visited Lodwar nearly a year later, I had the photo of her on my IPad and
took it out to show her. The shock wave that went through her and the other women as they crowded around me was not what I’d expected. The interpreter explained she had never seen herself before. They don’t have mirrors, or cameras, or
the many ways we see our reflections. They screamed and hugged me and for that moment, Mary was queen for the day.
I never stopped to ask myself how capable I was to start and run a nonprofit on my own. The issues of sexual violence and abuse were staring me in the face, and the thought never once crossed my mind to turn my back and do nothing. It has been a steep learning curve, demands a great deal of sacrifice and tenacity, and has been laden with more obstacles than I ever could’ve imagined. 5 ½ years ago, when I asked my God to use me to serve others, I had no idea what was in store for me, or how drastically my life would change. I never imagined my energy and dedication to women and children’s human rights violations, would reach the far corners of a continent on the other side of the world. Change is going where others won’t, and I stepped forward – heart and soul, and said “I’ll do it”. My passion has always been
children’s safety and protection and along the route, this passion has expanded to include women, and most recently men and boys that are coming forward to reveal their own stories of rape and sexual violence, both here and abroad. If the very least I accomplish in my lifetime is succeeding at bringing rape and violence out of the shadows so we can begin having honest and open dialogue about how to unravel this mess, I will feel relief. Through honest and open dialogue, and nonjudgmental listening, my hope is that it creates safety within families, communities, schools, and churches, enabling all survivors to unveil their stories and begin the healing process. Should we make it that far, I will consider that an earnest act of service, but we have so much further to go!
Rape and sexual assault is far too often a closeted trauma, because it is so common and ‘normal’ to feel shame and self-blame about the incident, and many keep quiet and suffer in silence. I did, and it eroded away at my confidence and self worth for 30+ years, until I finally trusted I was in a supportive and nonthreatening environment to disclose the incident. I confided in my husband, who showed nothing but understanding and reassurance that he loved me even more for having the guts to finally open up. By freeing the self-blame, I began to improvement in my physical,
emotional, and spiritual health. I’d carried this secret on my own for a painfully long time. The response of secrecy is attributed to many things, but mainly we’ve created a world where we are asking the wrong questions. The stigma of rape and the questions of how and why it happened is a paralyzing approach for the victim. We need to be addressing the perpetrators, and watching for early warning signs of both the abuser and the abused. If there isn’t a harmless environment and opportunity for the survivor to use their voice, the wound festers and manifests in ways that can ruin lives. I believe the tides are turning and open dialogue is beginning to take place in schools, at the dinner table, and within the governments. We need to start teaching self-respect and honoring our own and other’s personal boundaries
and bodies at a much earlier age, and quit acting like those conversations are taboo. Silence is the enemy here. It is imperative that we all take a stronger stand on issues of rape, brutality, bullying, and sexual violence, and as long as I have breath, I won’t shut up. Make no mistake, speaking out comes with a price and frequently, the loss of friends and family who simply can’t hear it.
I am personally asking you to take your blinders off. When 1 in 3 women globally will experience sexual assault and violence, we have a sweeping problem that clearly needs our attention. I believe we haven’t even scratched the surface or reality of male victims suffering in silence. WE MUST ACT NOW. Rape carves on your very soul, and it’s a scar that never disappears. It can fade a little with a lot of support, understanding, and treatment, but even then – it’s a lifelong wound that alters who and what we could’ve been. The scar I have has given me the guts to be a warrior for others and to use my voice for those who’ve lost theirs. I will do everything in my power to advocate for survivors, and in time hopefully, be part of the many people and organizations who will bring an end to it. We can do this! We must do it!
The walls and roof are completed at the Wings of Hope Center in Lodwar. Tough Angels is raising $20,000 to finish the interior, including paint, flooring, furniture, a computer, and phone. I am so moved by your emotional and financial support in the past, and I am humbly asking you to help us around this last bend in the road. I am profoundly grateful for your faith in me to do this work. Be careful when you offer to your Creator your desire to serve. It’s like a tsunami that will knock the daylights out of you but in the end, I can dream of using my life for nothing else than this cause. There is hope. I have seen it.
The best gift I could’ve received on this trip to Lodwar was hearing the men, as we gathered in a circle for a meeting, express their sincere desire for training. They had already started visiting homes of other men in the village and talking to them about violence. They were requesting training for an outreach program to gather all the men in the area, and to bring awareness and education about the impact and aftermath of gender based violence. They made the comment to me, “We are the solution, Patty!”, and indeed they are . . . that my friends is hope and progress.
With love and appreciation,
Patricia Melnice, Founder, Activist, CEO Tough Angels