Nevertheless, she persisted.
I experienced true heartbreak today. I was listening to the stories of these beautiful south Sudanese refugee women today and we began talking to an 18 year old girl. Her story was unfortunately like far too many here in Bidi Bidi Refugee Camp outside Yumbe, Uganda. She was forced to flee her village due to an escalating conflict between her tribe and another. They each wanted to kill the other. She had to get out. Unfortunately, her mother was blind, so was forced to remain in her village despite the dangers. This young girl took her child and her younger brother & quickly escaped. Over the course of the next FIVE MONTHS, the three of them walked day and night through the Sudanese bush fearing for their very lives. Despite this perilous journey, by some miracle she made it to the Ugandan border and eventually to where I meet her.
I’m on the ground as part of an organization trying to bring awareness and light to the stories of these people. Part of our ‘job’ on this trip is to meet with individuals in the camps, hear their stories & share them with the world. Because they NEED to be heard. Desperately.
I’ve been kind of starting/initiating discussions by asking similar questions - names, how long they’ve been in Uganda, how was their journey, etc. My teammate and I decided that we wanted to focus on a positive future-type question (what do you dream of/about?). She asked. The young woman answered.
I dream of this conflict being over so that I can go back and find my mother...
And then she broke down. The pain was instantaneous. Her trauma was visceral. Sobs. Hysterical sobs. We all sat in silence. The other women around her eventually began trying to calm the girl down. Enough. Enough. Their own faces betrayed their true feelings. Tears streamed down these women’s faces. Almost all of them. They could feel what she felt. *I* felt what she felt. My heart broke as hers did. It took a few more minutes of profound silence for us all to regain our composure. I couldn’t do it. The pain kept coming as the group’s founder was talking to us, explaining how the women don’t let themselves keep crying, otherwise they could cry for days. Literally. She said she would be soaked from the amount of tears. The room got silent and then another woman spoke up; the founder translated:
She said they need you to stop crying, because if they can see you still crying, they will not be able to stop.
It took a LOT for me to reign those emotions in. It’s exhausting. It’s tiring. But I did, because I didn’t want to prolong their pain. Somehow I have the gift to make people smile by being enthusiastic/myself. In my attempt to calm down, I made a silly movement or made a funny face or said something ridiculous, then all of the women giggled. Tears still wet on their face, and yet the giggles continued. And that broke the spell.
Another woman - whose story I’ll come back to another day - spoke up, when I became frazzled and didn’t know how to proceed after that.
‘How about you let them sing?’
Brilliant. I asked if they would; they agreed. I don’t remember the words (not that I would understand them) or the melody, but I do remember how the mood changed. It lifted tenfold. Something had changed. Their focus had shifted. The song was all that mattered. And god was it beautiful. It ended, but moments later, the founder began explaining that to help deal with their traumas, they do drama & traditional dances and that they wanted to show us one.
I can’t describe how much more the mood lifted. It was almost transcendent. The photographer in me leapt at the chance to document this; so I could forever remember this feeing. But then the human in me won out. I put my camera on my shoulder and lived in that moment. I danced with them. Badly. But no one cared. I clapped and cheered with them. Cause I needed to. Every single one of us women loving each other.
The dance slowed and then ended. And yet we weren’t finished. The same woman who suggested singing asked to say a few words to the women. And MAN did she say a few words. They were the most inspiring & uplifting & perfect words for that moment in that time. Love. Strength. Sisterhood. Courage. Empowerment. My heart soared. This woman met them all less than an hour before, but then cried and sang and danced and spoke with them as if she had know them all their lives. They were exactly what they needed - reminders that despite the fact that me & my teammate were there to help and support them, they didn’t need us. They could do it themselves. They could BE the change; bring about the solution and peace; lift themselves up from their circumstances and THRIVE.
The world works in mysterious ways sometimes. I wouldn’t change today for anything in the world.
Nevertheless, she persisted. 💙