KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Dec. 20, 2016) -- The 36 orphans in Holston Conference’s care are better off than many South Sudanese children, and each will receive a gift on Christmas Day.
Yet the United Methodist church member who just returned from visiting the children in a refugee camp worries about the despair she saw in people whose nation is reportedly on the brink of “mass atrocities” due to civil war and ethnic violence.
“The people of Yei are still the people of Yei. They are still kind and loving and gentle,” said Heather Hayes. “But they need to be remembered and prayed for, and they need hope for the future.”
Hayes is chair of Holston's South Sudan Orphanage Board of Directors, organized after the 36 children were forced to flee their homes for neighboring Uganda between July and September.
In early October, Holston's 881 congregations gave a special offering totaling nearly $88,000 to support the children, who previously lived in two separate orphanages in South Sudan: Greenland and Grace. The new board recently decided to unify the children under the “Grace Home” title, especially since they live together now in Rhino Refugee Camp outside Arua, Uganda.
“They call each other ‘cousin,’” missionary Libby Dearing said during a recent board meeting. “They are an extended family, and I didn’t want to see them separated by names.”
Hayes and her husband, Wes, traveled to Uganda earlier this month, returning to the U.S. on Dec. 11. The couple attends Concord United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. They met the children, now ages five to 16, during previous visits to South Sudan.
The special October offering from Holston Conference has ensured that the children are fed and cared for by Director Justus Kwaje and six “mamas,” Hayes said. “It was a relief to see the kids are doing OK. Justus is trying to maintain as much normalcy for them as he can.”
However, walking miles to pump water from a well shared by hundreds is difficult. So is finding enough food to buy and prepare for more than 40 people. The children miss their homes and schools, Hayes said.
“They had changed a little. They were more reserved than they used to be. They had a wall built up,” she said.
Suicides have been reported among South Sudanese inhabitants of the refugee camps, Hayes learned from consultant Mandela Wani. “There is huge despair. They left everything, and they are no longer able to work or grow gardens on the hard and rocky ground. They left their tools at home,” she said.
Heather and Wes Hayes brought gifts of soap, cookware, and duffel bags for the Grace Home children and adults to store their clothes in. They brought books and 250 letters of love and encouragement from U.S. children. “The kids couldn’t read them fast enough,” Hayes said.
Hayes also conducted “trauma sessions.” She talked to them about how feelings of fear, anger, regret and shame are normal. She encouraged them to talk about their feelings and to be good listeners for each other.
Hayes visited with the children for three days, and eventually, “They started to giggle and play more normally. You could see their old smiles open up.”
Now that they’re in Uganda and visitors come less often, the children fear they will be forgotten, Hayes said.
Holston Conference mission leaders are among those who grieve the mass evacuations and lives lost in South Sudan, a nation where Holston has built relationships since 2006. News of rape, murder and starvation near the United Methodist schools and churches where children once learned and played is “heartbreaking,” said Danny Howe, Holston’s South Sudan ministry coordinator.
“What’s happening now is unimaginable,” he said. “When you know people on both sides of the issue and see humanity fall into that – it’s hard.”
Yet Howe says hope exists due to the dedication of South Sudanese staff and work Holston has completed in and around Yei. Staff members are taking care of the properties built with Holston funds and caring for the 543 pupils still attending (amidst war) four United Methodist schools that remain open in South Sudan.
“Many folks have left, but the schools and churches are still functioning as much as they can,” Howe said. “That’s a testament to what Holston has been doing, and what the people who stayed back in South Sudan are doing.”
Hope exists in Uganda as well, Howe says. Lodging has been secured in north Uganda where the 36 children can live with their caretakers, as soon as they are released from the refugee camp. Holston’s special offering from October will help pay for their temporary future in Uganda, until war subsides and returning to South Sudan is possible.
In the meantime, the church is springing from the rock-hard ground of Rhino Refugee Camp, where United Methodist pastors from South Sudan have started a new worshipping community that numbered more than 80 when Heather and Wes Hayes attended.
“It’s a blessing,” Hayes said. “The pastors said that ‘even in exile, the church exists.’”
With Christmas approaching, Libby Dearing sent money from jewelry that she and her sister made and sold in the U.S. The plan was for each of the 36 children to have a new set of clothing, which Justus Kwaje planned to buy in Arua.
On Christmas Day, the children will receive their gifts and worship all day with their brothers and sisters who miss home as much as they do.
War: An Ophan's Poem from South Sudan (BBC, 12/16/16)
South Sudan orphanage to open in September (The Call, 7/22/13)
Holston signs historical covenant with East Africa (The Call, 2/27/08)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.