By Erica Kenny
The war in South Sudan has displaced five million people – most are living in refugee camps along the borders of South Sudan and in the neighbouring countries of Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya. Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with members of the Faith Evangelical Baptist Church (FEBAC), CBM’s partner in South Sudan. Each of the people I met had fled their country at different times and for different reasons, but common to all was their hope for a better future.
For some refugees, the journey from their home in South Sudan to the safety of a refugee camp like Kakuma, in Northern Kenya, can take almost a year as they travel by foot from village to village seeking a safe path out of the conflict. James fled his village at night with 50 other boys. This was in 2004, during the fighting that led to the independence of South Sudan. The journey was a difficult one as they struggled with hunger and thirst. Some were wounded in the escape. Only 39 of the boys survived. Teresa also left South Sudan during conflict, but her journey began in June 2014 during the current civil war. Travelling on foot with her four-year-old son, Teresa did not know if they would make it out, but she knew she had to try. “It was unsafe to even go outside my home. People were dying like animals.”
Teresa made it to Kenya, but many of her family members were not as fortunate. Just weeks ago, a group of 22 of her relatives were attacked as they ran for the border. As Teresa shared their story, her pastor, Rev. Deng, passed me his phone with pictures too terrible to describe. “They had heard that soldiers were coming, and decided that they needed to reach a safer location quickly. But as they left, they were ambushed.” As I looked at the images, I saw a little girl standing among her slain family. “Everyone was killed except for a two-year-old girl named Abuk,” shared Rev. Deng. “She was later found by the government forces, wailing next to her mother’s body.”
The trauma and pain of fleeing a conflict zone has touched the lives of every member of the FEBAC church. James and Teresa are deeply thankful for God’s hand in bringing them out of the war, but they also share how they face new struggles in Kenya. James lived in a refugee camp for 10 years, sleeping in a church compound with 39 other boys. There was little food, no access to education, and it was brutally hot. “I was losing hope,” shared James. “What am I to do here?”
Throughout this decade of waiting, the church became James’ life and in 2014, he was selected by his pastor to serve as an evangelist at their Nairobi church in the settlement of Saika. James left the camp for his new home on the edge of Nairobi. Teresa had hoped for a better life in Kenya. As a woman, her only opportunity for education in South Sudan was to learn some Arabic. Coming to Kenya, she dreamt of finally receiving an education. She wants to become a teacher so that one day she can return to South Sudan and teach her people. So far, neither she nor her son have been able to afford school fees. Teresa speaks no English or Kiswahili and so it is nearly impossible for her to find work in Kenya. Her struggle to protect and provide for her son continues.
For James and Teresa, their faith and the community of their local church has become their foundation for life. “If any one receives anything,” says Rev. Deng, “they share it with those in need.” This experience of dividing ones resources is often seen in traditional African families, but for the refugees of FEBAC, the church has become their family. It is only natural for them to share what little they have with the entire church. They embrace one another’s needs and rely on each other because they realize that they are stronger together.