UPdate Issue 8, Summer
by Gabriel Constans
There’s much more to Rwanda than the genocide that took place over thirteen years ago. Yes, there was plenty of carnage that lay in its wake and everyone in the country (the size of New Jersey) was directly affected, especially the children, many of whom ended up on the street, with distant relatives or friends or perished from neglect. Add the scourge of the AIDS pandemic and you found even more homeless and abandoned children living on the streets. The needs outstripped all available resources.
But it only takes one person to make a difference and the street children, also known as “street rebels” in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, were blessed with one such man. His name is NZITUKUZE Sylvester. (In Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda, last names go first and are capitalized).
While Sylvester was in the Rwandan Army he had a vision that he was somehow meant to help the street kids of Kigali. He followed his vision, left the army and started taking children into his home. It wasn’t an easy task. A lot of the kids were filthy, disease-ridden, taking drugs, angry and traumatized. After a year or two of doing what he could on such a small scale, he was able to find an abandoned automotive building that had nothing in it but a large brick room with no windows on one side.
With the help of Pastor Peter Ilunga, who moved his church into the orphanage and Sandra Bagley, who at the time was working for the U.S. State Department and by chance happened in on the orphanage, Sylvester was able to start getting the children additional support, such as teachers for school and food and water.
As Sylvester (above) kept bringing more children into the orphanage, which was named El Shaddai, the needs kept rising. By the year 2004, there were approximately 200 boys living at El Shaddai, with an additional 150-200 girls and boys attending classes there during the day and sleeping in various peoples’ homes at night.
It was at this point in time that Pastor Paul Oas, a member of Christ Lutheran Church in San Diego, was referred to El Shaddai and encouraged his church congregation to help.
“I saw 500 kids coming out of the Congo three years ago and realized I had to do something,” Paul says. “This gives meaning to life. I feel like I did when I was in my twenties. The passion is there, even though I’m now in my seventies. My mission is to mobilize and help others find their gifts.” Christ Lutheran has since been paying for all the children’s food for several years and provided wood and lumber to build living quarters and classrooms at the orphanage.
The most recent ATFT trip to El Shaddai, led by Paul Oas (left) in April 2007, involved a multi-disciplinary team of medical personnel, planners, TFT trainers and researchers, a quilting instructor, photographer and journalist. Over a two and a half week period they worked at the orphanage from morning till night providing health care, quilting and job instruction, training and documentation.
The medical team consisted of Whitney Woodruff, who is a nurse practitioner; Joanna Ransier and Kelli Barber, both nurses; James Hall, a dentist; and assistants Paula Herring, Gabriel Constans, Audrey Blumeneau and their thirteen-year-old son Shona Blumeneau.
The team saw over 200 children, who until this time have never had a medical check-up in their life. The exams included history and assessment, physical, eyes and dental, as well as photographs and hand imprints for a fund-raising project.
The children needing additional attention were taken to a Seventh Day Adventist health clinic, where they were treated and additional connections were made with a local doctor and dentists, who will continue providing ongoing care for the children of El Shaddai. The team has also arranged for an additional nurse to work at El Shaddai and for transportation to and from the clinic (all to be paid for by the generosity of Christ Lutheran in San Diego).
Traveling to Rwanda and working at the orphanage was a life-changing experience for everyone involved. Whitney Woodruff says, “Working with the kids here is overwhelming. I’ve seen more children in one day then I do in a week of private practice.” Joanna Ransier added, “It seems like a working vacation. It’s the fulfillment of a lifetime dream. Since I was sixteen I knew I’ve wanted to do something like this.”
“When I first arrived I had feelings of sympathy for the kids having so little, but now I see their strength and sense of self and community. I was in awe and humbled,” states Kelli Barber. James Hall says, “Just connecting with each of the kids and making eye contact, is amazing. The sound of the music and voices was overwhelming today. I had tears running down my cheek.”
Paula Herring explains, “This trip reminds me what is important. Before I came I thought of the kids here as having nothing and little to be thankful for, but since I’ve been working at the orphanage I see a lot of potential and a sense of hope that not only they, but most Rwandan’s seem to have.”
Shona Blumeneau gave a teenager’s perspective, “I’ve learned that I like working with kids and I can do that anywhere, even if I don’t speak their language. Everyone here has a story about how their life has been since the genocide, about living on the street until Sylvester came and told them about El Shaddai. I am definitely coming back to Rwanda next year and the year after that.”
One of the things discovered by the medical team was the amount of illness and suffering the children were experiencing because of a bad and scarce water supply. Before leaving the medical staff, with the assistance of James Hall, Paul Oas and Tim Botsko, was able to get additional water deliveries to the orphanage and filters donated from a local water company to have clean water for drinking and washing. The medical staff also provided an orphanage wide educational program on personal hygiene, which included drinking more water and hand washing and bathing.
Gabriel and Shona also brought four suit cases of donated soccer uniforms to El Shaddai from Santa Cruz (enough for four entire teams) and the children had grins from ear to ear when they were presented with cleats, socks, shorts and shirts. They posed for pictures and played all afternoon, never dreaming they would have such outfits to play in on their muddy rutted rock filled grounds.
While the medical team worked tirelessly in one room, the TFT research group with Caroline Sakai as the lead researcher, interviewed and video taped about twenty children they had treated the year before. The ATFT kindly provided the funds for this research. Her fellow researchers included Suzanne Connolly and Dottie Webster, both of whom were involved in the original trainings.
They not only found that most of the treatments for nightmares, bed-wetting, anxiety, depression and anger held up, they also discovered that many of the children had and/or were teaching what they knew to other children inside and out of the orphanage.
Dr. Caroline Sakai says, “It is so awesome to see the courage and resilience of the children. They’ve been able to effectively use TFT when they have a concern. So many of the kids said before they felt so different and they didn’t have hope and now they feel like they have hope.”
“We haven’t given them fish, but taught them how to fish. It a thrill to see the treatment of the children and see the light go on,” says Dottie Webster.
El Shaddai now provides food, health care, education and shelter (though vastly inadequate and dilapidated), but what happens to children when it’s time to leave? That is the question that faced many of the team members after their last trip to Rwanda and is one of the primary reasons that Daisy Gale came and worked her beautiful behind off setting up a training program for six of the older boys, teaching them how to sew, maintain their machines and put together unique, one-of-a-kind African quilts and find the best places in town to buy material for their products.
“I’ve been trying to get here for 15 to 16 years,” claims Daisy. “Sandra Bagley is a good friend and helped facilitate my adoptions. I have eight children and she helped me get the last four. I look at the kids I’m working with here and they remind me of my kids. It’s like I’ve been here before.”
Daisy helped set up bank accounts for each of the young men and Suzanne Connolly already found one local outlet at the Mille Colliene (better known as Hotel Rwanda), as well as a business manager. Suzanne and Dottie also have possible outlets for the children’s creations in Sedona Arizona, with the help of their local club.
“I don’t care if people know anything about me,” Daisy says, “I want people to know that it doesn’t matter if it’s these kids or somewhere else. It doesn’t matter how much you get involved or where, just get involved!”
While much of the work was taking place at El Shaddai, Suzanne, assisted by Caroline, Dottie and Gabriel, as well as three interpreters, were teaching classes on TFT to a variety of individual’s, groups and organizations at other locations in Kigali.
One of the two complete algorithm trainings was sponsored by ATFT and attended by 52 people, many in trauma relief positions on a national level. The other ATFT sponsored training was co-sponsored by US Aide and Catholic Relief Services. This was attended by 29 people who work in orphanages and mostly with street children.
Suzanne also provided another ATFT sponsored review training for 20 community leaders who attended the algorithm training last year. The El Shaddai teachers were a part of this group. Some of the comments by the participants included:
“They have been traumatized, affected by drugs and controlled by fear and hardships. We get all those children and show them the skills and methods of TFT. We have seen tremendous changes.”
“It is like an answered prayer. These techniques have helped the children’s lives. Their traumas have been set free so their eyes are set on the future.”
“These things have touched us and our families and our loved ones.” (Julienne)
“I was always going with that kind of grief, but TFT has helped me find inner peace.” (Dsee)
“I am grateful for the person who discovered these techniques. It came to Rwanda at the right time, because of all that have been traumatized. From the children up to the elders, we have all been traumatized. It is a technique that is so simple, yet so powerful.” (Pierre)
“Thanks to all members of ATFT who gave their financial and emotional support for this effort. It has paid off in ways we will never be able to completely know,” states Suzanne. “We try to stay in the background and train the community. The teachers that are like Mom and Dad are the ones that will continue to be here when we leave, not us. So many of the kids said before that they felt so different and they had no hope. Now they feel like they have hope.”
In the background, but directly affecting every aspect of the journey to El Shaddai, was the work of Tim Botsko and Paul Oas. They were finagling our daily transportation to and from the orphanage, the clinics, places to eat lunch and dinner, copy machines, banks, lumber yards and markets. They kept everyone connected and communicated hour by hour who was where when and what the plan was later that day. They also held the purse strings for many of the activities and programs at El Shaddai and continually negotiated and directed meetings with various people involved in the orphanage.
Tim, who visited Rwanda with the same group last year, said, “Something about the people and the way things work feels natural to me.” He likes getting the lay of the land, where things are and is good at making positive things happen.
By the time we left, a more effective medical model and support system was in place at El Shaddai, a cleaner water source and a more transparent financial system with Pastor Paul Norman Desire and the local bishop providing oversight and accountability.
Yes, there is a lot more happening in Rwanda than recovering from genocide. It is a beautiful country, with a lush landscape, invigorated economy and a stable government. Life is improving day by day. Where there once was nothing but devastation and loss now exists rebuilding and hope.
People who were once thought of as “the living dead” and nothing more than “street rebels” now have a chance and a future. We believe the ATFT mission to Rwanda has been a small catalyst in this change and are committed to continuing to help the people and children of Rwanda thrive, especially those who live at a humble dwelling called El Shaddai.
With your help, we can continue to keep Sylvester’s vision not only alive, but expanding, until one day soon, we can build a new facility with enough space and staff to bring in the rest of the kids still trying to survive on the streets of Kigali.