The story that got me here, the one that actually got me on the plane to Uganda, wasn’t the fact that there were refugees or even the orphans of war, those exist in many places around the world. No, as compelling as those stories are, I would have been content to read about them from the comfort of my own country, as I have done many times before. I would have given them my pity, but not been moved by compassion to go. I would have felt bad and hoped that someone would help them, but I would not have saved my own money to purchase a ticket. I would not have known how to help and I would’ve thought there was nothing I could do.
The story that captured me is one where a man named Alfred fled his country to make sure his family was safe. He left a job and a life behind. He arrived in a foreign land and saw the future of his country roaming the refugee camp, and decided to start a school. Under a tree. He gathered a community of parents who wanted a school also and they built one. That story mesmerized me. The recognition of a problem, yes, but he did not wait for someone else to bring aid. He started. Just himself and a handful of others. They took the initiative to educate the children who will be the future leaders of their country. Without supplies. Without help. Without a building. Without books. Now THAT’S a story. Maybe it spoke so deeply to my heart is because I am a teacher. Maybe it is because now there are 16 teachers who have done the same as Alfred. They inspire me. Only a few of them are officially trained, most of them are not, but all of them passionate to see children educated. Alfred planted a seed of hope and it started to grow.
Now, he is my new friend and has told me more details of his story. He has a bachelor’s degree in education and was a teacher. Then he went to India to complete his Master’s degree in business and personnel management. When he returned to South Sudan he was hired by the schools to be the assessment coordinator for a large number of schools. It was a very good job. He drove from region to region visiting and consulting with schools.
Alfred has 6 children and in many African countries, the children who go to school must pay tuition. With that many children, his tuition bill was high and caused him much stress. Shortly after he started his new job, war broke out again. It was not safe for his family, so they came to Uganda. He continued working in South Sudan, but many conversations with his family led him to come here to get them settled. He planned to return to work so they would have income, but the borders closed to those coming into South Sudan. He lost his job, so now he lives in a refugee camp. He suffers from hypertension due to the stress of the past few years. He was offered a job by a university 1 ½ hours away, but without a vehicle he cannot make the journey, besides, he says he will not abandon the children in the camp because he knows they are the future of his country. He saw a need and he leads the school here. The steps they are taking are small, but the vision is huge.
Because of his story, I had to come meet them. To see what they are dealing with in person, so that the Greater Hope Schools Initiative I am working on will encourage them, rather than hinder them in their efforts. I did some training today and thanked them for what they are doing. I told them how inspiring it is to others. I also told them they are the reason I came across the ocean, so I can learn from them. Even though I am the one training, they are the ones teaching.
I had no trouble at all in getting them to share their vision of what they want their school to be. There we several words that reoccurred in the activity we were doing: leaders, community, peace, exemplary, respect. These ideas are born out of their struggle, born out of knowing what is NOT needed because of their experiences. Taking the big ideals and translating them into actionable steps required focus, thinking, and much discussion. As a group, they came up with plans to begin developing student leadership and community dialogue immediately. Baby steps to implementing the Greater Hope model. They are not deterred by the fact it will be a slow and gradual process. They are used to slow processes. These young teachers want their country to change and they see the potential to have some part in the process and that is enough reward for them.
We then spent time on how to write a lesson plan, since most of them have no formal training. We talked about behavior management strategies and what will work in a classroom of 96 students who are all experiencing differing levels of trauma and PTSD. We talked about how to break lessons down into chunks, and how to try to allow the kids to be more engaged. We talked about record keeping. We could have gone on for days. One day was not enough. I came with the idea I could encourage them and bring some hope, but as it turns how they were the ones doing the hope bringing…to me. The name of their school is Hope Primary School and it couldn’t be any more accurate.