The Heroine Saving South Sudan — One Child at a Time
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s not a news story when you’re living it.
By Matthew Stein
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Susan Tabia, South Sudan
When I was young, I worked as a secretary in Juba. I was making money, but I didn’t have peace. Later, when I was living in Kenya, I started to have these dreams. I’d have visions of suffering children in refugee camps with no mothers and fathers. I believed it was my calling to help them, but I was a widow and in poor health and a refugee myself. So I flew to Cairo instead and stayed with my sister. My son Simba was living in the U.K., and he told me to come live with him. But the dreams kept coming; I felt like I wouldn’t have peace until I fulfilled this mission.
In the 1980s, there were around 85,000 Sudanese refugees living in camps in Adjumani, in northern Uganda. When I arrived, I had little money; a friend let me stay at her home. A few days later, I found a baby crying in a bush. People told me that her mother was dead and her father had run away. She looked like a skeleton. I took her home and bathed her — she was so weak her skin just came off. Then we fed her and clothed her, and she started to smile. After seven days, she started to walk.
My first orphanage was in a refugee transit camp. The orphanage consisted of one tukul, or mud hut, that was as small as a rat house. We slept on the floor on papyrus mats. When it rained, the roof leaked. We also had to deal with the Lord’s Resistance Army. One time, they entered the Adjumani Catholic mission nearby and abducted orphans. If the LRA finds small children, they just take them.
I’d go to Kampala and sell jewelry to raise money. We also received help from American friends and the Dutch Embassy. Eventually we were able to buy a piece of land and build a proper home with a kitchen and a dining room. We called it Amazing Grace.
Every morning, before I start anything, I have to pray. Then I spend the day running errands and helping our “mothers” make sure the children are fed and bathed and doing their homework. Looking after them is not easy. Some of our children are very stubborn. Some like stealing, others like fighting, others are lazy. You need to find means to persuade them to listen.
Feeding and education are also a problem. Sickness is always there; when the children get sick, we have to find a hospital that can treat them. Sometimes a child ends up dying and we have to carry the body home for burial.
I have blood pressure problems, so I have to be careful. If I take on all the burden, I’ll end up dying. Instead I take the problems to God in prayer. If you feel that God is in control, there’s no need to keep worrying. The kids also help; they give me good verses to read from the Bible. Because of their encouragement, I’m strong.
The U.N. tries to help, but the number of refugees is too large. In camps, people have their own children, and orphans become wanderers. They don’t know how to build or cook. They walk around half-naked. Some start stealing or fighting out of frustration. They sleep outside and don’t go to school.
In 2000, I had the opportunity to go to Australia. My friends told me to go and make money, but I couldn’t leave. I don’t need anything. The children are my life; everything I do is for them. I work without salary. Sometimes I give cooking classes or bake breads and wedding cakes. Customers pay me what they want — sometimes they give me goods, like handmade baskets, that I can sell — and I use the money for the orphanage.
It is difficult now because of the new war for us to recover refugees again. We had to close our orphanage in Kajo Kejim and more refugees are arriving at Amazing Grace. My plan was to expand the orphanages, build our own schools and have training centers for those who can’t continue with schooling. But now I don’t know what to say. I knew this would happen one day; I knew the peace we attained, the independence that was given, was not true. I knew we’d break up again.
- Matthew Stein, OZY Author Contact Matthew Stein