February 8, 2017
By Janice Biehn
South Sudan may be the newest country in the world, but it’s far from stable. According to the United Nations, in 2013 it had the world’s highest mortality rate for women. That heartbreaking statistic got Rebecca Deng thinking. The former lost girl of Sudan — who has called Winnipeg home for 10 years — had to do something. A massacre in the city of Bor that same year was traumatizing to many of the Sudanese refugees she knew here in Canada, despite being an ocean away. As a single mother of two and a human rights student, Deng wanted to help the women in her homeland heal.
So she turned to the Anglican parish of St. Matthew’s, which had been involved in resettling hundreds of Sudanese since 2003. The Bor attack prompted St. Matthew’s to form the Emmanuel Mission, a Sudanese ministry within its walls. A trip to Bor five months into the crisis strengthened Deng’s resolve to build more support in Winnipeg and beyond. “We can’t change the past, but we can draw attention to the situation,” says Deng. “Women feel the wound of the community caused by the violence. I wanted to include women in the response. They know the situation deep inside.”
Deng’s idea was to create a place where women could talk, be empowered and invest in their future by learning to sew. In 2014, Deng and the Rev’d Cathy Campbell, then Incumbent at St. Matthew’s, contacted PWRDF to help find funding sources to create such a space. PWRDF developed a fundraising partnership between St. Matthew’s and St. Andrew’s Cathedral in South Sudan to establish the Women’s Community Resource Centre in Bor. The women’s group with their allies committed to raising $100,000 over three years; several organizers are with the Emmanuel Mission women group.
Returning to South Sudan
With the agreement in place, PWRDF asked the National Council of Churches in Kenya to spearhead the procurement of sewing machines and other materials in Nairobi, then deliver them to South Sudan. When the costs proved to be prohibitive, the Mennonite Central Committee suggested contacting to the Juba-based Women Empowerment Group, which had experience in such projects. The Manitoba Council for International Cooperation also added funds to the cause and last summer the pieces were in place for Deng to return to South Sudan and set up the centre.
But when she arrived in Juba (the capital city) on July 6, it was amid new eruptions of violence. July 7 there were killings overnight, and July 8 the fighting prevented her from making the 200 kilometre trek to Bor. Aid workers were evacuated and even more people were displaced. She was expected in Rwanda for a three-week peace training session, but the airport had been shut down. Finally it reopened to let out one flight a day and she made her way on foot to the airport – running — to the other side of Juba. With Atong Mayol Juuk, a woman from the Mother’s Union in Bor, she arrived in Rwanda two days late.
August 8 Deng returned to Juba. The road had been reopened so she was able to deliver the 10 sewing machines to Bor, as well as some school supplies. Initially the centre was to be built on land donated by the Cathedral, but PWRDF advised them to start small and focus on the sewing training so that the women would benefit sooner. Instead, the centre is located within the walls of the cathedral. The added benefit? In South Sudan, women are restricted from certain activities, such as going to school. But going to church is accepted.
At the centre
Deng set to work hiring seven people, including a coordinator, trainers, teachers and a sewing machine instructor. The centre offers three literacy classes – one for adults over 35, one for women who have never been to school and one for orphans ages five to 13.
A circle of elders meets three times a week for counselling and a chance to break down barriers facing women. “We’re in a culture of violence,” Deng says. “We want to bring people together to share their experiences and bring out their emotions.” Deng describes one woman, Rachel, who was living on the street and had stopped talking. At a workshop, she broke her silence for the first time in five years. “She was able to talk and cry and release her grief. That’s the goal of the project.”
Most of the women never went to school but they are quickly learning how to sew. There are 24 students and no one has missed a day in six months. When they have completed the course they will be able to own their own business and support their families.
The next step is to get more women involved in the peace training workshops. “It helped communities in Rwanda a lot,” says Deng. “We need peace at the grass roots level for community healing and to forgive each other.” Currently there is only one facilitator (Atong Mayol Juuk), but there is need for two or three.
St. Matthew’s Emmanuel Mission and the Sudanese community in Winnipeg are a big part of the program’s success. Some 3,000 people make up the diaspora, which also has ties to Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray. Deng thanks PWRDF for enabling the parish-to-parish program. The partners in Winnipeg have a strong commitment to make this initiative a meaningful one.