We sing, we joke, we talk and it helps healing the trauma: Sister Angélique Namaika
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has chosen Sister Angélique Namaika for this year’s Nansen Refugee Award [$1,00,000/€75,000]. Sister Angélique, a Congolese nun has been pivotal in helping rehabilitate hundreds of women who have been raped and abused by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and other groups in the remote north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Her Centre for Reintegration and Development has been internationally recognised for transforming the lives of more than 2,000 women and girls who were abused and abducted by the rebel LRA. Sister Angélique helps women by training them to start a small business or go back to school. According to a report by the UNHCR and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, since 2008, an estimated 320,000 people have been forced to flee in DRC’s northeastern Orientale Province. Sister Angélique herself was displaced by the violence in 2009 while living in the town of Dungu.
In an email interview with The Hindu, she speaks of her work and the challenges she faces.
Your role in helping victims of abuse has been internationally recognised. How do you feel? Are you satisfied with what you have achieved and what do you think are the challenges that keep you from doing more?
When I heard that I was the winner of the 2013 Nansen Refugee Award, I was very happy. I was very surprised also. I asked myself: how can I win this prize that is famous worldwide with the little activities I do here with the women? I realised that the entire world will now know about our activities. And I was very happy. Sometimes I was feeling alone in my work. But I could not give up. Every day, I have to help vulnerable women, women who suffered the atrocities of the LRA because they are counting on me. Even if I am alone, even if I don’t have the means, I cannot lose courage. Now with this prize, I know that we won’t be alone anymore.
Since 2003, I have helped 2,000 women. In 2003, when I arrived in Dungu, I started helping women who did not have a chance to go to school. I helped them with literacy classes and professional training and income generating activities such as setting up a bakery, cooking, sewing and growing crops. It is very important to educate women because they are the ones educating the children. In 2009, I started helping women who suffered the atrocities by the LRA. I realised that these women were even more vulnerable than others. I had to help them. I integrated them in the activities I was already doing with women in Dungu and I also relocated some of the activities in their settlements. Training and income generating activities have helped them a lot. It helps them buy food for the family, pay school fees for their children and also pay for medical care. Before, many children were dying because the mothers did not have the means to pay for medical care. This has changed now and the women themselves testify. They say that the training helped them a lot. They like to come and be together with other women. We sing, we joke, we talk and it helps healing the trauma.
What kind of support do you get from individuals, governments and U.N. organisations? Is that enough? What kind of support are you seeking to expand the scope of your work?
Humanitarian actors have helped a lot. Without them, kids would not have been reunited with their families, women would not have received emergency assistance. They also helped with shelter for displaced people. What we need to do is to help women find durable solutions, because humanitarian actors cannot help all the time. I am helping women to earn money and to become independent. It is very important that they have the means to send their children to school, to buy food for the whole family and to pay for medical care. If they don’t have that, they will continue to be traumatised. If you are traumatised and your children die because you cannot pay for medical care, you will be even more traumatised. If a mother is traumatised, the child will be as well.
What is the present situation in your region? How many children, women and families are affected and how are the people coping with the problems?
There are 3,20,000 people displaced by the LRA in the Province. Displaced people would like to go home but they are still scared. They will feel safe the day they hear that Kony [LRA leader Joseph Kony] gave up his weapons. That day, people will be happy because they will be able to go home and restart life as it was before. In the settlements for displaced people, they try to cope with life, but they would be much happier if they could go home.
How difficult is it to reintegrate back into the community women who have been raped and tortured?
We have done a lot of sensitisation with the communities to make sure women who were kidnapped by the LRA are well accepted and live in harmony with the local population when they go out of the bush. Some women come out of the bush with kids. We have organised sensitisation campaigns on that as well to explain to the community that they have to accept these kids. The integration works well if the women have the means to take care of themselves. That’s why it is very important to help women with training and activities for earning their livelihood. When women arrive in Dungu after their release or escape, I help them with a little something just for the beginning. After that, I start immediately with training.
What is your message to civil society across the world?
The message I would like to give to civil society is the following: in everything you do you need courage and be able to give yourselves to accomplish your objectives even if there are obstacles on the road. You have to accept volunteer work without waiting for an immediate benefit. In addition, it is important to love the work we do and to be diligent. It is important too, to be … to go beyond the criticism. We must trust in god and what we do. If what we do is good, we must continue to do so.
Keywords: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, Nansen Refugee Award, Sister Angélique Namaika, Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC civil war, Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, displaced refugees