Welcome to the Samaritan's Purse UK blog, where our staff and volunteers capture some of their personal reflections and stories from the places where we work...
Central Asia - Operation Christmas Child Trip March 2013
Liberia - What Next?
Alan Cutting took a distribution team to Central Asia. Read his blog here:
Post Trip Blog
I often introduce or summarise the work of Samaritan’s Purse by outlining the three main strands of our work:
• Disaster Relief
• Community Development
• Mission - ministry to children through OCC and The Greatest Journey
For a number of years we have aimed to send Discovery Teams to places where our donors and supporters can see multiple facets of this work, but rarely do they directly get to see examples of all three aspects of our work in one trip. However, in March 2013, Chris Roberts and I were delighted to be able to introduce a UK team of nine faithful OCC volunteers to SP partners of all three strands of our work in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia.
We visited the home of one of the recipient families of the SP-managed food and non-food items distributed through the local church after the 2010 ethnic uprising. Gruesomely, this family had lost several immediate family members and their home had been torched by the aggressors of the sudden violence.
The UK team members were able to stand in the newly renovated courtyard of the victim family’s home, and hear for themselves some of the simple, raw processes that they have been through as they slowly rebuild their lives and home. They witnessed glimpses of the pain that will never go away, but also saw some of the early shoots of recovery and hope spoken of by the mother of the family, who laughed with delight at the unexpected visit of new friends from a foreign land.
On another day, the team spent time with some of the amazing team that manages the SP Church Mobilisation Programme. Working to give vulnerable families and children a future, this programme mobilises local church members to rehabilitate and restore the homeless, alcoholics and drug users to stability and to their lost families, generates employment opportunities for the poorest of single parents, brings dignity and friendship to the elderly, mobilises the disillusioned and weary parents of disabled boys and girls, helps the poorest of children to access school etc, all in the Name of and with the love of Jesus.
The UK team attended an introductory training session for the programme, and were taken by some of the programme’s volunteer workers to visit vulnerable families and the elderly who live in the poorest of homes, and to the maternity unit of the local hospital. They regrouped with stories of desperate lives (one mother confessed how tempted she had been to feed her new-born baby to a dog) and of the new hope, opportunities and friendships that have they now have through this programme.
Despite the huge journey to get there (the team were up at 5am to drive to the regional airport, and flew for an hour over the mountains before undertaking another four hours of driving), I didn’t hear a single complaint, and many on the team declared that this was their favourite and most impactful day of the whole trip.
Mission - OCC/TGJ
And then, of course, there were the shoeboxes – the “padarki” (gifts), as they are referred to in Russian-speaking lands! Sometimes as one group, but usually split into two or three groups, the UK team was able to visit a total of fourteen different environments to witness OCC distributions and, on our final day, two team members were invited to sit in with village children for Lesson 5 of the “The Greatest Journey”. At each event, and before the actual distribution of gifts, a carefully prepared presentation took place, including “magic tricks”, dance and drama performances, a puppet show, a travel quiz – we even danced a conga at one event!
Local leaders, who, despite persecution, are all passionate for their neighbours to hear and experience the Gospel, consistently told us of how your gift-boxes opened valuable and non-threatening doors for them into their communities. The feel-good value was tangible. And (for the encouragement of all our volunteers who spend months each year searching out good deals on toothpaste!) we were even told that “because parents don’t clean their children’s teeth until they are about 12 years old, one of the very big benefits of OCC is that you bring to our culture a hygiene revolution”! We were also told (and later saw) that the simple school supplies (pens, pencils, paper etc) are so precious that some parents actually store these items away from their young children until they start school.
Disaster relief, community development and mission to children – all in one amazing trip! To say nothing of the exposure we had to an amazing network of interweaving cultures, of visits to ancient sites on the infamous Silk Routes, and of team times where God was seriously at work in our lives. It won’t be long before SP will be inviting applicants for next year’s distribution teams. They can stretch you, exhaust you and challenge you, and equally they can exhilarate you and fundamentally form rich values, calling and perspective to your life. What do you think? Could this be for you?
Praying over a City
Friday 22nd March 2013
Several times this week our team has been split into smaller groups, throwing several team members into temporary leadership roles to encounter the unknowns of each unique distribution, be they in homes, schools, internats (orphanages), community centres, TB hospitals, under the village tree etc.
Having driven two hours on arriving and meeting the OCC Regional Leadership Team, my mini-team in the morning bumped our way to a nearby village in a beautiful setting. Our host church introduced us, we told them a little more about ourselves and our motivation, Bob did gospel through some of his “magic”, and we distributed gift boxes to the 17 children of this forgotten little community. Then it was back into town and to the TB hospital, where the sixty children were kept strictly apart in two groups to prevent cross contamination. They performed dances and recited before we distributed boxes.
In the afternoon I was with the mini-team that climbed into the mountains (well, climbed into the minibus that climbed into the mountains!), through walnut woods and down into a valley where nestled a small town population 8,000. A beautiful setting, but a town where no new buildings were evident, and where even the Soviet five-storey blocks showed no sign of renovation. We arrived at the huge but deserted school to the news that most of the boxes had been distributed yesterday. But the school director had invited seventeen more children to come this afternoon, and they duly arrived, some of the girls dressed in matching traditional costumes.
They danced, we talked, we shared photos of our families and of busy OCC warehouses in the UK – another great time to connect a forgotten town with an international world. In 1990 this was a coal mining town of 28,000 people, including Germans, Ukrainians and Russians. In fact, the school was built as a prisoner-of-war camp, with many Germans staying on post-war to work the mines. But along with the collapse of the Soviet Union came the collapse of the mines – a repeated tale across the region. Our hosts were two young Ukrainian missionaries who had responded to God’s call to sow themselves into the town for the sake of the Kingdom of God. On very few resources they did this by sharing the good news of Jesus whilst bringing practical love and support to the residents – mending water pipes, supporting the school director etc.
After the distribution and with our hosts we climbed again to a point in the walnut woods which gave way to a wonderful view of the town. Let’s “pray over the city”, we all agreed. And as we did so, one team member realised that earlier in the week God had given her a specific picture of mine tunnels, and as she shared this a clear approach for His purposes for the town emerged.
Stories from an Uprising
Thursday 21st March 2013
Under Chris Robert’s leadership, and with a team of eleven OCC volunteers, mostly from the Midlands of England, I am spending a couple of days in Central Asia. After a sleepless night on the flight from the UK, and a day of OCC distributions, yesterday we were up at 4.30 to catch the domestic flight from the capital, over glorious mountains and down into the South of the country.
Last time I was here was immediately after the uprising that destroyed many homes and ended the lives of hundreds of people. Working again with the same Pastor S, we visited an impressively-managed orphanage for deaf children – the only one in the South of the country. Encouraged and directed by some of the 38 staff members, and dressed in superbly matching celebration costumes, the sixty children performed dances for us to music and the beat of the choreographers foot on the wooden floor. They were cute, polite, and some were even bewildered, but It was a joy for the team to spend time with these children as they opened their shoebox gifts.
Before going to a village and distributing gift-boxes to many individual homes, the energetic Pastor S took us to see some of the city. From the iconic Solomon Mountain we overlooked the city, the shining new zinc roofs making it obvious where the 2010 violence and torching of homes had primarily taken place. I asked, “Is it possible to visit one of the families I visited with you after the uprising?” A couple of phone calls later and the whole team were trouping into H and D’s home. In July 2010 I had written:
H invited us through the charred gates of his burned out home. “We had fifteen of us living here,” he said, waving his hand around the courtyards thirteen rooms. Apart from a UNICEF tent, only rubble and twisted metal remained. He showed us a burned saucepan, over which was a lid. He took off the lid. “These are the bones of my mother and my sister. We’re still finding them in the rubble. In this basement (only burned walls remained) I hid ten of my family. Seven of us survived. My brother laid himself over my mother and sister to shelter them, and as a result had burns all over his body. He rushed across the road and jumped into the stream, then was taken to hospital. He should definitely have lived, but we were told he died overnight. We don’t know who took his life.” He stopped for a moment to give us mineral water, each in turn from the one cup. Yes, to offer hospitality to three complete strangers from another culture. “My father built this house in 1960. My mother was an invalid – this was her wheelchair. He showed us some twisted metal remains that we could identify as a chair. The house took three days to burn. In this district, 286 homes were burned and at least 1000 died. This is my wife D - look at where she was beaten around the head. They poured petrol over her head but I dragged her in and hid her in the house. That wound is 40 days old. She is a doctor but, because we were attending to my brother, she didn’t even get to go to hospital.” Irina held onto D as she sobbed deeply. “We’re still so afraid” said her husband.
Today, and with the help of UNHCR and Red Cross, H and D’s home is rebuilt. In concrete, and with high walls and imposing metal gates, it hasn’t exactly got the character of their old home, built as that was with care and over decades, and with vines curling their way around verandas and archways, but it is a vast improvement on what I’d witnessed a couple of years ago. “We will never get our families back,” said D, “but we’ll be OK”. She was delighted to receive a visit from eleven foreign strangers, and begged us to stay for tea and bread.
One team member inflated and gave her a heart shaped balloon. It was a delight to see her genuinely laugh. But another distribution was about to take place, so leaving some token gifts we stepped our way out of the courtyard, another experience of the pain and dilemma and complexity and hope of the transitional world tucked somewhere into our brains and our hearts.
Regional Manager for North West and North Wales, Ian Taylor, recently visited Liberia with a Samaritan's Purse Discovery Team. Read his daily accounts below:
Sunday 25th February 2013
Ian's last report from the Liberia trip: "At Foya, our accommodation was busy with the preparation for those leaving and new faces arriving. The bell sounded for Friday morning devotions, all of the staff attended and we also took a seat. Then we sang, the accompaniment was a drum and what can only be described as a dried gourd rattle. The sound was so rhythmic and the singing was so powerful with lots of energy.
"After the singing, we had the opportunity to share some of our impressions of our experiences in Foya and it was obvious that there had been a deep visual and spiritual impact on this small group of UK residents, despite the tiredness, the difficult roads, the heat and seemingly never having cool water to drink. Then we were given a greeting by the staff at Foya. It squeezed all our emotions, as we got the impression that this wasn't just for us, it was for you, the people of the UK who have funded so many of their life changing projects.
"To get back to Monrovia, we went to the football field to await Roy and the helicopter. This time there was no tree hopping, we flew higher to see the amazing view of just how dense the bush is in this country.
"We arrived back at Monrovia and went back to the guesthouse where there is running water from taps (only cold), air conditioned bedrooms and the ability to make tea and coffee at will.
"Then it was time to relax, recharge, talk and start the thought processes to deal with what we had experienced. We were working towards the end of this team experience, so we went for a meal with our hosts. Giant plates were placed before us with generous portions of well prepared and cooked food. As we commenced this communal time of eating in such lovely surroundings, my thoughts drifted to those in Foya and the communities we visited and I felt my heart strings pulled.
"After a tour of Monrovia we visited a children’s club where there were three groups of children, ranging from very young to teenagers. In front of all of them was a copy of The Greatest Journey, I saw that the book was open at different pages and that some work had been completed. After some basic introductions we wandered round the tables and spoke to the children.
"What was really striking was that all the children wanted to be there and they loved the project. The children were happy learning about the Christian faith through the simple well-thought out biblical material. The teachers were really encouraged by the availability and quality of The Greatest Journey. All of the children were willing participants and the great news was some had already made a commitment to follow Jesus.
"Sadly, we left Liberia as we arrived, under cover of darkness. We left behind the heat of Monrovia, to the coolness of Casablanca and the coldness of London. But this isn't the end, each team member has been impacted by their experience in Liberia and it will be in their hearts for a very long time."
Thursday 21st February 2013
In the hot sun we travel with members of the SP team WaSH (water and sanitation hygiene) to see some of the UK funded projects. Our first stop is a village called Belibindi, where we meet Nancy, who is employed as a Community Development Facilitator (CDF). A CDF will go and live in the community for a period of 3 years, during which time the community will engage in a number of activities that will improve their lives and their community.
Just over a year ago, I was in this village and saw a capped spring well, now new latrines have been built, instigated by the community. The only help they had was some cement and corrugated sheeting for the roof. The church had been rebuilt, and was looking good, neatly painted in blue and white. There was a warm welcome from the village officials before we paid a visit to the spring well. It was good to see that it was in good working order, still producing good quality water and in daily use by the village.
Then on difficult roads, more bumps and bounces to Yengbemai. There have again been changes since my visit last year. The church is now painted with the addition of a porch, although it still has an old gas container outside for the bell.
I meet a lady who recognised me from my visit last year. She had just had a Biosand Water Filter installed then. Now she tells me how the filter has changed her life with the reduction in sickness which reduces the cost of medicines. They also keep ducks as part of the programme.
The same story is told in the next village, showing all the same signs. The programme is working well with latrines, new buildings and a capped spring well. We went to see the spring, at the bottom of anouther steep slope, the 'pu we's' walking down precariously while the locals think nothing of it. Here the water is good to drink, so a number of team members filled their bottles then set about the hill walk in the scorching sun.
It's without doubt a great example of Christian people doing with what we are called to do, caring for the poor and needy, speaking out against injustice, and sharing the good news of God's Kingdom, just a few of the basic default positions for Christians. These amazing projects and people are without doubt engaged in integral mission. In the Bible, James speaks about faith without works and works and faith fitting together like a hand in a glove, or as they say in my neck of the woods, 'listen mate, faith and no action, not worth a carrot'.
Life's an Uphill Struggle
Wednesday 20th February 2013
Another early start, on the road at 7 am, to visit some of SP’s church mobilisation programmes. One team saw Samaritans Purse trainers deliver training on caring for each other, building up from God’s love for us, using the story of the Good Samaritan. The second team saw training on budgeting & managing their finances. The villagers showed their gratitude to SP by presenting us with two chickens and a pair of coconuts.
After a lunch of rice and pumpkin and with the temperature rising, we headed to a village nearby. Here the SP church mobilisation programme has been run and they have built a latrine with a place to shower. But they did this without using any external finances just using their community resources – after training from SP’s church mobilisation programme.
What's striking about these visits is the genuine warm welcome that is offered to us when we arrive. Pastor David (name changed) said, "You are welcome here, we want to thank our friends in the United Kingdom for helping the people of Liberia".
At the next village they have built their own latrine, they even built an extension which would be a 'shower room'. SP staff are encouraged to see that their teaching on increasing self-reliance and esteem is working.
Our final visit is to a Water & Sanitation & Health (WaSH) programme, where a spring which supplied the water to the community was capped. We walk through the village to the small pathway which got steeper and steeper – so steep that we had to hold onto small trees on the way down. The further down we went the harder it got - even with the help of the villagers. Some of us wondered if we would ever get back up again…
The capped spring was at the bottom of this slope. It was is a large concrete box that contained the water from the spring. The boxed area was fenced off to prevent animals from fouling the supply and children are not permitted in the area. The overflow was a gentle trickle of clean fresh water. This project is making a huge difference in this community, with improved health among the people.
While we were there a woman arrived and filled an enormous bowl with water. She placed it on her head and walked up the same steep slope we had struggled with – only she was barefoot. We just about managed to make our way back!
Tuesday 19th February 2013
Early rise for the team as we make our way to the heliport. To fly by helicopter to Foya in Lofa county, which is north and close to Sierra Leone. Roy is an experienced pilot who has flown Chinook helicopters under fire in Vietnam and is also an experienced fixed wing pilot, so we are in good hands as we set off for Foya. The journey time is 1 hour 15, which is vastly preferable to the 10 and a half hours by road.
From the air it is really noticeable that the bush or jungle, whatever you might like to call it, is very dense. And the further you travel from Monrovia the more dense the vegetation gets, making over land travel very difficult. Small communities shrouded in the morning mist can be seen, and as we travel, we are treated to an eye level view of the trees, almost close enough to take a leaf from a branch.
Today will be an easy day, travel, lunch, meeting some of the staff at Foya, then an insight into the wider work of Samaritans Purse. Close to the camp the old runway that has not been used since before the civil war and it is in the process of being rebuilt, to make it easy for SP and other NGOs to get in and out of the area.
Once completed fixed wing aircraft will be in use to move staff and supplies to the base at Foya. The team get to visit the vast site which is well on the way to completion. Then it's resting in the heat and prepare for the early start in the morning.
One thing is great, we have a WiFi connection here in Foya. Hurrah!
The Excitement the Shoeboxes Bring
Monday 18th February 2013
Ian Taylor reports: On the evening of Saturday 17th February 2013, the team bound for Liberia set off flying though the night, noting the change in temperature as they progressed. Arriving in the early hours, the heat and humidity became distinctly noticeable as the chaotic border control and customs dealt with the sudden influx of people.
After some sleep the team attended a morning service, it was a real experience of worship, and definitely Innovative when the offering was taken. By the time it got to 3pm, the team were feeling rather worn down, so back to the accommodation and rest while our hosts prepared for us a sumptuous meal.
Monday morning at the Samaritans Purse office early for devotions and an orientation with Dr Bev. Then it was off to visit a displaced persons camp near to Monrovia, almost two hours over busy dusty roads. A time to observe the energy that the people put into making sufficient money to eat that day. Mile after mile of small enterprises, from the builders merchant to standing on the side of the road selling water in plastic bags, voicing the words 'cool water' as the vehicles drove past.
We visit the community school and go from classroom to classroom all dark dusty and poorly equipped - but each filled with children. We hand out shoeboxes and see the intense excitement that is in these children, an excitement which is external and very vocal, the noise was intense. Once the boxes are in their eager hands they open them, the noise increases dramatically, for some no awaiting the cutting of the tape, the top of the box ripped open to reveal its contents.
We move from class to class and its the same in each and everyone of them. These gifts are something that they probably wouldn't have thought about, but they just loved them, grinning and jumping up and down with excitement. Poverty here is immense among these displaced people, their daily lives just lived day by day, trying to exist. Those wonderful shoebox gifts show them that there is hope that people care, but what was really exciting is that they placed their trust in Jesus.
Then it's the long journey back to our accommodation, hot, tired and emotionally challenged and to ready ourselves for a journey tomorrow to Lofa county, within striking distance of Sierra Leone.
Wednesday 9th January 2013
Alan Cutting reports on his final full day in Bosnia leading an OCC Distribution team. Here he describes how sometimes OCC plans have to allow for the unexpected....
We made the four hour drive down from Prijedor on Wednesday morning. The team went noticeably quiet as we drove into Zenica city centre. Once the steel works here employed 26,000 people but now, even after some fresh input from Indian investors, maybe only one tenth of that number are employed there now.
Zenica presents as a drab colourless city – one in which the pollution and the sense of hopelessness tangibly combine to grab ones throat. Here Brazilian missionary Walter Goncalves has lived and served for a decade or more. Whereas in years gone by his work centred around the general distribution of humanitarian aid, now he and his small team focus onto the rescue and development of vulnerable children and young people. Walter has been a key member of the OCC National Leadership Team for many years, and welcomed our team for what turned out to be a wonderful twenty-four hour visit.
First we met 25 or so of the 79 children who attend the day centre. One boy – Abdullah - was nominated to stand and give a welcome speech. Snatching an occasional gulp of breath, with arms waving and with great enthusiasm he told us, “We very welcome you and we thank you for the packages. We are very smiley when you come and very sad when you leave.” Walter then took us to a shoebox distribution at a local Roma camp, carefully tucked away and out of sight of the main town. Having completely wrecked their previous barracks, this chaotic little community were moved by the city into former refugee barracks. One little lad sang us some songs – painful wailing laments about losing the love of his life.
We stayed overnight at the city’s barn of an orphanage, and on Thursday undertook a remarkable day of OCC distributions in villages the hills surrounding Zenica. These are the hills where, allegedly, radical Muslim groups had their base and recruited youths from the city during the war. Stopping from time to time to grit the slippery roads with coal dust, and pushing the vehicles up the particularly steep lanes and tight hair-pin bends, we were then hijacked by a group of mothers and children who straddled the road and would not let us pass!
They had heard that a shoebox distribution was due to take place further up the mountain and wanted to be a part of it! Despite Walter’s careful insistence that every child and every box should be accounted for by name (this is a Custom’s requirement in Bosnia as well as being good for accountability back to our donors), a way was found to include these children (and others along the way) with gift boxes. (Pictured above, volunteer Julia giving a shoebox).
I asked them to sing us a local song, and their initial aggression melted in moments as they sang and jumped and laughed with joy at their gifts. I think we stopped at six different hamlets and communities on this “one” OCC distribution. At each place Walter was known, loved and respected, and it was a privilege to observe him at work, and to be a part of the impact his long-term Christ-motivated work in this tough part of the world.
Back in Zenica, and before another two similar trips into the hills, we had time to visit Grace Farm, where some of the older homeless and needy lads were based. They had done a great job in building a large house, from which they tended goats, a cow, ducks, and had cultivated four hectares of land.
Then it was on to two more village distributions. Each one involved 30 minute drives up mountains and through pot-holes. At one – Begovhan – we were greeted by a line of cheering clapping children waving home-made welcome signs, and whose parents insisted we visit a home for food and drinks before we left. At the other – Moscanica – the children had waited in the dark for over an hour for us to arrive, and crowded into a small community centre to perform sketches and dramas. After the distribution and before our evening drive south to Sarajevo, the young people introduced us to some of their local dances. We needed little persuasion to join in – a great way to end a wonderful day in Zenica.
The Good People of Wales
Tuesday 8th January 2013
SP's Alan Cutting is currently in Bosnia leading a team of eight volunteers from the UK on an Operation Christmas Child distribution team and sending daily reports about his time there. Click here for more stories from the distribution of the shoeboxes from the 2012/2013 campaign.
Eastern Europe is greatly enriched by the presence of hundreds of minority people groups, the likes of which most of us have never heard of. With my colleague Nicolai Balbutski I share a real fascination for such peoples, their history and their culture and, in the course of our work, we have met, drank tea and shared the gospel with such groups as (for example) the Gagaus, the Kalmuks, the Karaim and the Talash.
Today, and working jointly with Druga (Rainbow) Charity and The Evangelical Church of Banja Luka in northern Bosnia, our UK OCC team of eight were taken north east from the city, 40 minutes up into the hills and off the beaten track to the village of Devetina. Intriguingly, Devetina is home to two distinct and separate people groups who live peaceably alongside one another. One is a group hailing from Ukraine, but the other, who we met with today, were what appears to be one of the last surviving communities of Karavlasi people. The Karavlasi are fairly confident that they originate from Romania, and know for certain that they arrived in this vicinity by relocating north from Sarajevo in 1946. Casually regarded by the population at large as Roma, they themselves are in fact aware of only two other groups of the same micro-ethnicity, but haven't had the resources to regard the clarifying and confirmation of their heritage as a priority. In fact only 20 of their 70 homes are presently occupied, the remaining 50 families having gone (albeit temporarily) to Austria and Germany seeking work.
Pastor Sinisha and Ljiljana from Druga Charity were clearly loved and trusted in the village. They introduced us, and we commended them. The church team sang and shared Good News with the crowd, which in total numbered about 50 people of all ages. The community listened in attentive silence and, when just a couple of young children became a little restless, it was so good to see the fathers (who in many such settings are either absent, or disengaged and lurking passively the background) actively ensuring that even the young children gave good respect to the visitors and everything they had to say.
In this beautiful rural setting, with its crisp mountain air and pretty alpine valleys, and with the gentle mist silently turning the distant mountains a softening milky-grey, we helped the happy children of Devetina to open their gift boxes. Our youngest team member Rachel (from Swansea) was delighted to see from flags stuck to the inside of the boxes that this batch of gifts were from Wales. Whether or not the good people of Wales previously even knew the Karavlasi existed, today the Karavlasi were certainly very appreciative to the good people of Wales.
Monday 7th January 2013
Happy Orthodox Christmas! Of course, depending where you are in Bosnia this has different implications, but this evening in Banja Luka, after a long drive up from Sarajevo, we are struggling to find anywhere open to feed us!
We had a great orientation with the leader of the OCC National Leadership Team this morning. Zheylko and his team take their OCC responsibilities very seriously. There is an estimated 700 evangelical believers in this nation of almost 5 million people, and we send over 70,000 boxes to them. That means that every single believer in the country in theory and on average has the responsibility of effectively distributing 100 boxes each!
“The impact of OCC is massive,” Zheylko told us. “It has been a huge blessing. Between 1500-2000 children came to our church in Sarajevo this Christmas-time with their parents, to get to know us and to receive their gift-box. We call this indirect evangelism – a pre-evangelism prejudice-breaker and a tool to make friendship - very important roles in this city. We really take each distribution seriously. Through every programme and with every box, we aim to show the love of Christ. And we only give the boxes out to partners who will take this approach seriously.”
All day we have met people for whom church is so much more than meetings and buildings. Despite their tiny size and limited resources, we have heard stories of the church’s involvement in giving educational bursaries for poor students, training and employment opportunities to drug and alcohol rehabilitants, second hand clothing stores, summer camps, child sponsorship programmes etc.
Sunday 6th January 2013
I certainly feel like I know my way around Belgrade airport, having done four transit visits there in the last three weeks! Even the waitress at the café said “Hi – nice to see you back again”! I’m privileged once more to be on the road with Samaritan’s Purse, and this week our destination is Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Eight of us came together at Heathrow this morning, having travelled from Swansea, Hampshire, Ipswich and Canterbury. So sad that one of our number – Wendy from N Wales – was unable to travel with us at the “last minute”. Please pray for Wendy, and particularly for her husband Martin, who suffered a heart attack on Saturday morning. Wendy, we are missing you already!
It’s Orthodox Christmas Eve tonight, and coming into land there was faint evidence of a few firework parties over the city. However long the journey – and some were up at 3.30 this morning to ensure their prompt arrival at Heathrow – it’s always a joy to be met at the destination airport by smiling faces. Zeljko - the new lead co-ordinator of the OCC National Leadership Team - came to greet us at Sarajevo and, together with colleague Damir, to check us into our hotel. It’s a quick visit - we check out again tomorrow morning and drive north. I’m not sure how much internet access we’ll get this week, but we’ll do our best to tell you some stories of our trip, which has been set up to help the local team distribute some of the 75,000 shoeboxes that you have kindly sent to the children of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A team of men from Northern Ireland travelled to Montenegro on a working party to help with Operation Christmas Child. They were led by Alan Cutting who writes here about their trip.
A Special Thank You from Them
Friday 21 December
Berane, in the poorer north eastern corner of Montenegro, took its fair share of responsibility for refugees escaping the 1990s conflict in nearby states. Hotels, public halls and even the ski-centre were taken over for the urgent accommodation of the displaced, and in subsequent years various NGOs – World Vision and Help from Germany among them – built either brick or wooden barracks for their longer term accommodation needs. But to this day there are virtually no jobs for the men, and each household receives a small pension from the Serbian – not the Montenegrin - government. Our host and driver for the day was Dragon from the Pentecostal Church in Podgorica, who makes regular trips to these camps, and who today drove us three hours up through glorious mountains to meet some of its people and distribute your gifts.
We visited two neighbouring refugee camps and two Roma camps, singing songs, playing with children, pumping iron alongside the local guys at the makeshift outdoor gym, visiting the homes of the elderly and distributing gift-boxes to around 700 children at four open air distributions.
The first camp was a tight settlement of 53 homes. A mix of Bosnian and Croatian Serbs were settled here in the late 1990s following the conflict in their previous home towns. The leader of the camp was a warm dynamic woman who, with clip board listing names of every eligible child, took her time to carefully but happily ensure the right child receive the right box. The children went back to their homes to open their boxes – a pattern which was repeated all day.
From there we slipped and slid on the ice to the adjoining camp of wooden made homes, where 60 Kosovar Serb families live. Again the distribution was made directly from the back of the van, and again under the tight and careful supervision of the woman camp leader, Ostana. Our all-male team of guys from Northern Ireland showed the locals what they could do on the weights and bars, which was nothing compared with the grip an old lady took on my arm when insisting that I drink tea with her and her husband after the distribution.
Our final two visits – again from the back of the van – were to 60 more families from the neighbouring Roma camp. Amidst the chaos, the shouting and the mud, these grubby, colourful, inadequately dressed children emptied the van of all the remaining boxes on the van.
So despite the cancellation of our return flight from Podgorica to Belgrade (something we were able to hastily rearrange to no ill effect) this trip comes to an end tomorrow. A big thank you once more to all those from the UK who gave gifts of such quality and variety (yes, even including you, the donor of the Whoopee cushion that caused such chaos and hilarity in the little school in Vilisi!), to those who packed the cartons and the trucks, to Linda Thompson who did so much of the team preparation, to my team of Godly chaps, who to a man have worked hard, played hard and prayed hard, and to our amazing partners who work through every discouragement to faithfully remain salt and light for Jesus in a land that has almost zero understanding of him and Saviour and Lord.
These partners thank you, as do hundreds of children, parents, grand-children, teachers and directors. One head-teacher drove 60km to find us yesterday and to present us with a certificate of thanks for the kindness we are showing for the children of Montenegro. Amazing and humbling, and even more so when we realised that the children of her school didn’t even receive boxes this year!
The Day We Won't Forget
Thursday 20th December
I wish every British donor of a shoebox could experience just something of the gratitude that we have experienced from those who received your gifts today.
After a couple of days of purely humping cartons around for the OCC team in Montenegro, and much to the amazement of the school-teachers, today our team of seven men drove north east a couple of hours to visit three schools in some of the “forgotten villages” by the Herzegovina border. “You really are willing to visit our school? With gifts from English children? And with a group of foreigners? But no-one ever visits our school!”
From a distance it looked impressive, but as we came closer we could see that this monstrosity of a school building in Grahova was totally falling apart. School Director Peter explained how the building was built by an Italian disaster relief team after the 1979 earthquake that destroyed many buildings in this part of Montenegro and left 80,000 people temporarily homeless. In a show of generosity the Italians built it to accommodate 740 students. It opened with just 220 students (in 1982), and gradually the numbers have dropped to the present 46 students, all of whom stood in the barn-like entrance foyer with their coats and scarves on today to greet us and receive their boxes. The building is just too big to heat, and hardly fit for purpose any more.
It really is quite embarrassing being greeted so regally! Our three school visits were only arranged late last night, but every school principle thinks nothing of abandoning all lessons and school timetables for the sake of welcoming us into their lives. We are ushered into their staff rooms, plied with food and drink, have our photos taken, asked many questions about our lives, and thanked one hundred times. And all the while it was not us but you who worked so hard to prepare the children’s gifts!
And so in turn we say a big thank you to you, generous UK gift-box donor, for giving such joy to children, their parents, their grand-parents and their teachers. It was a day we won’t forget for a long time and, even more importantly, a day our hosts and their children won’t forget in a very long time. Doors have been opened wide for the tiny Montenegrin church to follow up, and despite their limited resources they are ready to walk through those doors with a sensitive, appropriate, faith-filled proclamation and demonstration of the love of God through the Greatest Christmas Gift of all - Jesus Christ.
Everywhere we go, the simple message we share is threefold. A child in the UK loves you. Jesus loves you. And you are not forgotten. Time and time again I am reminded of the unimaginable value of each of these simple messages. Upon coming back to our base in the capital city tonight, and in preparation of writing this piece, I briefly read up on President Tito’s famous message to the Montenegrin people immediately after the 1979 earthquake. “His message,” I read in Bradt’s excellent Montenegro guide book, “was ‘You are not alone’. The older generation who heard that speech remember it as one of his finest, reducing them to tears at his simple words of comfort.”
Different circumstances, different times, but same message. You are not alone.
Wednesday 19 December
I don’t recall ever leading an OCC team from the UK who have spent their first 48 hours without meeting a child or giving out a shoebox!
But that doesn’t mean that things are going wrong – rather that this team was specifically set up to be a tangible support to the tiny Christian community in Montenegro, and it’s doing just that. And so we spent a second day travelling across the country taking regional OCC distributers their cartons full of boxes. Today we loaded two vans with cartons and took them across to the port-town of Bar on the glorious Adriatic coast. There we met representatives from Operation Mercy and the NGO “Life”, drinking tea and sharing testimony together over the ways God had been leading our lives. And we were accompanied all day by Robert, an American missionary who is totally committed to both Montenegro and OCC.
This evening we joined the prayer meeting of our host church in Podgorica where, once more, we brought greetings from our local churches and outlined some of our work before praying together for one another.
During the day we met several different people in different towns who have come to Montenegro because they feel God has called them to plant churches here. Each one has an almost identical church-planting strategy of serving their neighbourhoods with patient friendship and good works, and each one told us of the huge benefit that shoebox gifts have in opening doors into the lives of sceptical neighbours.
Hendrick the Hero!
Alan Cutting continues his update from Montenegro - Tuesday 18 December 2012
After a brief visit to Vladimir’s church centre this morning, our team of seven men spent the rest of the day unloading the second of Montenegro’s two truck load of 10,000+ shoeboxes, which had just arrived from their four day journey from Horsham and Ashford. Well done to those who loaded the truck – great use of space and they all arrived safely.
I find that OCC truck drivers vary in their interest and engagement with what we are doing, but our guy today – Hendrick from Serbia – was exceptional. Just for the fun of it, he had filmed the loading of the boxes in Horsham and Ashford on his phone, and he filmed us again today as we unloaded them. Despite having to drive another 200km to the Serbian border late this evening, nothing was too much trouble for him. We offloaded over 5,000 boxes in pouring rain in the capital city - Podgorica – and then, instead of having lunch, the team drove in convoy with the truck straight up to Niksic (which, at 70,000 people, is Montenegro’s second biggest town) to drop the remaining boxes in the OCC warehouse (an empty house) down a small lane-cum-heavy snow drift.
Many drivers would have flatly refused to take their truck up such a tricky lane but, undeterred and with a growing audience of intrigued neighbours, it took Hendrick maybe 30 minutes to reverse the truck and trailer up to the house, slipping and sliding, but when he had finally succeeded he still jumped out of his truck with a big smile on his face – and to a great cheer from the team. Later, Hendrick even parked up his truck and came into town and had a meal with us all – he looked like he was having the time of his life and didn’t really want to leave!
So after 24 hours in Montenegro, this team hasn’t even met a child yet! But Vladimir is already calling them a “God-send” – seven strapping men ready to do anything to serve their hearts out in support of the local church. And bear in mind that the total numbers of the Protestant church in Montenegro only adds up to around 130 people!
Cold Start in Montenegro
Monday 17 December
A long day of travelling – especially for the five guys from Ballymena and Greg from Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland, who went through five countries, three flights and about ten security checks since getting up at 3 this morning, all without consuming much more than the gnarled spam sandwich served (tossed at him) with little grace by the seen-it-all-before flight attendant on the second flight!
Twenty-two year old Violetta picked us up and drove us in her beaten up old transit van to “Hotel Ideal” by 11pm, but even then we went out again and found some take-away food, walking home again by midnight. This team of seven men from N Ireland are great; I can’t understand a word they’re saying, but I get the impression they are really nice characters who love God, tell dreadful jokes and are really ready to serve!
My room was freezing cold. First I found an extra blanket to put on the bed, later put on my jumper and then later still my big coat, and by about 4.30am I found out how the aircon worked on hot. It belted down with rain all night and there are huge puddles everywhere this morning.
The plan for today is for us to off-load both your containers totalling 20,460 shoeboxes; one in Podgorica (where two of Montenegro’s three Protestant church fellowships are) and the other in Niksic (where the third Protestant church is), about 90 minutes north. The second container arrived just a few hours before we did, and customs clearance is anticipated to be early this afternoon. We are due an orientation from NLT leader Vladimir and meet some of his church this morning.
John Paul Davies took a small team of volunteers from the UK to Swaziland - here are his thoughts before he left - posted 23rd October 2012
Discovering Swaziland - But Why?
On Friday, I have the privilege of taking 5 courageous blokes to a beautiful country in South West Africa called Swaziland with Samaritan’s Purse UK. It’s a place tourists may drive through and think all is well and yet its beauty belies great need.
Go off road, away from the tourist routes and you’ll notice a startling gap in the Swazi demographic; parents, especially fathers, are missing. As in many parts of Africa Grandmothers are the backbone of society; willing to sacrifice everything, even their own lives for the sake of orphans. This is a country with the highest prevalence of HIV in the World where more than one in four adults suffer with the disease.
It’s the only country on the planet with a declining population. To put this in its full alarming context; the UN say that at the current rate of infection, the entire population will be wiped out by 2050. So why go? What difference could we possibly make?
In 2006 I filmed another SP Discovery Team, this time in Mozambique. It was to prove a profound life experience. I struggled to understand how folk suffering with terminal illness could display such love and grace. And as I witnessed the tender sacrifice of SP staff for the people of Mozambique, I realised how self-absorbed I was and how I wasn’t being to others what I needed to be.
Samaritan’s Purse displayed a love for others inspired by a love for Jesus Christ; it was compelling to the point of unavoidable.
I witnessed a peace and unswerving faith I’d not seen before and it wasn’t evidenced by theological argument or persuasive words; it was most clearly evidenced in the eyes of a Christian lady dying of AIDS and I wanted what she had.
Our team of men go to Swaziland not to fix things. Sure we’ll plant fruit trees, construct fences and bee hives but we go to engage, encourage and support an organisation that is changing lives all over the World in the most difficult of situations. We hope to see, hear, smell, touch, laugh and even weep at the things that move the hearts of this special people.
And I’ll wager our overall sense will be one of hope but what does true hope look like? This little boy receiving an Operation Christmas Child Shoebox from SP is one of the best examples I’ve yet seen…
Looking Forward to the Future
Adam Riddell, manager of our Food for Work project in Karamoja, Uganda (posted Oct 13th 2012)
This month, millions of Ugandans are celebrating 50 years of independence from colonial rule with the Golden Jubilee Celebration. The capital of Kampala is filled with patriotic displays, smiles and excitement.
Truth be told, it has been a difficult 50 years for the small, landlocked East African country, having endured through multiple civil wars and political struggles. AIDS has also left a devastating mark on the country. Even so, Uganda’s history is not completely filled with bad news, and Ugandans are experts at looking forward, not backwards.
Over the past half century, Uganda has improved its education system by providing nearly free education for children as well as collegiate scholarships for those who qualify. Literacy rates are high and infrastructure projects such as paved roads are also on the rise. Uganda businesses are growing to compete with economic demands and are providing valuable services to the people. The country is largely Christian, and the church is strong and growing.
Uganda is currently one of the few East African countries to be enjoying peace and stability. To the north, South Sudan is having tense relationships with its northern neighbor. To the east, Kenya is battling the Islamic militant group, Al Shabaab, both in its own country and Somalia. To the west, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), M23 rebels are clashing with government forces. This particular conflict has sent tens of thousands of people fleeing for the Ugandan border. I met one of these refugees there last week.
Esperance, age 30, fled for her life with her 3-month-old baby after rebels invaded her village and burned houses to the ground. She arrived in Uganda about two weeks ago, but just recently arrived at the Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement to join 21,500 other Congolese refugees. Samaritan’s Purse staff met her and provided food for her and her child Abigail.
As we sat under the shade of a tree, I listened to her story about how she didn’t know where her husband was or if he was alive, and how she never wants to go back to her country. She sat with her bag of food and her few new household items and waited to be transported to a small piece of land where she can construct a shelter to retreat from the rain and the elements.
Esperance is joining her Ugandan hosts in looking forward to a brighter future. As I join the rest of Uganda in celebrating this week of jubilee, I choose to celebrate a bright future and a country that is a safe haven to people like Esperance. I pray that God will continue to bless this great country and her people for more years to come.
The Most Challenging Assignment of All...
Ruth Sanders reports from Mozambique in the final few weeks of her time there. (Posted October 10, 2012)
"September has been a month of contrasts, from enjoying Maputo in the rain, a trip to Swaziland, to carrying out an emergency nutrition assessment in some very hot and dry parts of Mozambique. Sadly, my time here is rapidly drawing to a close, and as I write I'm in Gaza Province carrying out my final assignment, the last of three community surveys.
"I have just returned from spending a week in Panda District, Inhambane coordinating an emergency nutrition assessment. At the end of a dry winter food is now scarce. There has been evidence to suggest that there is serious malnutrition in the area. A survey team of 12 was quickly gathered and we headed out to some of the remotest parts of the country I have ever been to. Here there are few roads and many communities are inaccessible. As we measured the height, weight of children between 6months - 5 years, the cries of mothers that they were hungry and didn't have enough to feed their families was hard to take. I felt an extremity of emotions and it proved to be the most challenging of all my assignments so far; from coping with the very long hot days to seeing children and families suffering from lack of food.
"Before the hectic travelling began again I was able to have a weekend away in neighbouring Swaziland with some friends. Despite the weather resembling similar to that of the UK, it was a good refreshing break of walking, waterfall spotting as well as stocking up at the Swazi craft market.
"While here in Gaza I've started to think and reflect on the last 6 months. It has been an opportunity of a lifetime and I have so much to be thankful for God. There have been some tough times and I have been stretched and challenged in many different ways. I am thankful for good health, friends and opportunities that I have had to meet and serve more people that God loves.
"I am not entirely certain as to my next plans. However for the immediate future I will be returning to England in the next 2 weeks and will be starting back at Samaritans Purse UK in November. I plan to use the next few months to reflect on my time here and seek God as to the next step in my life, where he wants me to be and where I can serve him best.
"Thank you for your support through prayer, emails, skype chats in the time that I have been here. They have been a source of encouragement and strength. Although I am sad to be leaving Mozambique I am looking forward to spending time with my family and catching up with many of you.
Some things to pray for:
- My last two weeks here in Mozambique as I plan to leave, saying goodbye to friends and colleagues
- Adjusting back into life in the UK
- As I reflect on my time here and seek God as to where he wants me to be in the next step
- Starting back at Samaritans Purse UK and that I find somewhere to live
"Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD your God." Isaiah Ch 43 vs 1-3
Delivering Vital Food and Education
Fran Sutton-Smith visited the Kibera slum on the outskirts of Nairobi as part of her work for Samaritan's Purse Child & Family support scheme...(posted Sept 29, 2012)
It's always such an honour to be able to visit the Child & Family Support project in Nairobi, Kenya and meet the partners who work tirelessly to improve the lives of the vulnerable living in their community.
This work is heartbreaking at times as you see people struggling to survive each day with so little. However, this project is delivering vital food and education support enabling the families to join savings and loans schemes which will allow them to start small businesses. This initial support gives them the opportunity to save which will ultimately bring about economic strengthening and an understanding of financial management.
We recently increased the number of families we support and I had the pleasure of visiting the church that recently joined the project. The church is called Calvary Evangelistic Fellowship Church and attached to it is a school called Hope Children's Centre. The head teacher Sophie Akina is also a volunteer who supports several families in the church and is a true example of being the hands and feet of Jesus in her community. Despite having very little herself she visits the families and gives help wherever she can.
"We will continue to monitor the families over the next 2 ½ years and by the end of the project we hope to see families fully supported and engaged in their churches. Each child should be receiving an education and the families will be running small businesses and supporting themselves. I will keep you informed on their progress."
(Photo by Fran Sutton-Smith)
Swaziland - Getting Accepted
Ralph Springett writes to us from the depths of Swaziland where he leads a team of volunteers from their church in Maldon, Essex...(posted Sept 11, 2012)
If you want to be noticed at an airport I suggest that you wear a bright blue shirt with the name of a small African country on the back, one of your leaders tries to drown herself when opening a bottle of fizzy water and practise a drama on Noah and family in the middle of the departure lounge. With our Swaziland shirts we thought people might take us for part of the Swazi Olympic team but, with an average age of 53, (Emma brings it down quite a bit) there was no chance of that. However it did give us the opportunity to talk to some people about what we were planning to do in Swaziland.
After a mainly sleepless night on the plane, we arrived at Jo’burg at 7.00 in the morning. Just before we got to the border the minibus was stopped by the police as the brake lights were not working! After passing through border control we were in Swaziland at last and we arrived at the game park where we are staying at approximately 4 o’clock.
The next morning, after a wonderful breakfast we set off to do our first session with the children. When we arrived we thought we had about 40 children rather than the 150 that had been expected but more and more appeared and we ended up with more than 200 children.
We split into teams with some doing games and crafts and Sheila, Ann and Emma headed off to the kitchen (a few open fires under a makeshift shelter). We thought we were just there to assist but the lady turned to us and said you are making the chicken stew. We asked for advice but she said “just do it the English way.” So we did. The children were a bit puzzled by us to start with but well and truly accepted us by the end of the afternoon. They sang us some lovely songs which brought a lump to the throat.
Sunday morning – not such an early start today. After breakfast, where we watched the hippos, crocodiles and wildebeasts, we travelled along a very bumpy road to a church where we attended a wonderfully lively service with lots of dancing, singing and drums . I think our ears have stopped ringing . Some of the church members had dressed up in the local costumes especially in our honour and one of our team members wore his national dress in their honour. The congregation thought John looked good in his kilt and they got him up on the stage dancing at the front of the church, fortunately they didn’t ask him to sing!
After the service we were taken to visit a local hospital where we spoke to some of the patients and prayed with them. This was really outside our comfort zone. In the children’s ward the mums stay with their children and we were shocked to see that the mums have to sleep on the floor and most of them do not have mattresses. We all vowed not to moan about the NHS again. We headed back feeling tired and in a reflective mood about what we had seen at the hospital.
Where we are staying is beautiful although it was difficult to appreciate that fact when we arrived here through driving rain and flooded roads on Saturday. We have seen and done so much since we arrived on Friday that we feel we have been here for longer than a few days.
We thank God for help given so far. Please continue to pray for us for stamina and patience with each other as most days are full on and we are tired by the end of the day.
Accessing Belarus in a Wheelchair - Part II
Part II of Nina Harding's retelling of her remarkable trip to Belarus...
Having left most of our goodies there, it was slightly disconcerting to hear that Nic was now going to take us to Borisov babies home – where Samaritan's Purse sent work teams out over several years to renovate the building. To simplify things, Nic arranged for all the tots to come outside for their afternoon outing. Lurking in our much emptier bag were some little knitted chicks – not enough for up to 100 little ones – how could I give just a few? Well, God sorted that out because a few of the toddlers were drifting across on their own right by me. I gave a chick to one little girl and Nicolai was saying “can't you pick her up,” baffled by my reticence, not realising that our culture of “Safe to Grow” policies were so deeply ingrained it just hadn't dawned on me that it would be fine to sit the tot on my lap. It was a precious moment.
We visited a young pastor and his family living in a renovated apartment. Their little girl was in a wheelchair too and was amazed at the sight of me! There were only 2 little rubber toys left now so they were given to these two. The little boy played endlessly with the simple toy the whole time we were there. What was astounding was that the mother was so moved – apparently she needed to do exercises to work her daughter's hands but she couldn't find anything suitable.
Then along came these visitors with the perfect answer and of course Vera thought she was playing – and she did, even during our simple tea and much talking about the HOPE partnerships. How did God keep the perfect toy for this special child when I hadn't even known we would be visiting? What a great God moment. What love we found in that flat.
The next day we visited another young family and spent ages listening and learning about their amazing work at a drug rehab unit. The old building had been partly renovated, with a huge amount still to do, yet the lack of funds and labour has not stopped so many men's lives being completely turned around. We met some of the current residents, and watched a video of so many men sharing their stories of lives saved, families restored, some new marriages – all through the love of God they found in that simple shabby centre.
We also saw the site where some of the HOPE churches are planning a play-park and little garden for the babushkas to sit. We heard about Nic's passion now for the HOPE project and learned of his dream of seeing it grow throughout Belarus.
It was the most amazing, humbling trip, short and intense, as Nicolai introduced his country and some of the special people and places linked with HOPE. I can hardly believe I have actually been, as the mobility problems meant that to go out with a team was never viable. I was prepared for a challenging trip but I was not prepared for the way the visit touched me so deeply that I feel as if a part of my heart is still there, and I actually cried when I was due to board the plane home. I hope God can make good use of me for presentations now I have so many stories and pictures to share and hopefully raise awareness.I am thrilled with what I saw of the SP HOPE programme in Belarus.
Accessing Belarus in a wheelchair
Alan Cutting tells the story of Nena Harding, an Area Coordinator and passionate Operation Christmas Child supporter from Sudbury who recently undertook the trip of a lifetime...
I recall about seven years ago investigating the possibility of Nena going on an Operation Christmas Child Distribution team. For the last fifteen years or so, Nena has been a wheelchair user, and access and mobility issues in our partner countries sadly resulted in me having to say no to Nena's application. "One day!" we agreed. "One day we'll make it happen!"
Following a visit from Nic Balbutski (who works for Samaritan's Purse from Minsk, Belarus) to her area last summer, Nena followed with interest the development of the Samaritan's Purse Church Mobilisation Programme in Belarus. And once more we began to discuss how to make a visit happen. Eleven months of planning and 115 emails later, it all came together for Nena and her friend Gill Singleton to travel to Belarus. They journeyed with Nic, who was returning from this year's SP conference in Swindon where, in this Paralympics year, he was speaking on disability issues in Belarus. Here is Nena's Belarus story.
Nena writes: "Amazing" ... "Incredible" ... I had listened to so many descriptions of distribution trips over many years, yet this time it was me thinking those same words sitting on a plane with Nicolai and Gill bound for Minsk.
The unreal feelings I had when the invitation from Nic arrived in Russian, dealing with the complicated Visa application, choosing some small gifts to take on a largely unknown itinerary, were with me again on the plane. It felt as if I was flying out on special wings of God's love granting the desire of my heart and the love of my amazing shoebox team who had donated the cost of the fare.
The airline had been unfamiliar with the notion of loading my wheelchair after boarding, but all had been well, lifting a huge worry about maybe having to check it in and ending up with a mangled set of useless wheels.
The first of many challenges arose as Nic negotiated the rear entrance to the hotel (no lights in the corridors) and we arrived with a flight of steps between us and Reception. Our "accessible" hotel had steps at every area - to reach the lift, the breakfast room, bureau de change. Our room was fine but the tiny bathroom was definitely not wheelchair friendly!
The next day we went to a meeting with a friend of Nic's who is a wheelchair user. I listened intently to all he told us about his life in Minsk. He played basketball and ran sessions for other wheelchair users to raise their aspirations for what they might achieve. Listening to the access issues, there could not have been a greater contrast between our two countries.
I have become used to our dropped kerbs, provision for disabled parking, toilets, level access to most buildings and shops and increasingly accessible public transport. Nic's friend has huge daily challenges to live a full life without any of these facilities, and he has been doggedly asking for a ramp for 17 years at a city building where he attends regular meetings. Also, in Belarus it would seem that there is great need for lightweight wheelchairs for adults and children alike.
Our next visit was to one of the children's homes where there were about 70 children aged 3-7, many of whom had various special needs. Nicolai showed us the renovations in the play areas which had been done by some of the church partners in the HOPE Programme.
Even by entering the ground floor at the back, there were many steps, thresholds & difficult corners to negotiate before we found ourselves in one of the units where we met a "family" group of children who were so quiet but well cared for. They were just finishing their tea of plain bread and a slice of apple. We had put a selection of gifts and sweets into a large bag and prayed that we would have the right things to give wherever we were taken and this was an opportunity to give them out. The Director gave out a few of our gifts which caused great interest, particularly the blowing up of a big beach-ball! The little lad in a wheelchair was enthralled.
All too soon our visit was over, but not before we had been shown the main entrance up many steps, and the Director said how much she would love a simple ramp. Nic told us that the churches involved in SP's HOPE programme would be able to do this work if they had the materials.
Surveys in the Sun
SPUK’s Ruth Sanders is working in Mozambique and sent us this post which demonstrates the reality of life for people in rural Mozambique
As I sit under the midday sun outside a small hut I am humbled yet again by the quiet responses of the mother of the house as she answers our survey questionnaire.
‘Do you have a latrine?’ - “No, none”
‘Where do you get your water from and how far is it?’ “ We get our water from the river - it takes me one hour to walk there.”
‘What is your main source of income?’ “We have no source of income and we borrow food and money if we need from our neighbours.”
Her responses have become all too familiar they are not the exception but the reality for many families here in rural Mozambique. I have spent the last week helping to conduct a survey in the communities, going from house to house, asking numerous questions that covers a variety of Samaritan’s Purse projects.
As I sit and watch her children playing in the sand nearby I know from the look in her eye she wishes she could offer more and is almost ashamed of her responses that she gives us. I reflect on life back in the UK and all that she talks of are all things that I know I very much take for granted such as clean water to drink by just turning on a tap, a bathroom, food on the table each day.
These however are luxuries for many families in Mozambique, where for some they don’t know if they will have enough food to feed their families if crops fail or rains don’t come.
As the questionnaires mound up over the course of a few days from a glance they look like numbers and data that will eventually give us some statics and help plan for future programmes.
But these are not just numbers or data; they are individuals, families and communities living each day, hoping for something new, for change, and for something better! The survey here in Mozambique will help Samaritans Purse determine what peoples real needs are in turn to help make a lifetime of difference so that their dreams for their families can come true.
South Sudan Reminiscence
By Melissa Strickland, Samaritan's Purse staff writer (posted July 9 2012)
Just one year ago, I was melting in the fiery heat of an African summer day as I wedged my way through a crowd of thousands of ecstatic people celebrating the birth of their new nation, South Sudan. My eyes were repeatedly poked by the pointed sticks of hand-held flags. I thought my ribs might crack when I was jostled by an exuberant mass as the new national anthem cut through the humid air.
It was a long, tough day. And I still consider it one of the best experiences of my life.
Shortly afterward, I wrote a blog that focused on the exceptional spirit of the South Sudanese people. They had triumphed through decades of vicious war. They had endured torture and starvation. They had buried millions of their friends and family members. This was the moment of their dreams, though few had dared to hope for it. They were free.
But even in the midst of their euphoria, they were painfully aware that their liberty was incomplete. Hundreds of thousands of their black African brothers in transitional states along the border were, and are, living under the unbearable weight of unrelenting oppression and persecution. As tears of joy rolled down the cheeks of the liberated South Sudanese, those living in places like the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State cried out in desperation over the continued slaughter of their neighbors.
On South Sudan's Independence Day last year, Dr. Evan Atar was tending to wounded civilians at Kurmuk Hospital in Blue Nile State.
I had met Dr. Atar years earlier when we shared a flight aboard the Samaritan's Purse DC-3 from Kenya to Sudan. He filled our time together with stories from the war. He chuckled as he told me about the rusted old tractor that was converted into an ambulance. He reminisced about the nights he slept under a tree with Samaritan's Purse staff member Edward Densham, a man he now considers a blood brother. He sharpened his eyes and raised a finger in front of his face as he said, “Know this; I would not be alive today if God had not brought Edward and Samaritan's Purse to this place.”
In an ideal world, Dr. Atar would have been dancing in the streets of South Sudan's capital, Juba, with me and thousands of others at the stroke of midnight on July 9, 2011. Instead, he was still living the horror of war and worrying for the future of his family, friends, and homeland.
Just a few months later, Kurmuk was completely overrun by Sudan's armed forces. They took over the hospital, and Dr. Atar was forced to flee for his life with the rest of his community. He is now serving in a Samaritan's Purse clinic at a refugee camp across the border in South Sudan.
“Freedom may never truly come here,” he said during our flight. “It doesn't matter to me. I have the true freedom of Christ. That's the hope I hold onto.”
As I settled into bed after last year's long day of celebration, I mentioned my concern for Dr. Atar to my roommate, nurse Karen Daniels.
“It breaks my heart too,” she responded, “but Atar is helping his people. He wouldn't want to be anywhere else.”
If there's anyone who understands Dr. Atar's commitment to serve, it's Karen. She has worked with Samaritan's Purse for a decade and has a treasure of stories of her own. Her eyes reflect the depth of wisdom and endurance she has gained from her years of pouring compassion into the Sudanese people.
Like Dr. Atar, Karen is now serving with Samaritan's Purse at a refugee camp in South Sudan. I received an email from her last week that updated the headquarters staff on our efforts to help severely malnourished children under 5 years old who are arriving at the camp. Her report was concise but heartbreaking, “73 in-patients tonight at the stabilization center—a new record for Yida.”
Samaritan's Purse President Franklin Graham attended last year's independence celebration as an honored guest of South Sudan's new president, Salva Kiir. The invitation was extended in gratitude for Franklin's strong support of South Sudan's people and for the selfless service of Samaritan's Purse staff members like Dr. Atar, Edward Densham, and Karen Daniels.
I will never forget that glorious day of celebrating the birth of a new nation. At the same time, I don't need to look any further than my email inbox to be reminded that there is still much work to be done to serve the suffering until Jesus' magnificent return.
May God bless the people of South Sudan and bring peace to the traumatized, starving, and desperate people of Sudan.
A Place To Call Home
By Jodi Blackham, Programme Management Advisor, Uganda (posted June 1st 2012)
I have been thinking a lot recently about where I call home.
While living in Uganda I have referred to both the United Kingdom and Uganda as home. When Chris and I are planning a trip to the UK we talk to our staff about going home for a few weeks. Then when we are in the UK and coming to the end of our holiday we talk to our family about when we go back home—referring to Uganda.
We have been privileged to call two places home. In less than a week we will be leaving our Uganda home and heading back to our original home in the UK, a transition that brings many emotions. However, the concept of home was put in to perspective last week when I visited our refugee feeding project in Western Uganda.
We have recently taken over a project that is providing food in six refugee settlements in Western Uganda. The refugees are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, and other countries in Africa.
Last week the project was asked to expand to also cover a rapidly growing settlement near our field office in Kamwenge that is receiving refugees from DRC. When we arrived at the food distribution point within the settlement, a huge lorry was offloading people and belongings. The refugees receive a plot of land to set up a temporary home, and then potentially a more permanent structure.
That day 1,5000 new refugees arrived, and they are expecting at least 3,000 each week. Soon the settlement will be hosting nearly 30,000 people.
It was amazing to see the exhausted, bewildered, desperate people receiving a hot meal and then being given a basic hygiene and household supply kit and a monthly ration of food. After the journey they had been on that was the least we could do to help them start their new life.Seeing these individuals and families with everything there could carry when they were forced to flee was indescribable. I cannot imagine feeling so in danger that I pack what I can carry and run from my home. We have accumulated so much stuff during out time in Uganda that I want to keep, so we are packing bag after bag. If I have to carry it on my back I would be prioritizing very differently.
These people really have nothing. They are in a new country where they don’t speak the language, but it is better than the alternative. I felt privileged to be connected to a project that is among the first people to welcome these refugees to their new home.