This story comes from the field, where Rachel Wolverton just returned from serving in a refugee settlement where we provide medical care in Uganda. Read her heartfelt reflections about one woman she met who's shown incredible bravery and perseverance, despite incredible obstacles.
"We can do no great things, only small things with great love."
I first noticed Rose as she was waiting for medical care with her children at the Medical Teams International reception center health clinic. It wasn’t only her enduring beauty that drew me in, or the two young special needs children clinging to her. No, there was something else I sensed deep within this young woman that made it hard to simply pass by.
Discreetly, I watched Rose as she made her way outside of the Medical Teams International health clinic to collect water.
She slumped to her hands and knees and crawled across the hot rocky northern Ugandan terrain, sandals worn interlaced between her fingers to protect from sharp rocks, thorns, scorpions and other hazards of the East Africa countryside; the dusty, calloused knees I had noticed amid her fragile, spindly legs suddenly made sense.
A brutal attack
Through a translator, Rose graciously told us her story. Struck by a nearly-fatal bout of polio at age eight, Rose never regained use of her legs. No stranger to war as a child in South Sudan, Rose grew up a survivor in the midst of conflict. When her country found short-lived peace for a time between civil wars, she was married to a local man with dwarfism and within five years became the mother to three children (all of whom were also born with the same genetic mutation as their father).
Rose and her family continually faced ongoing daily challenges living as a special needs family in rural South Sudan. But despite all that life had stacked against them, they made a simple home and a life together. Understandably, with the reality of their disabilities compounding their situation and limiting their options, they were in no hurry to leave their home and community, even when conflict and violence escalated around them once again.
When her village outside of Yei, South Sudan, was attacked at night by a brutal rebel group that began to indiscriminately kill her neighbors, Rose and her family had no choice but to flee immediately into the dark protection of the bush. They left that night carrying nothing but the clothes on their backs, joined by a newly orphaned neighbor boy who had that same night witnessed his parents’ senseless murders.
For two months the young family anxiously and arduously navigated the highlands of South Sudan, living day to day, moment by moment, always in fear of being discovered by those who would do them harm. They survived, hiding in the bush and along riverbanks, at one time going four days without food, attempting desperately to make their way south, toward Uganda. Traversing under the cover of darkness, through approximately 100 miles of East African wilderness, would be an incredible challenge for any young family with three small children. But for Rose, it meant literally crawling one grueling “step” at a time toward any chance at survival for her family.
A miraculous arrival
Miraculously, Rose and her entire family were able to cross the border into the safety of Uganda, where they were transported to Palorinya Settlement in the Moyo district. There, Medical Teams International provided health screenings and immunizations. The family received tenting from the UNHCR, food and water rations, and a plot of land to build a new home and start a new life.
Unfortunately, the relief for Rose and her family was short-lived. Their tenting disappeared before they were able to set up shelter, and without being able to physically construct a home on their own, the family had resigned to sleep under a tree at night. This was a dangerous arrangement for many reasons, not least of which is the risk of contracting malaria from mosquitoes. Malaria continues to be one of the leading causes of death in Uganda, especially among refugee populations.
I had the incredible honor of meeting Rose and her children as they were being treated for malaria in the Medical Teams health center. As she recounted her journey, tears spilling off of her cheeks and onto the baby in her arms, I marveled at this woman. She embodied profound courage, pure tenacity, and an unrelenting will to survive.
A growing crisis
Rose is one of almost 900,000 South Sudanese refugees now living in Uganda, finding respite from the mass conflict and carnage in their homeland. A shocking 86 percent of the South Sudanese refugee population are women and children. The crisis is growing, with thousands of refugees each week coming through border crossings.
Each person has a story to tell, accounts of unfathomable hardships full of loss and perseverance.
After hearing Rose’s story at the Medical Teams clinic, we were able to connect Rose with representatives from Lutheran World Federation (LWF), who will work to construct a traditional tribal house for her family. This simple structure will protect her family from future bouts of malaria and help them to begin a new chapter in life – one of safety, health, and hope.
I will never forget Rose, and pray that her narrative is written upon your hearts as well. Thank you for listening, for caring, and for sharing her story, and the plight of the South Sudanese refugees, with your families, communities and networks. Thank you for stepping with us into the tragic brokenness of our fragile world with your prayers, social media engagement, activism, and support for those who are on the front lines - loving, healing, protecting, and serving the most vulnerable, tirelessly, day after day.
We can never know, short of eternity, what affect that our small acts of sacrificial love will make.