UNMISS peacekeepers record songs of peace with orphans to help them build a brighter future
Samuel laughs constantly. Loudly. Uproariously. Infectiously. Even at the most inappropriate times.
When I ask why he is so happy all the time, his carer explains that Samuel is not a joyous little boy. He has laughed like this ever since seeing his mother killed in front of him. His giggling is an expression of anxiety and trauma rather than delight at life.
Samuel is one of 55 children living at the St Clare Orphanage in Juba. Several came to the orphanage as newborns, including Elijah who died suddenly just a week ago from septicemia.
This news is heartbreaking for UNMISS peacekeepers who met Elijah during regular visits to the orphanage. The UN Police and Force officers have been supporting the children as well as schools near the UN base as part of a long-term project to raise money for food, school fees, and other basic needs. It’s also about spending precious time with the children who need love as well as financial support.
“I realized quickly when I arrived in this country that I come from a place with so many opportunities,” says Australian peacekeeper, Major David Harty. “It gave me a feeling of responsibility that I should use any spare time and energy to seek similar opportunities for children in South Sudan. It’s my first time being deployed with the UN, so I also see this as a chance to learn and grow as a professional soldier.”
Most of the children at St Clare orphanage lost their parents during South Sudan’s civil war. Others are from single parent families who simply can’t support them. Fifteen-year-old Clement Keri is one of those young people.
“My father died in the war. I have a mother but there are five of us kids and she can’t support all of us because she has no job,” says Clement. “The main reason that I came here is so that I can go to school because I really want to have a career that will help me support my whole family in future."
Clement excels as mathematics, physics, and chemistry. He dreams of being a university lecturer.
“We have more peace here in Juba these days although there is still some fighting in other places,” he says. “I really hope peace will be everywhere one day so that my brothers and sisters can also go to school.”
The orphanage receives funding from generous Franciscan friars but it’s not enough to support even the most basic needs. Two years ago, there were 27 children. Today, that number has doubled. Food, school supplies, bedding and mattresses are desperately needed.
“It really is a struggle. We don’t have enough funding although we are very grateful to the friars who support us as much as they can,” says St Clare’s Programme Manager, George Yeno. “Access to water is one of our biggest challenges. The water pipe is broken so we have to rely on trucks delivering water. Our tank is also only big enough to hold three days’ supply.”
UNPOL officer Emma Audundottir came up with an innovative project to attract potential donors by recording songs written and performed by the children. These will be released publicly on UNMISS’ Radio Miraya network which has the biggest audience in South Sudan.
“Music is the international language, it brings people together,” she says. “The time I’ve spent with the kids working on this project has been amazing. Their voices are so strong. They are so smart, fun, and full of hope. This experience has meant more than I could ever imagine. Hanging out with these kids is what I will miss the most when I leave.”
The children’s plight particularly touched Major Harty because he and his wife, Lucy, are expecting their first child in May. This motivated him to formalize the relationship with the schools and orphanages by establishing a new committee so that the projects last well beyond the individual deployment of particular members.
“I saw the efforts and results of previous UNMISS members in growing trusting relationships with the schools and the recognition it gained with local community leaders and military forces. I wanted to be part of this legacy,” he said. “So, I established a new committee giving staff members the chance to help local children through special projects, supported by expertise, a promotion plan, establishing a local bank account, and liaison between the project members and the school.”
Previous projects included the production of a book called Young Voices of South Sudan which features photos and quotes from children at nearby Exodus School. This can be purchased via a website with the same name.
As these peacekeepers prepare to leave the Mission and return home to their own families, they can be confident that they have left a legacy and will not be forgotten by the children whose lives they have touched.