The new school year at Restore Leadership Academy (RLA) began last week, and it is off to a great start! With the new year in swing, we have been reflecting on some of our favorite moments of 2018 and want to show you a glimpse of how the last school year ended. Just a hint: it involved tons of balloons, smiling graduates, and an amazing marching band!
The school year at RLA is broken up into three terms, the first of which begins just after the New Year. At the end of each school year, we throw a huge graduation ceremony to celebrate all of our amazing graduates that have worked so hard all year long. Graduation is always a great time to reflect, to gather all of our students, staff, teachers, parents and guests together and showcase the wonderful people that help make our school such a special place.
There is nothing quite like a Ugandan celebration, and graduation is no exception. People start gathering hours before, dressed in their best suits and dresses and colorful kitenge clothes. The ceremony began, with all the students adorned in bright blue gowns and huge smiles, with a balloon-filled procession into main hall, followed by the collective singing of the Ugandan National Anthem and RLA’s school song about restoring love and justice. This year, to make everything even more fun, we hired a local marching band to join in! Right off the bat, the ceremony was in full swing, with everyone on their feet, participating in the festivities.
Our graduation ceremonies are always filled with skits, songs and dances, as well as the traditional distribution of diplomas. All the students, teachers and families are filled with pride to be there, so the ceremonies usually go on for hours! Sometimes they last so long that we have to sneak away for a snack break ☺ But in all seriousness, we love getting to celebrate these kids and all of their incredible accomplishments!
It is such a great way to end the year and to look back at how far they have all come. We are so proud of our class of 2018, and we cannot wait to see what the next year has in store!
Thanks to our friends Monica LaFerla and the rest of the US Storage Centers team for sponsoring graduation and this blog post!
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." -Margaret Mead
We’re back again in Iraq, this beautiful place that contrasts between peace and conflict, joy and hardship, scarcity and generosity. I couldn’t be happier to be here. I can’t wait to visit friends, experience the incredible hospitality of the Kurdish people, which includes drinking lots of tea and sharing delicious home cooked meals. But first, we are off to see one of Love Does’ newest projects. I jump out of the car at the site where we built the village for Syrian refugee families and look around in amazement.
A year ago, this was just an idea. A year ago, these families were living in makeshift shelters along the sides of the road in Soran, or barely scraping enough money together to pay rent on one bedroom apartments. And now, these homes exist, and there are rugs hanging over the walls, little shoes on the front porch steps, and I can smell baking bread coming out of one of the kitchens. These 20 homes are humble, but their view over the mountains of Northern Iraq is breathtaking. Right now the green hills are lit up with a pink and orange sunset and a bunch of kids are outside, playing for a few more minutes before being called in to dinner. I join them and pretty soon we're all walking hand in hand like some mini parade, the kids each pointing out proudly to me which house is theirs.
A year ago, this didn’t exist, and it’s hard to believe it’s here now. What blows my mind even more is that in a way, these houses were created by Instagram, Facebook and emails, because that's the way we told the stories of these families and the needs they had. In a time when it seems we’re oversaturated with social media, it’s especially exciting to think about how those tools can be used for such good. And my favorite part is that we did this together. We told you about these sweet families and the challenges they faced: nowhere to live, no school for their kids, no money to buy groceries. Then you rallied together to build homes for them, which have changed their lives.
Now I sit in one of their living rooms, a little girl shyly reaches out to touch my sleeve and I grin back at her, sipping my coffee. Her father sits on the rug in front of us and shares about how he couldn’t buy groceries for his family because at the end of the month, all their money went to rent. His face, bright and animated with joy up until now, breaks and for a minute he cries at the memory as we sit there with him in silence. He gestures to his family sitting with him, speechless, unable to explain how difficult that was. I could imagine how hard it would be not to be able to care for the ones you love the most. He looked back at us and a smile re-appeared and his eyes brightened up again.
“But now look,” he says, gesturing around the room.“Now we are here, we have money for food. And our kids can go to school. For now, we are safe."
He told us that one day they want to return home to Syria, but it’s too hard to say when that could be as the conflict continues on, their homes are destroyed, and their families scattered. Even though we can’t come close to fixing everything in the world, we can at least make life for some families a little better, a little more stable, a little more like home.
Thank you, so much, for loving these families enough to rally together to build them homes. It means so much not just to them, but to all of us on the Love Does team as well. Your partnership has made dreams come to life, and we are filled with gratitude.
Billy Ray is the Iraq Country Director for World Orphans, and a valued partner of Love Does. We took some time to sit down with him and learn more about life in Northern Iraq, and the future of the Love Does projects there.
1. If you could start by introducing yourself to us with your name, and where you’re originally from.
My name is Billy Ray [officially William Jackson Ray]. Some folks think that Billy Ray is my first name, but it’s my first and last name. I was raised in a military family. My Dad was a fighter pilot. We were stationed in London, UK when I was born.
2.How did you end up in Iraq?
God put the Middle East on my heart back in 1997. I went through a year of training at my church and then moved to Istanbul, Turkey in 2000 where I met my wife, Dawn Marie. We got married a year later and spent 6 years in Turkey, having 3 boys in the process: Peter, Andrew, and Jonathan (all born in Eskisehir, Turkey). We moved to Northern Iraq with World Orphans in the summer of 2008.
3. How are you seeing restoration through the Love Does projects in Iraq?
One of great things about the Love Does School is that it not only employs nearly every major ethnic group, it also educates every major ethnic group found in Iraq. We have Arab, Kurdish, Assyrian Christian, and Syrian teachers teaching Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis, and Syrians. It’s quite a mix. Being able to bring all of these ethnic groups representing 3 very different religions into the same classroom gives the students the opportunity to break the stereotypes that have been handed down to them for generations and have caused conflict through the years here in Iraq. It’s amazing to see their interactions and to see them make friendships that we hope will carry through their lifetime.
4. How has your life changed since being in Iraq? What does your daily life look like now?
Life in Iraq is best described as a series of exhausting sprints interspersed with longer periods of calm. If you’re used to a 9 to 5 job getting you out of bed each morning and coffee thrusting you into the next day’s activities, you’ll find that things move a bit more slowly here. However, there are those times when daily life takes on a speed, we never felt in America.
5. What’s your favorite meal there?
We love stuffed grape leaves, buryani, and kebabs. They eat a lot of chicken and rice here.
6. What impact is the Hospital going to have on these families in need?
Well, as you know the Hospital isn’t just a place to go and get well. It will function as the center of the Love Does Village, which along with other houses in the area house some 40 families that have fled conflicts from ISIS and from the Syrian regime. We hope to not only offer medical treatment but also trauma care to meet the needs of these precious families.
7. How has the Love Does School impacted children and families since opening?
Well, if there’s one thing that we’ve learned it’s that the Syrian refugee families are totally committed to education. They have thanked us again and again for opening up the school, telling us plainly that if there wasn’t a school for their kids to go to, then they would move away -- move wherever they could find one regardless of the living circumstance. I think we really have created a unique environment in which the kids can learn. They have friends meet and have friends from every other ethnic group in Iraq. We also have a soccer field and community center for them to get involved with, and all within a few blocks of the Love Does Village.
8. Where do you see the future of the the Love Does School, Village and Hospital heading? In 5 years? 10 years?
This year we hope to build another 60 homes for Syrian refugees, in particular. There are many, many more Syrian refugees in our city that just have been overlooked in the dispersement of aid through the years. We’ve set our hearts to hopefully supply homes for not only 60 more families this year, but upwards of 150 more families over the course of the next 5 years. We’ve established now a permanent neighborhood of Syrian refugees, also Yazidis that have access to medical treatment and education. More and more refugee families want to move into our part of the neighborhood. We hope that we can offer them the care that they need to get back on their feet, education for their children that will propel them further than their parents, and perhaps help them succeed in returning back home one day to Syria better prepared to respond to life’s challenges.
9. What’s your favorite part about what you do?
It’s so much fun seeing the smiles on all the kid's faces each day at the school and being the recipient of hundreds of ‘thank you’s' from the parents is so rewarding. We’re just thankful to be here as a family, and in a small way perhaps be the hands and feet of Jesus to them. We came here to serve, and we just feel fortunate that we’ve been given the opportunity to do so in such incredible ways through the Love Does School and Hospital.
We are so grateful for everything that Billy Ray has done for the Love Does Village, School, and Hospital in Iraq. We wouldn't be able to do it without him!
We took some time to interview Billy Skiffington, our Country Director in Uganda. He is an advocate for our students at Restore Leadership Academy, and has been a creator of community since joining our team nearly a year ago. We are incredibly grateful for everything that Billy has accomplished!
1. If you could start by introducing yourself to us with your name, where you’re from originally and where you live now/what you do.
Hey! My name is Billy Skiffington, I grew up in Skagit Valley on the coastline overlooking the San Juan Islands in Washington State! Now I live in Northern Uganda with Love Does and work with amazing people to help with education and justice for people living here. I tell people my job is really just to hang out and talk to people. Those people I get to hang out with are the dozens of incredible staff in our school serving everyday, hundreds of amazing students working hard to succeed, inmates in the local prison helping each other achieve their education, brave leaders in safe houses for young girls, and even traditional healers or witch doctors who are working to change through education and help overcome violent practices in their world.
2. How did you end up in Uganda? And how long are you there for?
I was in law school in early 2010 when I met Bob Goff. He talked about rubber band wars and whimsy and I figured that was the kind of lawyer I wanted to be too. So I kept following his adventures through Love Does. When I finished law school I worked for a company doing contracts and organizing operations for a few years. Then one day I saw Love Does looking for a person to get more involved, so I flew to San Diego and we talked. I didn’t exactly leave the office and fly straight to Uganda. I had to go home and get my toothbrush first. But it wasn’t long after and now I’ve been here for almost a year! I’ve gotten to be part of a lot of awesome developments in this last year and while part of me wants to just move here and stay forever, I am working to hand things off well to finish up my time sometime this year!
3. The name of this school is Restore Leadership Academy, how are you seeing restoration here?
So many ways! This was the epicenter of major violence just a decade back, with the Lord's Resistance Army raiding villages, and doing all kinds of evil stuff. We’ve seen so many amazing stories of students and families coming out of the terror and hardship of those times to rebuild and look to a new future through opportunities in education. But it’s more than just education and getting a diploma, it’s about creating space where people can be with each other, know they are loved, be mentored and encouraged and trained in leadership and character to be on the front lines of helping repair their community.
4. How has your life changed since being in Uganda? What does your daily life look like now?
Daily life here is a lot slower in some ways, but also more full in other ways. The weather is beautiful, the food is great and the people are some of the best I’ve ever known, lived and worked with. Again, I mostly get to just hang out and talk to people who are doing amazing things and see how I can help. Mostly I get to encourage people, brainstorm on challenges and issues, explore new opportunities together, help show people what grace looks like when they mess up, dream about the next awesome projects. And then we get to go and do all the things together! So instead of a 9-5 job it’s more like a big family just all working together, all pulling weight together when needed, resting when the work is done. There’s much more of an ebb and flow to life here.
5. What’s your favorite meal there?
Definitely pizza! Who knew you could get pizza in Uganda!
6. How are all the new changes going with their mentors, new schedule etc.. can you see a difference in the kids?
Yes! The change is incredible already. The energy of all the students has improved so much, students are connecting with mentors, feeling more safe and secure and more connected and heard. It’s powerful! It was a tough sell at first as this is really different from how other local schools operate. But then we don’t want to run a just another normal school. We want to create a place for students to thrive, and I think the changes this past year are helping achieve that.
7. Where do you see the future of Restore Leadership Academy heading? In 5 years? 10 years?
I think academically, RLA is on track to be in the top ten schools in the country out of thousands. But also I think RLA will see graduates more and more in positions of leadership in the communities, families, businesses and government. And as we grow and add more students, staff and programs, I think Restore will be a place people look at and say “Wow. Whatever they are doing, we want to do that too.” And I hope it will continue to be a home, a family, of staff and students growing together not just to get a grade or check a box, but to share life together and figure out what it looks like to live out Love and Justice to reshape their world!
Each time we go back to Somalia, I can’t wait to see the unexpected. With each trip comes a new adventure, a unique experience and better understanding of the incredible and brave humans living there. This trip was no different.
A few months ago we made plans with an amazing organization called World Food Programme (WFP) to deliver food to 50,000 people in a rural part of Somalia. Currently, 3.1
million people are in need of life-saving food assistance and humanitarian help is not only helpful, it’s essential. We helped WFP load up 120 bags of rice and large boxes of oil canisters and we flew to Dolow, a rural town in Southeastern Somalia.
As we flew in we could see the Jubba river winding slowly between Somalia and Ethiopia, a stark contrast against the dark, red dirt that covered the land. We landed at an airstrip with the WFP team and we helped unload the lifesaving food. It was a humbling experience helping carry the rice and oil, knowing what it would mean to the people who would receive it.
After having been welcomed by the joyful Somali people with traditional dancing and greetings, I had a chance to sit down with a lady named Safia who lived in a IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camp called Kabasa, home to 30,000 others. This is always my favorite time - getting to hear individual stories of such bravery and strength. Safia was wearing a brown scarf that covered her head and a red checkered skirt. We sat on the ground with an interpreter and soon a small crowd of kids formed a curious little ring, interested to hear her story and find out what we were doing. Safia had only been here about six months. Along with her husband and six kids, she walked 150 miles on foot to Dolow in order to find food. She gestured to show me how she had one baby strapped to her back, one to her front, and then held the hands of two more. Her husband carried two of them and together, they all walked for almost two weeks to reach Dolow. Until the current situation Safia and her family had their own farm and they could grow all their own food to survive. They had cows and could grow vegetables along with other staples. When the drought came, it all dried up and the cattle died, and they were forced to leave everything they knew.
Now, Safia walks each day to the river to collect water, then comes back, builds a fire, and cooks beans. That’s a staple for her family, although she smiles and says there are lots of other dishes she likes to cook if she has the ingredients. I hope someday Safia can return to her farm and grow her own food again, but for now, I’m so grateful that there are brave and hardworking people coming alongside her to help during this time.
In 2016 WFP fed 1.8 million people. This year, we got to be part of that number, partnering financially to feed another 50,000. Because generous friends like you, steps are being made to eliminate hunger all over the world for people like Safia and her family.
We talk about action at Love Does a lot. How in order to properly love someone you must back it up with movement. Because of this incredible experience in Somalia with World Food Programe I am able to tangibly see that sometimes words aren’t enough. It takes action. We need to stand alongside our friends and share in the journey, offering help where we can.
WFP and Love Does rely on friends to help keep fighting hunger. If you’d like to get involved or just find out more, check out www.lovedoes.org/foodforsomalia
Love Does operates two safe houses in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. We want to introduce you to Lucy*, one of the wonderful girls who lives there.
When Lucy was a young girl you could always find her giggling and playing with her friends. She was curious and loved learning. She looked forward to attending school everyday because like many kids growing up in East Africa, she knew school meant opportunities that she wouldn’t have otherwise.
What Lucy couldn’t have imagined is that her own father wouldn’t support her in her dreams of a better life. In fact, he would be the very person who would prohibit her from continuing her education. At just ten years old, Lucy's father began taking advantage of her and her sister in a way that no girl should ever have to experience. Soon after, he started bringing men back to their home to sleep with his daughters in exchange for money.
Lucy eventually confided in her sister who had also been forced to sleep with the men. Her sister decided that she had had enough and called the police. The police are very familiar with the work of Love Does in the area and they realized that this was a case where Love Does could be involved. The social workers at our safe house were brought in to the situation, and knew that they could provide the safe place that Lucy desperately needed - a home and a family.
At age 12, Lucy, young and beautiful, timid and kind, became the newest member of the Love Does home. Lucy is now surrounded by love and protection from the other girls and counselors, and they have created their own beautiful family.
Life can be really hard, and there is a lot of darkness in the world, but there is always hope. We are so thankful that for Lucy, darkness didn’t win, and justice was served. She is a fighter, and she is worth fighting for.
*All names have been changed for safety and privacy*
As a mother or a father, it is common to want more for your children, to hope and fight for a better life for them. Parents often work selflessly to provide a life where their children have what they need; the physical necessities, and also the emotional care that their little hearts desire. For Mary's mother, it was a struggle to even put food on the table for her daughters. In order to make ends meet, Mary's mother was forced into a life of prostitution.
Due to their mother's job, Mary and her sister were often left to fend for themselves for days on end. Alone, they were defenseless against the men that would come into their home and take advantage of them. Thankfully, a probation officer took notice of what was happening and intervened. The officer introduced Mary to the social workers at the Love Does safe house, and they welcomed her into her new family.
When Mary’s mother found out that her daughter was in a safe place she was incredibly grateful. The pain of not having her daughter around was silenced by her immense relief that she was in a loving environment where she was truly cared for and protected. This is the true love of a mother.
Belonging is an inherent desire, a common thread among all people. We all long to be cared for, to be desired, to be loved. Unfortunately, for many girls like Esther, our safe house is the first place that they have ever felt that belonging.
When Esther was a child, she was passed from relative to relative, no one wanting the responsibility of a young girl. When she was with her father he would take advantage of her, and when she was with her grandparents she often suffered physical abuse. Esther was trapped, scared and alone.
Esther recalls her story with a sense of grief and heaviness. She recounts a time when she threatened to call the police on her grandparents and they said if she did so they would kill her. Thankfully, someone else was able to call on her behalf, and the Love Does social workers were brought into the situation. The Love Does home gained a lovely new member, and Esther was able to go back to being a kid again.
After months of counseling, tender love and care, Esther is gaining back the little sparkle in her eye. She describes the girls in the home as ‘her best friends.’ and says that, ‘things are happening that she never believed possible.’ Esther found the place that she belongs.
Do you know how much power you have to change the world through love? We’re blown away by it all the time.The way you give and love is making it possible for kids all around the world to have a second chance, and we’re so grateful. Here’s a story from Northern Uganda of what you’ve done to give one young child a home, a family, a future, and an abundance of love.
All Ivan ever wanted was a family, and to be loved, but shortly after he was born, Ivan's parents passed away. His extended family dropped him off at an orphanage where he spent his childhood feeling abandoned and lonely.
Ivan wanted so badly to be loved he even volunteered to take care of the pigs at the orphanage, hoping the owners would recognize his value and care for him more.
Throughout his loneliness, he relied on his faith to get him through, “I asked God to show me His plan for my life because I knew that it was greater than where I was at, that he wanted me to thrive in a place of love, I just needed to find that.”
At nine years old, Ivan finally thought that he found his family. A couple came to the orphanage, saw his shy, hopeful smile, and brought him home. They cared for Ivan, took him to a school for art, and inspired in him a love for creation and expression. But sadly, after just a couple of years, they could not afford to keep him, so they dropped him off once again, this time at the gates of Restore Leadership Academy.
For Ivan, this felt like abandonment all over again, and he struggled to get settled. He didn’t like school, and all the hurt made it hard for him to connect. But the reality was that it was the start of something more wonderful than he could have ever hoped. With time, the continuous love and support that he was shown began to knock down his walls and open his heart. Ivan finally found his family, and this time, he wasn’t going to lose them.
While at Restore Leadership Academy, Ivan studied hard, reignited his love for art, and made lifelong friendships. After he graduated, he started his own business painting and selling pieces of art to people throughout Uganda. His business is thriving, and to this day Ivan calls Restore his home and the people there his family.
Ivan’s story is why we are so grateful for you. You have created this beautiful place where, in a world so in need of love, a kid like Ivan got a second chance. You proved that all children are worthy of love and belonging. And even more, you proved that anyone has the power to bring more light and love into the world - one child, one act of kindness at a time.
Names are a funny thing. They are given to you at birth by parents who don't yet know you, and most of the time, they stick. But what you choose to be called, that is a different matter entirely.
She was born with the name Sharon. When she was in 4th grade, she had a teacher named Topista that she loved, and decided to change her name. From then on, she always wrote Sharon Topista on her papers and documents. Life is a little bit like that, especially in a place like Nothern Uganda. You are born, you are given life circumstances that dictate a lot of who you are and what you do, but you also have the ability to change it, to be molded and blessed by the the people in your life. Topista's story is one of breaking free, of defying odds and becoming exactly who she wanted to be, through a sometimes unlikely set of events.
Topista has overcome so much in her short life, from an abusive father to a lack of financial stability, her life at home was not an easy one. But she knew deep in her heart that she wanted to change the course of her future. So she walked three hours to RLA and was able to pave the way for the rest of her sisters to also attend the school. After attending RLA and then our sister school, Cornerstone, Topista set her sights on law school. She feels continually pulled towards justice for underprivileged women and children. Topista is especially intrigued by criminal justice. She wants to do good work, and be a trusted lawyer that people will turn to when they need help.
The day Topista found out she was admitted to law school was an incredible celebration. Here is what she remembers from that day: She ran, and felt like she was flying. She was staying in a house with 12 girls in Kampala, so she ran all around the house, screaming, “You people! I have gone through! I am going to be a lawyer!” . They made so much noise that day, but it didn’t even matter. She was so excited! She doesn’t even remember if she ate that day, and couldn’t stop smiling. Currently Topista is in Law School and we know with out a doubt that this girl will be a world changer.
Dae Eriksson took a recent trip to Soran, Iraq to check up on our school. While she was there she met several impactful Syrian Refugee Families. Here are her notes from that day:
Today we got to visit and interview three Syrian refugee families. Once again I was given tea by new friends who had nothing, and yet shared everything they had. We sat with them and they told us the stories of how they fled from Syria and settled, to some extent, here in Soran. We heard about their daily lives, their needs, and what they are hoping for in the future.
First I met Farrah, a sweet little girl, about 8 years old, and her family. There are seven of them total and they are living in a small structure covered with blue tarps and carpets. They left Syria three years ago and crossed the border into Iraq. Farrah’s father sells juice on the street and on a good day he can make about $7 or $8 total. But their rent is $100/month and they still have to buy food and clothing and kerosene for their stove. So things are not easy for them. It’s hard to take in this information. I wish I could help immediately, but the problem is more vast than I can handle. There are almost 100 families living in similar situations, and they don’t just need help this month - they need support in a much bigger way, a way that will allow them to become empowered to take care of themselves. So I just tell them I’m sorry and that we’ll try to help however we can. But wow, it’s a heavy feeling to think of what life must be like for them. Forced to flee their country and now living in a shelter that won’t keep them warm in the winter or protected from the harsh heat of the summer. And yet Farrah finds a reason to smile. It seems she’s just happy to have some new friends.
After we said goodbye to Farrah’s sisters, brother and mother, she became our little tour guide and introduced us to a couple more Syrian families living a few blocks away. She led us through the streets, looking back now and then and smiling shyly and laughing when I asked her “Farah WHERE are you taking us??”
Then we arrived at her friend’s house and they welcomed us inside. Unlike Farah’s house which was on the side of the road and a single structure, this family lived in a room within a larger building. It was a small room, and this is where they all lived, had meals, and slept at night. They told us that there were 12 of them living here. Our friend Hersh continued to interpret for us and explained that they also had to pay rent, about $100/month. The father in this family was injured and couldn’t work, so the sons who were almost grown did construction jobs when they could find work. But it was also very difficult for them to afford rent. The more I learn about these families the more I want to do something to help, and I think we can. I was just trying to imagine if my friends or family were in a similar situation. Once you know about it, it’s hard to forget.
Photo by Zac Jones
Why is always a good question to ask either before, during, or after we embark on a project or journey. It brings clarity and understanding. It helps to keep asking this to make sure we're putting our energy into the right things. Why are we doing this? What is the purpose? Try it sometime - ask yourself WHY before launching into a new venture.
When asked why we go to Somalia, or really anywhere in the world, the answer is simple. Love. That may seem too elementary, but love is actually the truest explanation for why we spend our time flying to some of the most dangerous places in the world to try to change even just one life. Love is the reason I met Hannah, and her story has left an unremovable stamp on my heart.
Last September, we landed in Mogadishu, Somalia with our bullet proof vests packed in our luggage, ready to put on as soon as we picked them up from baggage claim. We headed out of the airport in our dark, window tinted SUV surrounded by guards with guns and made our way, jet lagged and excited, to our safe house in the middle of the war torn, bomb riddled city. We passed a sink hole in the pavement from a car bomb earlier that morning and it reminded us that for so many this is place of constant fear and sleepless nights. The terrorist group Al-Shabab had attacked the presidential palace, killing 20 people. It felt like we were going in slow motion as we passed the wreckage and rubble, surrounded by soldiers, tanks, and so many guns.
When we arrived at our safe house, our friends Fartuun and Ilwad greeted us with hugs and so much joy. They live in Mogadishu and run our safe house, among many other incredible projects. Together, we have the only safe house for women and children in Somalia who have been victims of gender based violence. All of the girls had been through heartbreaking experiences. Many of them were forced to marry old men or experienced traumatic rape or abuse living in IDP (internally displaced people) camps.
Despite their stories, they have these deep wells full of joy and a sense of resilience. They have been through the worst, and they know they can survive. Even though I can see the pain in their eyes it's the joy that I can't miss. It’s the combination of the two that makes this place and these girls so unforgettable.
One of the girls in particular stands out in my mind. Hannah's story changed everything for me. The first time she caught my eyes she was with her son, Matthew. He was just learning to walk and she protectively held his hands as he tilted back and forth on his little legs, laughing the whole time. I realized suddenly that she was speaking English, and had a British accent. My curiosity got the best of me so I asked her to come sit with us and she began sharing her story.
It started two years ago. She was a typical girl, living in London. Like many kids, she didn’t always get along with her parents. Her mom thought she was too westernized, too wild. One day, her mom said she had a surprise for Hannah - they were going to go to Dubai on holiday! Naturally, Hannah was thrilled. She had to get a new passport, and her mom held on to it for safe-keeping.
They got on the plane and headed out for their adventure. Hannah slept on the red-eye flight and when she woke up, groggy with jet lag, her mom said they’d arrived. The airport seemed smaller than she expected, and suddenly, she realized something was wrong. They hadn’t flown to Dubai after all, but to Mogadishu, Somalia. "What in the world are we doing here?" Hannah asked her mom. She got no answer. Instead, they got in a taxi outside the airport and headed into the city. Hannah was greeted by the same sights as me on my first time to Mogadishu; rubble, guns, masks and tanks. But unlike me, Hannah didn’t have guards or a bullet proof vest or even an understanding of why she was there. She was disoriented and terrified. Her mother refused to answer her questions. The only thing she said to her was “It’s time for you to grow up.” Finally, they pulled up to a small, crumbling house and got out. An old man came out of the house and motioned them in with an impatient wave and they walked into the living room where an older lady sat.
Her mother turned to her and spoke the words that would completely shatter Hannah's life; "Hannah, meet your new husband."
From that point on, Hannah's life was torture. What seems unreal and baffling and impossible to me was just her daily reality. The day before her 14th birthday, she was forced to marry a 50 year old man who raped her and beat her regularly. She tried to call her mom to save her, but her mom changed her cell phone number and flew back to London with her passport. Before long, Hannah realized she was pregnant. She was also slowly starving. Given no food by her new husband and her mother in law, who made her work around the house and beg in the streets, Hannah was a shadow of the girl she used to be. She gave birth to her baby, a son, who she named Matthew, and suddenly life was even more terrifying. How could she love and take care of her baby in this environment?
Desperate, Hannah began finding ways to reach out to anyone who might help. It was difficult in the age when you don’t memorize people’s numbers anymore, don’t have access to internet or wifi or a phone, and have been living in a traumatic state for a year. But finally, she was able to connect with a friend back home, who then called the embassy in Mogadishu. They found Hannah and called us to help. We jumped in and brought Hannah into the safe house as quickly as possible, along with Matthew, now a year old. While Hannah’s husband does not know where she is because the safe house is in a concealed location, he somehow tracked down the phone number of Fartuun, who runs the safe house. Daily, he would call and threaten her, but she stood her ground. She doesn’t care when people threaten her - not when she has the more important job of protecting these girls.
Eventually, with a lot of care, rest, counseling, and regular food, Hannah has regained her girlish laugh and tentative but growing sense of joy and resilience. She’s been at the home for 9 months now, and Matthew just turned two. She tells her story with a lot of hand motions and a sparkle in her eyes. Pain flashes across her face periodically when relaying the details or her story, but then she brightens again and the joy comes back, along with a very evident sense of gratitude. She is thankful for her life, and her son’s life.
At the end of her story, I sit there for a few minutes, not knowing what to say. I think about all the people who give, even if it’s a little bit, to make this all possible. Suddenly, every effort is made so worthwhile. I feel energized to keep on with this work, knowing it’s actually having an impact - a huge one.
A few months after our visit to Mogadishu, we were finally able to get Hannah and her son new passports, and they returned to London. Now, Hannah lives in a home with other young moms, continuing the process of returning to a normal life. "A normal life," she says, laughing, "would be to just been a single mom, work, and take care of my baby. That’s all I want." I asked her if she would see her mom again, and she said she didn’t know. "Maybe someday, but not yet. Not yet."
Love is the reason any of this is possible. Love can get so confused and derailed - the love of a mother, so twisted and heartbreaking, created this nightmare of a story for Hannah. But her courage, and the love for her own son made her fight for their lives. The love of Fartuun and Ilwad, who have fearlessly dedicated their lives to help girls like Hannah, is making such a difference in the world. The love of her sisters in the home who welcomed her and cared for her like their own. The love of you, who have supported what we do, trusting us to these incredibly valuable things, so far away.
It’s your love of people you’ve never met which creates a beautiful picture of hope and courage. That's a good enough why for me.
The news in Iraq lately has been overwhelming, and it can be hard to know how to help. But we believe everyone has the power to have even a small impact on change for the good.
Join us as we share a story of hope in the midst of chaos and see the power you have to take action and bring change to a world in need of great love.
The Brave Ones: Fighting Isis On The Front Lines
One of the most impactful moments of our last trip to Iraq was the opportunity to have lunch with the brave Peshmerga Army on the front lines where they are fighting against ISIS.
We’d been staying in Soran, a city in Northern Iraq surrounded on all sides by breathtaking mountains. Some incredible friends, Billy Ray and Tim Buxton, have been working in the area for years, helping with the local community and the refugee crisis.
Soran has served as a haven for refugees during the war, and many of the local residents serve in the Peshmerga Army. The Peshmerga are a fierce, brave, and loyal force against ISIS. They’re fighting not only for their people, but for the world.
One morning we got up early and headed out of town towards Mosul to visit some of the soldiers on the front line. During the drive I kept looking at the map on my phone. Our location was a blinking blue dot that slowly and steadily got closer and closer to Mosul. It was a surreal experience to be headed towards a place I’d been hearing about in the news for so long. Mosul is only a couple hours away from Soran, and has been under ISIS territory for over two years. ISIS (also known by the locals as “Daesh”) declared themselves to be the religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide. They waged brutal warfare and within six months it had control over vast areas of land in Iraq and Syria and had displaced over 2 million refugees and IDPs (internally displaced persons). I don’t think I felt fear that any harm would come to us, but it was a strange feeling to be going towards something so menacing instead of running away from it.
More than a bunch of facts and numbers, I couldn’t help but think about all the individual people whose lives have been tragically disrupted – people who lost everything, or were killed by this group. Along the way, our friends told us stories about the bravery of the Peshmerga, and the intense cruelty and unpredictability of ISIS. Stories of loss and cruelty, stories that stick with you, that are impossible to erase from your mind. Such extremism has filled the region with fear and sent people running for their lives.
And yet, there are many who haven’t run. They have banded together, purchased their own uniforms, and hitchhiked or drove their family cars to the front lines to fight back against this extremism. When we arrived at one of the outposts, just a couple kilometers from ISIS territory, we looked over the sandbag barriers into the Mosul plain. One of the soldiers pointed out a ditch, or trench, running through the plain, and explained that on the left side, where we were, was Peshmerga territory. On the right was ISIS, and here he waived his hand and said with vehemence: “Daesh.”
I looked out at all the land on the right of the ditch. I could see dark smudges in the desert and asked about those. Our friends explained that after ISIS takes over a town and is finished with it, they tip over all the oil barrels and light it on fire. Thus, the black smudges were towns and villages ISIS had taken over and then abandoned. It was a heavy sight to see. Such literal and figurative darkness for so many.
It was lunchtime by now, and ever the most hospitable of guests, our new friends invited us into their tent for a meal. There at the front line, next to a map in the ground pointing out outposts and ISIS territories, we feasted on rice and salad and chicken and piping hot tea with piles of sugar in the bottom. We learned about why these men cared so much about this fight. One of them explained that it wasn’t just for him, or his family, or his town, but that his fight was for the world. He told us he wanted to help stop the spread of hatred and control and fight for peace and freedom. He pointed to his gun and said “I hope my gun can protect your families – even in America.”
This was one of the most memorable moments for me. I had to look around and take stock of where I was. How did I get a seat at this table, full of such brave people who were literally risking their lives to save so many lives? It was an honor I’ll never forget, and it inspired me to continue working in Iraq to do whatever we could to support these people.
We recently visited Mogadishu, Somalia to check on our current projects and dream of new ways to make a difference.
Here’s a travel log update from one of our team as she experienced the joy and heartbreak of the this beautiful country.
by Carly Hren and Deborah Eriksson
My eyes were glued to the window of the plane as I tried to comprehend the devastating contrast of picturesque, beautiful coastline and war-torn, dusty landscapes overlapping one another. How such an incredible place could be cluttered with the aftermath of destruction was both heartbreaking and confusing.
We stepped off the plane and were greeted by heat levels rivaling those of the interior of black car baking in the mid-summer sun. To top it off, I immediately had to wrap my head in a scarf and put on my thick bullet proof vest. Both accessories are unnecessary back home in San Diego but have become my lifeline in Somalia.
Quickly, we hopped in a bulletproof SUV flanked by a security team of six Somalians who carted us to our hotel. After passing through five tightly protected security gates, we were finally able to get to the lobby. The hotel staff explained they had to sign contracts making themselves responsible for our lives. If that isn’t a tough pill to swallow, I don’t know what is. Throughout our trip in Somalia, we were only able to stay in one location for no more than an hour and a half for fear of attacks from people from the terrorist group Al Shabab or other individuals.
So why, you ask, would we continue to pursue work in such a risky place?
Despite the difficulty in this land, there are incredible people staring fear down in pursuit of a greater hope. We visited our safe house where six courageous women live with their children. All of these women have stories of abuse and heartbreak and loss of their freedoms before they arrived here. And yet, hope is not lost on them. Despite having experienced some of the worst things my ears have ever heard, they have big and bright plans for their futures. I’m beyond proud of the way they are fighting for not only themselves, but for their sweet kids.
So we will stand beside them because they matter. Our plans for what’s next in Somalia include a bee farm to provide new revenue and sustainable jobs. We also are hopeful to start a school soon for children whose only choice has been to become soldiers. They were dragged into a life of darkness and we believe they should have the opportunity to walk into the light. We believe education can change the entire course of their futures.
As our trip comes to an end I will leave Somalia with my heart a little more broken, but because of the examples of hope I’ve witnessed, I leave a little more brave. If you spend enough time around people who are courageous like our friends it rubs off on you.
We’d love for you to be part of the story in Somalia.
Did you know that Love Does has two safe houses in Kampala Uganda, with a total of 30 girls living between them?
At our safe homes, we aim to focus on reconciliation of girls with their home communities. Upon entering the homes, Molly, our resettlement coordinator, will begin to identify the girls’ home communities and begin the forgiveness and reconciliation process. Since the first safe house opened, we have seen more than 40 girls who were living lives entrenched with sexual exploitation transform into visions of hope and joy. The girls have participated in Bible studies, character development and discipleship, community work, arts and crafts and many other activities. We have seen a great improvement in the character and behavior of the girls. They are freely opening up to the mentors and have started appreciating the new life they are experiencing amidst their past.
One of our girls, Helen* has an incredible story of transformation! When we first met Helen, she was living in the slums of Kampala living a life filled with prostitution and drugs. Now, just 3 years later, Helen has graduated from a cosmetology program & has been reconciled with her family. Helen is just one of the many girls living in our safe homes, that has worked hard to make changes in her life, and with the help of the amazing staff & mentors she is able to do so!
Helen’s story is made possible because of friends who support our Safe Houses in Kampala.
*For safety and privacy reasons, Helen’s name and photo have been changed.