Meet Gail Grady, the energetic interim Director for Mercy Beyond Borders in Haiti. She's a full-time volunteer, exuding compassion and warmth. Her favorite thing is hiking up into the mountains -- and I do mean hiking: those ravines are steep and rocky. She visits the homes of our Scholars. She greets their relatives like long-lost family. She shares their sorrows and their laughter. She's remarkably at home with them. By spending time with the families of our scholarship recipients, MBB learns a lot. We meet their extended families.We see generations living under one roof. We see how much they care for one another. We see the hard work by which they coax fruits and vegetables from barren soil. We see how they share with their neighbors. We see the richness of the culture and the resilience of the people who stand up again after every natural disaster that knocks them down. We see the sacrifices they make to send their children to school "in town." We also see the fascinating mix of voodoo and Christianity. The music. The dancing. The value placed on rituals and prayer. The faith that undergirds their daily struggles. Most of our staff in Haiti are themselves Haitian. For us who are not, home visits are a wonderful way to connect. Time spent in the mountains allows the Haitians to educate us.
What do Becky, Priscilla and Nancy have in common? They are all refugees living in Kakuma Refugee Camp, the desolate desert home for 200,000 refugees, with thousands more arriving every week from famine-stricken, violence-riddled South Sudan. All three are from South Sudan. All three have been selected by MBB to receive high school scholarships. All three are enrolled at OLM girls' boarding high school in the town outside the camp. And all three are EXTREMELY HAPPY for this chance to continue their education, thanks to generous MBB supporters like YOU.
"World Water Day" showed up on my smartphone calendar two weeks ago. At that time I was in the Ulua Refugee Camps in Adjumani, northern Uganda, the overcrowded and temporary home of 800,000 South Sudanese refugees. I was taking the photo of this young girl. Look at her face, dripping with sweat. Look at the size (and imagine the weight) of the bucket she carries to her family's hut several times each day. She is about 6 years old. She doesn't take water for granted. She doesn't waste a drop. She knows that without water, she cannot drink or cook or bathe. Without clean water, she and her family will not survive. 1.8 billion people worldwide lack access to uncontaminated water. In today's world, "I thirst" is not only a biblical reference; it's a global crisis.
MBB is aware that girls often regard math classes as daunting. Those classes can be especially difficult during the girls' transition from small primary schools in the mountains to the larger and more competitive high schools in Gros Morne town. To ease "math anxiety," MBB provides weekly after-school math tutoring sessions for its Scholars. In groups of twenty, they practice lessons at the boarding lodge with a skilled math instructor. The extra help boosts the girls' confidence in tackling square roots and other math mysteries. We hope it also boosts their exam scores!
Alice studies engineering on an MBB Scholarship. Here she is (wearing a yellow hard hat) practicing the art of surveying. She's surely one of very few South Sudanese women -- if not the only one --in her field. Why has she chosen engineering? "I want to build up our new country," says Alice. "We need roads and bridges and schools." S.Sudan has only 50 miles of paved road and hardly any bridges. Look at the picture below. To cross this river in a vehicle, you must wait for the water level to recede, then inch across the uncertain riverbed and drive up the precipitously steep bank. On one of my trips to visit MBB project sites, I myself was in a Land Rover that nearly tipped over backwards when climbing this particular riverbank.
In summer when the riverbeds dry up you see the tops of huge trailer trucks embedded sideways in the sand, half-buried metal skeletons unearthed by erosion. Flash floods also claim lives every year, as walls of water roar down from distant mountains, catching people unaware. Alice, we can hardly wait for you to put your engineering skills to work!
An 80:1 ratio. Sound impossible? Shanas makes it look easy. She has 80 lively preschoolers all morning, but no classroom large enough to hold them. No problem, she teaches them beneath a tree on the school grounds. Shanas is a gifted teacher who can hold the attention of squirming children for hours. I've seen her do it, and I marvel. We proudly claim Shanas as an MBB alum. She is one of the first to have graduated from our scholarship program. The fact that she has chosen to return to her alma mater, St Bakhita Girls Primary School in South Sudan, makes it even sweeter. We love you, Shanas!
Mercy Beyond Borders currently has nearly 300 young women on full scholarships to high school or universities. Each of them volunteers monthly in her local community. That's one of MBB's core values: Compassionate Action. Here we see three Haitian scholars visiting a residence for abandoned elderly in the town of Gros Morne. The MBB volunteers interact with the men and women residents, some of whom are disabled, others afflicted by mental illness, others lacking any other place to live. The volunteers sing with them, dance, play dominoes or cards, help them exercise, and most importantly, listen to their stories. One thing leads to another. We're all connected. Joy spreads. Call it the best kind of "Domino Effect."
The scene: Four girls relaxing during school recess. To be more specific, four young girls playing a version of "jacks" without stones or bouncing ball. What's so rare and unusual about that? Let me count the ways: 1. These girls are enrolled in school. It's very rare for girls in South Sudan to be in school. 2. These girls are relaxing. Not hauling water or collecting firewood. Not scrubbing clothes. Not cooking. Not carrying younger siblings. No, these girls are enjoying some "down time" with friends. Back in their villages, you would rarely see a female --even a very young one -- relaxing. 2. These girls are playing; yes, actually playing. If you traveled around S.Sudan, you would think that play is reserved only for boys and men: they wrestle, engage in sports, sit around playing dominoes. Girls work and work and work. MBB delights in supporting girls' education. For girls in S.Sudan being in school means much more than classroom learning. Being in school gives them a chance to be children, to recognize their dignity, to develop into whole persons. And it's wonderful to see them play!
No, they're not Tibetan prayer flags catching a breeze from the Himalayas. They are the stuff of ordinary life in Haiti: bright-hued clothes hung out to dry on an unfinished roof beneath a sultry sky. But who's to say these splashes of cotton and color are not prayer flags, after all? Today they flap on a line atop one of our MBB Scholars' Boarding Lodges. Tomorrow they will clothe our MBB Scholars as they walk to school, learn new things, share meals and grapple with homework. Simple, humble, uncomplicated pieces of clothing. They teach us how to pray.
Hey, you: OLD WOMAN! This girl's name is Abuba, which means Old Woman. We don't know why her parents gave her such an unusual monniker. We do know she's happy to be studying at St Bakhita School in South Sudan with hundreds of other girls supported by Mercy Beyond Borders.
Let's hope she stay healthy and lives long, thriving and growing into her name!
As you read this, I'm packing to fly to Haiti. If it were just my own stuff, I could go with a back-pack slung over my shoulder. But no, I dare not arrive to Gros Morne without supplies for our Mercy Beyond Borders projects!
So I'll be hauling suitcases filled with donated sewing supplies for our Women's Center, toner and ink cartridges for the local MBB office, computer accessories, special requests by volunteers working there, etc. etc. And of course, a package or two of sweet munchies for the wonderful MBB staff. I'll head for the airport murmuring heartfelt thanks to whoever invented rolling suitcase wheels!
St.Gabriel's, the only all-girl primary school in Gros Morne, Haiti, is definitely pressed for space. The 120-year old school building is hemmed in by adjacent properties. Its 600 girls pack the classrooms to overflowing.
There's nowhere to go but up! Mercy Beyond Borders provides a modest maintenance grant each year to the school. This year they're using the money to construct two new classrooms on the second floor. It's been fun to watch the rooms take shape at the hands of the skilled Haitian masons.
Stay tuned! Many of the 6th grade grads of St Gabriel's qualify to become MBB high school Scholars.
California has it all: coastlines, mountains, deserts, forests, farmland, cities, sunshine, rain.... What? RAIN? Yes: that almost-forgotten-phenomenon-that-falls-from-the-skies has reappeared with a vengeance over this past week. Rain, glorious, rain sloshing in our streets, causing mudslides down our hills, turning brown landscapes to green overnight, and washing away worries of drought. Of course, rain invites children into puddle-stomping fun (after all, kids under 5 here have barely ever seen rain). The storms create havoc, however,
for the rest of us navigating the crowded freeways and back roads of the SF Bay Area. I do not scare easily. After all, I travel in war zones. I co-exist in S.Sudan with men toting AK-47s. But last night I was scared while driving in the Bay Area along a stretch of rural road known as Niles Canyon. Threading my way along the 2-lane road in the midst of a downpour, with a steep cliff on my left and a tumultuous river on my right. Trying to see past my windshield wipers. Startled by granite boulders as large as suitcases crashing down from the cliff and tumbling across the road in front of me. Unnerved by seeing several damaged vehicles stopped on the right shoulder, evidently already hit by rocks. Nervous about the uprooted trees cascading in the swift current just a few feet below the level of the road.
Well, there was no place to turn around, so I just kept driving. My knuckles were white when I reached my destination. After breathing deeply for a while, I was able to give my scheduled presentation to a parish group. You can be sure I drove home by a different route!