Running for peace in South Sudan

This Sunday, 14 runners are taking on the challenge of the London Marathon for Jesuit Missions. The funds they raise will support young people struggling to survive in one of the most volatile regions in the world. Jill Drzewiecki, International Campaign and Philanthropy Officer at the Jesuit Refugee Service, shares a poignant reflection on a conflict that is having a devastating impact on children in South Sudan. 

South Sudan is a young country wracked by violence and deprivation. Independence from Sudan in 2011 was followed swiftly by a civil war that to this day brings suffering and famine to its people.

One particular element of this suffering hits me hard. I am the mother of bright and free-thinking 10-year-old girl whose world expands with each day in school. In South Sudan, girls that young are at genuine risk of being forced into early marriage. Education is elusive. Astonishingly, girls there are three times more likely to die in childbirth than finish primary school.

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) where I work has, alongside Jesuit Missions, been striving to provide education services to the region. It is our firm belief that the most effective way to improve the lives of girls and women in places where they are oppressed is by giving them an education.

But it takes money. On Sunday 23rd April, 14 runners will participate in the London Marathon as part of the Jesuit Missions team. They will pound 26.2 miles of pavement to raise funds to invest in education and peace in one of the world’s most volatile countries.

My thoughts of the race and supporting these big-hearted runners are intertwined with my boundless love for my daughter and her growing awareness of the plight of her youthful peers in South Sudan. Let me explain:

A breakfast ritual

Before heading to work each morning work at the JRS international office in Rome, I listen to a five-minute news summary while preparing the morning coffee.  My daughter knows that this ritual borders on the sacred and doesn’t dare speak to me during the newscast.  I often question the wisdom of my daughter overhearing the world’s despairing headlines.   Some days are more rushed than others, but we always talk about what we hear while eating breakfast together.

Recently, the news of the declared famine in South Sudan was the topic of our early-morning conversation. “Mom, why are people starving in South Sudan?” she asked between bites of baked oatmeal.  The painful irony was not lost on me.  I swallowed slowly, giving myself time to craft a succinct response to the muddled South Sudanese reality.  I did my best to explain complex issues of geographic, cultural, ethnic and racial strife.  By then, my coffee had gone cold and we should have left for school five minutes ago.

War has crippled the capacity of local government to provide basic services to its population and many rely on support from aid agencies. Photo: Angela Wells/JRS

As we rushed to finish dressing and navigate Rome’s chaotic streets en route to my daughter’s school, the breakfast conversation continued.  She was trying to wrap her head around the news of children and adults eating leaves from trees as food runs out, even in areas where famine has not yet been declared.

“Can you imagine eating leaves for breakfast, Mom?”

Of course not.  So I began to explain the long-term work of Jesuit Missions and JRS in South Sudan that seeks to address underlying causes, prevent conflict and promote peace in the country and elsewhere.

Running for peace

This is truly what we do best.  Through education programs, our teams provide individuals with opportunities to heal, learn, and to support themselves and their families. This assistance emboldens them to make positive contributions to their communities, present and future.  I stressed to my daughter that this is key to helping girls her age in South Sudan avoid early marriage, or in the case of boys—only a couple years older than her—conscription into armed and murderous groups.  She made the connection immediately: education is better than these other options, she agreed.

“It is our firm belief that the most effective way to improve the lives of girls and women in places where they are oppressed is by giving them an education.” Photo: Angela Wells/JRS

As we drew closer to her school, I told her that this Sunday, a team of runners will raise funds for Jesuit Missions and JRS education projects in South Sudan by participating in the London Marathon.  She wanted to hear more.  As we crossed a particularly dangerous intersection, I told her that one of the marathoners will dress up in a furry costume with a pointy nose and run the entire race as a “Womble.”  Wombles, I explained, were invented by a British mother whose daughter, while strolling across the Wimbledon Common, mispronounced it as the “Wombledon Common.”  This sparked the idea of the Wombles in the mother’s mind, and a series of children’s novels was born.

A Womble commute

Soon we were comparing our daily 30-minute commute with heavy backpacks to running 26.2 miles dressed in a Womble costume. Showing is so much more effective than telling!  This year, JRS advocate Michael Frain will run as a Womble, the characters that have been adopted for the past 20 London Marathons by Jesuit Missions in Wimbledon, home of the Wombles. He aims to be the fastest Womble to ever run the London Marathon. Despite the cumbersome costume, he seems well prepared, I assured her.  He has already run 156 miles across the Sahara Desert and undertaken four Ironman Triathlons.

Since breakfast, I had told her so much I feared I may have overwhelmed her. So I prepared to say good-bye and be on my way.

“Do you have your snack?” I asked. “You know, even Wombles learn best when their tummies are full.” I winked, instead of hugging her, since her friends were within eyeshot and she now prefers her good-byes beyond arm’s length.

But on that morning, she didn’t race from my side to join her classmates waiting outside the school.  “Mom, do the children at the schools in South Sudan get snacks, too?” she asked.

“Yes, darling.  Nutritious snacks are part of our education budget and the reason that these marathoners are raising funds for our programs.”

“Oh good. Ok, you’d better get to work.”

“Through education programs, our teams provide individuals with opportunities to learn and heal.” Photo: Angela Wells/JRS

As I watched her cross the street by herself, my heart exploded with a fierce love for a child who unites me to mothers around the world.  I needed to hurry to make it work on time. But somehow my feet would not move from the pavement as I imagined the morning ritual of fear, hunger and despair of a mother in South Sudan.

Open your heart and listen

The world my daughter will inherit will no doubt be even more complex and filled with ever more suffering.  But I have decided that I do her no favors by hiding the world’s horrific headlines.

Whether an adult or child, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the famine in South Sudan.  It is tempting to turn off the news when we feel like there is nothing we can do to promote peace on the other side of the globe, especially as many of us struggle to keep food on our own breakfast tables.

As a person of faith, I maintain that most of us are looking to play some role, large or small, to alleviate some suffering somewhere.  And I truly believe that when we engage and feel part of these solutions, we impact the positive change we seek in this imperfect world that we one day will entrust to our children.  So please, don’t look away. Instead, look around, open your heart and listen. You might just come to learn that there are glimmers of real news in this troubled world, news that his good and hopeful.  Even if it’s something as simple as learning that Wombles and ordinary people will run great distances in support of education in South Sudan, education that can and does save lives. As I know, and as my daughter surely understands, this is news worth hearing.

To donate for our ongoing work in South Sudan, click here.

To learn about the team of runners, click here.

To join the London Marathon team in 2018: Jesuit Missions UK is now looking to the next cohort of runners to take on the London Marathon in 2018 and raise money for our life-changing projects. If you’re ready for the challenge, please get in touch at richard@jesuitmissions.org.uk. We’d be delighted to have runners from around the world representing our team in 2018.  Wombles are especially welcome.

Posted on 19th April 2017

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