For Rebecca Deng and her friends in the Emanuel Mission Women’s Group, the ongoing civil war in South Sudan brought back painful memories of the previous civil war.
These women have called Winnipeg home for the last ten years. Most of them came to Canada through the refugee resettlement program after enduring many years of the second Sudan civil war that started in 1983 and ended with a peace accord in 2005.
Rebecca was just a child when the war started and because of that war, she was separated from her family when she fled to Ethiopia with thousands of children who later became known as the ‘lost boys and girls of Sudan’.
After they came to Canada, the women began to recover from the trauma of war by adapting to their new country. They have been going to school to learn the English language and to improve their education for employment. They hold down various jobs while raising their families.
While doing all this, Rebecca and her friends haven’t forgotten about their country of origin, from where a mixture of good and bad news often reaches them here in their new and peaceful country.
They are members of a South Sudanese community numbering over 3,000 in Winnipeg, and are also members of the Emanuel Mission, an Anglican Church congregation that worships at the St. Matthew’s Anglican Church. This congregation is not only a church, but a community of people with shared experience of suffering, hope, pain and sometimes happiness.
The secession and independence of South Sudan on July 9, 2011 was one such example of a joyful time. On that day, the world witnessed the creation of a new nation, born after 50 years of struggle, suffering, tears and bloodshed on an unimaginable scale.
There was jubilation on that day in Juba, South Sudan, and across the world where South Sudanese in the diaspora held celebrations at the United Nations Headquarters in New York and on the streets of Winnipeg. South Sudanese were joined by the community of nations and people of goodwill as they celebrated their “freedom at last.”
It was hoped that independence would bring a lasting peace and allow a population that has suffered for so long a new beginning in social and economic development and improvement of living standards. However, the jubilation was short-lived.
After only two years of independence, South Sudan was plunged into conflict once again on Dec. 15, 2013. And just as the first civil war that saw Rebecca and the ‘lost boys and girls’ separated from their parents, the current two year old civil war has resulted in the usual casualties of war: women and children.
The town of Bor in Jonglei State in South Sudan, original home to Rebecca and her friends in the Emanuel Mission Women’s Group, was devastated just like in the previous war. Approximately 3,000 people were killed in Bor. Among them, more than 30 women were massacred at the church in Bor where they went to seek shelter in the “House of God”. The scanty infrastructure that was once available in Bor was completely destroyed.
Rebecca and the women of the Emanuel Mission group mourned the death of their relatives while at the same time sending everything they could afford to support their families and friends.
“It was an overwhelming emotional experience,” Rebecca recalls.
In their grief, the women received support from several Canadian friends who, for many years, have become a support network for the new Canadians. Among these allies is Rev. Dr. Cathy Campbell, the Rector of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, who invited the Emanuel Mission Congregation to worship at St. Matthew’s 12 years ago.
With the help of Rev. Campbell, and the University of Winnipeg’s Global College, Rebecca mobilized the South Sudanese community to come together and raise relief funds for South Sudan’s victims of the conflict. In total, more than $6,000 was raised and sent to the Canadian Red Cross to be directed to the international relief effort for South Sudan.
However, the destruction of their home town of Bor, and the massacre of more than 30 women at the St. Andrew’s Anglican Church there, remained a concern for the Emanuel Mission Women’s Group.
In July 2014, Rebecca went to Bor, South Sudan, on a fact finding mission. She visited the church where women were killed. She also visited the United Nations site where thousands of internally displaced persons are being sheltered.
When Rebecca returned after a one month visit, she resolved to build a women’s centre in honour of the women killed at the church.
“This women’s community resource centre will help in the promotion of peace and empowerment of women,” Rebecca explains. She says the goals of the centre include, literacy and skills training, early child development, and promotion of peace education.
The group has been supported by their circle of friends, among them, Ditte Cloutier, Brenda Newman and David Newman, along with a community of allies that has been growing ever since.
The centre will be named, the Winnipeg Women’s Resource Centre in Bor. Several meetings and consultations have been held in Winnipeg and in Bor to organize the project.
Involvement in the project is not limited to South Sudanese women; several women from various professional backgrounds in Winnipeg are also working on the effort, doing all they can to help their fellow South Sudanese Canadian women cope with the conflict’s effects.
With the two year old conflict coming to an end, following a peace accord and government of national unity to be formed early this year, the women have turned their grief into an exciting project to help empower other women in Bor, South Sudan. In the process, the women of the Emanuel Mission Women’s Group are being assisted through women to women mentorships, language tutoring and leadership development.
Rev. Dr. Campbell, who will be retiring early this year, has dedicated her energy and passion to this project, to further help the community of women she has taken under her wing for the past decade. She says she is happy to do something for her friends.
The group is reaching out to various Winnipegers and Canadians of good will to support the Winnipeg Women’s Resources Centre in Bor.
Listen to an interview with Rebecca Deng on RC360: Harrowing journey inspires ‘lost girl’ to help heal the world