Hope for tomorrow
Story and photos by Aimee Heckel
Publication: Daily Camera
Publication date: 9/5/2006
Editor`s note: Fairview High School graduate Eric Glustrom established the Boulder-based nonprofit organization, Educate, to help fund the education of students in Uganda. In June, Camera Staff Writer Aimee Heckel traveled to Africa with Glustrom and his fellow college student volunteers to recruit African refugees and orphans to sponsor through school and to check on current scholarship recipients - students helping students change the world. Heckel`s series began Sunday and concludes today. See the whole series at www.dailycamera.com.
UGANDA - The lean, dark bodies wait for Eric Glustrom at the gate, hours before the echo of drums and chants awake him.
The bodies follow the 21-year-old Boulder man home every night and watch him vanish into his concrete cell of a room at St. Patrick`s Catholic parish in Uganda, where he and the other volunteers for his Boulder-based nonprofit group, Educate, are staying.
The bodies stand there when the sun sets, which happens almost instantly on the equator, like the flip of a light switch. They`re there when the sun rises.
Maybe they never go home.
The six volunteers, students at Amherst College in Massachusetts, are visiting the Kyangwali Refugee Camp in western Uganda to choose refugees for five scholarships. Educate`s dozen student-run clubs across the United States have already put more than 40 refugees through school, with hopes that the educated Africans will someday help rebuild their war-ravaged homelands.
The movement started with Glustrom when he was a 17-year-old at Fairview High in Boulder. He`s now a senior studying neuroscience at Amherst.
Five scholarships. Hundreds of applicants.
And whatever story they tell, the answer is the same: Send an e-mail to Eric. He`ll provide the application details. Good luck.
A 13-year-old African girl is so malnourished she looks 8.
A 15-year-old girl will be forced into marriage if she can`t pay her school fees.
A 60-year-old man wants to finish primary school.
"I don`t want to be ignorant the rest of my life, " he says.
A confused man submits an application to driving school. Another man with no teeth pleads to be connected with the pope so he can become a priest.
In 1997, Armani Jean-Paul, 23, was a teenager, fleeing the bloody civil war in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo when he saw a newborn lying abandoned in the field. He picked her up and carried her with him. She is now 9, and his adopted daughter.
What made him stop and save her? "You never know who she`ll become, " he says.
It`s true about him, too, if he`s given a chance.
Sarah Tracy, a sophomore at Amherst, has interviewed more than 30 residents today. The Educate volunteer can`t keep the stories straight. She has run out of paper in her journal, and her pen is dry.
"How do you choose? How do you say this pain is worse than this pain?" she asks.
Now in its fourth year, the nonprofit has raised $150,000. But he number of applications Educate gets in the mail continues to rise to more than five a week, and each sponsorship requires about $630 a year, including tuition, school supplies, medical expenses and transportation. Educate commits to support each student as long as he or she wants to study.
Some classrooms have dirt floors, no electricity and are standing-room only. To send an e-mail, residents must catch a taxi 50 miles to the nearest city, wait in line for a dial-up modem and pay by the minute with money that would otherwise buy food or medicine.
A one-legged man staggers out of his house. A bomb in Rwanda crippled him. The balloon bellies of his five children show they`re starving.
Tracy hands him Glustrom`s e-mail address. She looks younger than her 20 years, with plump, pink lips and cheeks like a cherub. The refugee boys trail her in admiration, often reaching for her hand, which she doesn`t pull away.
Her robotic response: "Send an e-mail to this address. He`ll send you the application."
The old man`s face lights up. His English is poor. He thinks the paper means his children are chosen. Sarah tries to explain, but he continues grinning. She`s swept into the crowd.
"What is the balance between giving them hope and reality?" she asks.
The reality: This organization on which thousands of Africans have hung their fates is run by kids. They meet in their university student centers or high school classrooms and raise money through dodgeball tournaments, date auctions, donations and bake sales. The Amherst group, in Uganda in June, haggled the $10 a night cost to stay at the Kyangwali Catholic church, hoping to save their limited money for the scholarships - knowing that much money would take a refugee slashing through the fields a month to earn.
Back home, Tracy works three jobs, coaching field hockey, manning the chemistry stockroom and working as a geology teacher`s assistant. She attends Amherst on a full-ride scholarship, about $32,000 a year.
"They don`t realize it, but I`m in the same situation as they are, " she says. "That`s one of the reasons I joined Educate in the first place. I understand."
But Tracy already has more than most of the refugees ever will, even with the best education Africa has to offer.
Her sympathy also has frustrated her. Is her presence here - like the boys` hands she holds - a comforting beacon of hope or a tease for what they`ll never have?
"I guess I`ll have to separate my emotions from this, " she resigns. "Yet I feel like that`s why I`m here."
Tracy and the Educate volunteers interview dozens of applicants deep into the night, despite the camp commandant`s warning on the first day it was too dangerous to be out after dark.
A shadow explodes from the black wall of trees framing the road. The visitors cannot see the man`s face, but his jagged English is frantic. He taps one of their notebooks. He wants them to write down his name.
He doesn`t ask for scholarship information; maybe he`s too excited. He tells them he will be the president of the Congo someday - "the first president of books, not of guns" - and they should write down his name so they remember that it started right here.
As if the blind scribble across the page makes it so:
Irankunda Ndeze Immanuel.
Maybe that`s why they all stare.
The staring brown eyes don`t know how, but the would-be students think maybe in some way these visitors will help. And maybe they will. Even if they don`t have enough money.
They walk through the streets as symbols of hope. They are recruiting a few refugees, but they are also inspiring many more.
Emmy Smith, 20, an energetic, blond Amherst volunteer, adds a line to her travel journal:
"We`re reinforcing in children and parents the value of an education. We`re encouraging solidarity in a camp filled with racial tension. And most importantly, we`re creating hope in the midst of despair."
Edward Guma is furious, but he`s trying not to ruin the 11 p.m. dinner on Glustrom`s last night in Kyangwali.
Guma, 19, is one of the few Educate students from Sudan. Glustrom made two treks to Guma`s side of the camp this week, hoping to recruit more.
There`s friction between the Sudanese and Congolese. Not back home - their wars were civil - but because of outside aid organizations that favor one country`s refugees over another. Unease rooted in desperation.
In December, young refugees created their own Educate club, which they named Coburwa, for a new unity between residents from the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda.
Then earlier this week at a celebration called Educate Day, the club made a surprising announcement that it was changing its name to Coburwas - adding an "S" for Sudan. The crowd jumped to its feet in celebration, clapping and dancing and stirring up a haze of red dust.
But Guma thinks it was an empty act to impress Glustrom, who keeps urging the different sides of camp to work together.
Guma says amid the joyful singing at Educate Day, Congolese students forced his Sudanese friends to leave. They stole their chairs and demanded tickets, even though there weren`t any, Guma says.
He thinks Coburwa intentionally left off the "S" for Sudan to begin with.
A Congolese student sharing the dinner table with Guma and the Educate staff wears a white "Coburwa" T-shirt - no "S" for Sudan. He insists with a calm smile the club is new and evolving, and that Guma`s friends must have misunderstood.
Guma shakes his head.
"That`s a great speech, " he snaps, the sharpness in his voice signaling the end of the discussion.
It reminds Glustrom of how far Educate still has to go.
A letter arrives from Wereje Benson. The 23-year-old Congolese orphan is the president of Coburwas. He has emerged as the spokesman for the refugees, plastering the camp with posters about how Educate is changing lives and writing Glustrom`s friends letters almost daily.
Today, he writes:
"Your kindness, encouragement and sweet words give us hope, happiness. It`s incredible, and this leads to the extension of our existence. ...This puts us in good moods and hopeful feelings, causing us to behave like successful people already. Even if poor or sick, any bad situation, I know you pray for me and you care, hence getting hope and relief.
"Hope is vital."
The Educate volunteers have not given him anything tangible. He`s still not selected for a scholarship.
Yet he adds, "It`s unfortunate that I am not able to express my happiness which is about to break my heart."
This is it.
Hepburn and Glustrom exchange knowing nods. Their school will look like the Catholic church where they`re staying.
Doors form an "L" around a courtyard. Out back, acres of vegetables and fruit orchards make the property self-sufficient. A rickety barn houses cows and chickens. Instead of contaminated water wells, the building has gutters that tunnel rain into tanks.
They could do this, Glustrom says.
They could raise money to build an Educate school, instead of scattering their 48 students to 13 schools across the country. They could feed them nutritious meals instead of watery beans and rice. And as part of the deal, the graduates could teach underclassmen for a few years before pursuing their careers.
It could also be the answer the question every Educate student asks: "How can I repay you?"
They`d need about $1 million a year to build and run it, Glustrom estimates. A friend immediately volunteers to take off a semester next fall to move to Uganda and line up the details. They could start building in five years, Glustrom says. He sees the future as only one large endowment away.
It sounds crazy. But then again, that`s what Amnesty International thought of Glustrom`s original proposal that ignited Educate in 2002.
"I do think it`s possible, " Glustrom says.
This is only Educate`s dawn, he insists. It is young, like its volunteers.
Coburwas` president, Wereje Benson, is waiting by the gate when a taxi rumbles up to take Glustrom and his friends away June 22. Benson watches the car dissolve into a fog of dust.
It`s like the negative for the photograph of Educate`s beginning, when Glustrom first rolled up in a taxi four years ago. Only instead of Wereje Benson, it was his best friend with a similar name, Benson Olivier. Benson Olivier shook Glustrom`s hand. His future changed. He became the first Educate scholar and the catalyst for the organization.
As Wereje Benson stands, waving goodbye, his own future is uncertain.
The next morning, he hires a taxi to take him 50 miles to the city of Hoima, past the Catholic church, the commandant`s hut and a vast forest that hides insurgents.
Benson finds an Internet café and sends an e-mail to the Educate volunteers. He wants his to be the first name they see when they get home, and it is. He asks for photos of their families and their prayers as he takes his final exams.
He doesn`t mention his scholarship application, still floating in limbo between his dreams and the brutal maize fields. His story might not have a happy ending.
Benson asks his new friends to remember him and leaves it at that, hoping their time in Africa taught them that on the other side of the planet, one man`s ripple is another man`s wave.
Starting a club
High schools typically need to get permission from an administrator and need a teacher sponsor. New Vista, Boulder and Fairview high schools have local clubs.
Clubs that raise enough money can adopt a student.
Educate can help provide brochures, posters, stamps and other costs related to hosting fundraising events.
How to help
Donate online at www.educateafrica.org. Click on "donate" at the top of the screen.
Mail a check to:
4492 Burr Place
Boulder, CO 80303
The cost of education The average cost to sponsor a student:
Tuition (trimester/year): $75/$225
Total cost per student including tuition, school supplies, medical expenses, and transportation (trimester/year): $210/$630
For more information E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or Eric Glustrom at email@example.com.
Kyangwali Refugee Settlement Where: The Hoima district of western Uganda
Who: About 17,800 Congolese, Sudanese, Rwandan, Kenyan, Burundian and Ethiopian refugees.
The life: Upon arrival, residents receive farming and cooking equipment, tarps, blankets, a plot of land, seeds and small food rations.
Refugees in Uganda also receive free health care, primary education, water and access to community-service workers and income-generating programs. Refugees are expected to provide for themselves.
Common hardships: Hunger, disease, abduction, illiteracy, rape, robbery, poorly defined property rights. Secondary education is not provided and limited to the more affluent. Camps have limited opportunities to generate income needed to send children to secondary school.
Source: Andrea Samuelson at www.educateafrica.org
Children in Uganda The Lord`s Resistance Army, the most active Ugandan rebel group, has abducted more than 14,000 children in Uganda and forced them to become rebel fighters.
Abducted children - both boys and girls - make up more than 85 percent of the rebel`s forces. They are often beaten, raped, forced to kill others and each other as a test of loyalty.
They are also considered government enemies and military targets.
According to the Women`s Commission, "These young people have been abused twice; they are abducted and forced to fight and are then attacked for fighting, instead of being protected and rescued."
Source: Andrea Samuelson at www.educateafrica.org
The refugee life
About 220,000 refugees live in Uganda, most from Rwanda, Sudan and Congo. The refugees from Rwanda fled the genocide of 1994. The refugees from Sudan are largely a result of the Christian/Arab tension between the south and the north. The refugees from Congo had to flee because mineral wars and groups fighting for control of the country`s resources have killed many people and left the country in ruins.
Uganda does what it can to care for the refugees, but it already has trouble caring for its own people, because it is a developing country. But they have still managed to do a relatively good job. And while the conditions in a place like the Kyangwali refugee camp are hard to think of as good, relative to many places in Africa, Kyangwali is actually much better.
I think it`s amazing that Uganda has remained peaceful in spite of the bloody wars in Congo, Sudan and Rwanda surrounding it. It gives me hope to see a country like Uganda doing well in the midst of all the killing.
But after the refugees flee they have no one to care for them. I know that there must be so many talented people among them who can make a large contribution to solving Africa`s problems if they are just given the chance.
- Eric Glustrom, founder of Educate