The shared bond between Nansen winner and those she helps

Telling the Human Story, 17 September 2013

© UNHCR/B.Sokol
Sister Angélique Namaika embraces Rose, one of the girls she has helped. She believes that all women should have an education.

DUNGU, Democratic Republic of the Congo, September 17 (UNHCR) Walk around the small dusty town of Dungu or visit the surrounding villages, and you're bound to meet some of the hundreds of girls that Sister Angélique Namaika has helped over the past five years in this poverty-stricken and unstable corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The inspirational Roman Catholic nun regards them as her daughters, whose broken lives she has helped to rebuild.

For her vital work helping the most vulnerable, the displaced and the victims of the brutal Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, in Orientale Province, UNHCR is honouring Sister Angélique this year with its prestigious Nansen Refugee Award.

It is recognition that will be applauded by the approximately 2,000 women and girls she has helped selflessly over the years in north-eastern DRC. Part of the bond she has with many of these girls is their shared experience of forced displacement. In 2009, she was forced on the run with many others when the LRA attacked Dungu.

Like others captured by the LRA, young and old, she says it was a very difficult time. She had started working for women in Dungu a year earlier, and this traumatic experience together with her wonder at the resilience and courage of the victims she met, reinforced Sister Angélique's determination to do more.

Since 2008, Sister Angélique has been helping the most vulnerable women through her humanitarian organization, the Centre for Reintegration & Development. Many have been abducted and physically or sexually assaulted, including being raped. They find it difficult to integrate because of the stigma.

Sister Angélique helps restore their pride and will to live by teaching them a trade, helping them become literate, finding them employment, offering them shelter and showing them that someone cares. It's demanding emotionally and physically. She talked to UNHCR's Céline Schmitt about what keeps her going, the women whose stories have motivated and touched her, and why she will never stop:

"Two years ago, I was in church when someone called me and said: 'Sister, your daughter is waiting outside.' I went out a bit puzzled and saw a girl sitting by the road with a tiny baby. The girl was selling charcoal. I went to see her, took her to the centre where I was helping women and asked her to tell me her story.

"Rose* was 16 and had spent one year and eight months as a captive of the LRA. When I met her, she had just been rescued by the Ugandan army. She was still traumatized and was also sick with a sexually transmitted disease.

"She had come to Dungu to find her mother, but the woman rejected Rose and accused her of being part of the LRA. She had nowhere to go and was planning to return to the bush. She had no means to survive other than selling charcoal. That was not all: her child was sick, but Rose could not afford to take him to hospital. I could not leave her in the streets. I asked her to come and live with me.

"I have always helped women and girls, even before I came to Dungu. I am convinced that all women should have an education, even if they drop out of school because of pregnancy, marriage or to help their families. Women need to have the ability to earn money, and that's why I started teaching them skills such as sewing, baking and cooking.

"Rose was so skinny when I met her. I told her she needed to eat more so that she could build up her strength and find work. I taught her how to bake and sew. After two days, she started baking and selling mandazis (doughnuts). Today she sells them in the market and makes clothes for women and children. Back then she dreamed of owning a sewing machine she has one today. Her two-year-old son is in good health and she has reconciled with her mother.

"Simone,* a 45-year-old widow, is another example of the inner strength of many of the women who have suffered. Simone's husband was killed by the LRA in 2009. For several years, she lived in the open with her nine children because she was so poor. I taught her how to bake and invited her to join our catering services. Today she can pay the school fees of her children.

"I don't feed [the girls]; I help them to learn a trade and rebuild their lives. I always tell them that the power to make money is in our hands we just have to use them. Once women have an income, they are able to care for their families and send their children to school.

"I also teach women how to read and write. Their voices must be heard. They should be able to speak in public, and for that reason they need education. Educating a woman is like educating the whole nation because women are the ones who teach their children.

"Patricia* is an extraordinary example. Her story touched me so much. She is 45 and has 12 children. Two of her sons were abducted by the LRA and her husband lost his sight in one eye. Yet she participates in all the activities I organize . . . She never went to school, but now after a year of literacy classes she can read a simple letter.

"Another important part of my work is helping women recover from trauma. Being with other women helps. We joke, we laugh and we sing. During the literacy classes, we discuss things that affect them and try to find solutions. When women have an occupation, they suffer less, and when they are happy, the whole family is happy.

"I'm also impressed by how supportive the husbands are of the activities that their wives do with me . . . One day, I was cooking with a group of women for an event catered by our centre in Dungu. We finished very late and I escorted them home . . . At the home of one woman, I explained to her husband why she was late. He told me: 'When they are with you, we know they are in good hands.'

"I have promised to myself that I will never lose the courage to help these women. They consider me as their mother. Even if I have only one pair of shoes, I prefer giving everything I have to help them . . . I have been so touched by their strength and their courage. They have all suffered so much. They have been displaced, lost members of their families and suffered terrible violence, including sexual violence. If their husbands were killed, they have to take care of everything for their families. But despite all this, they are willing to learn and to work."

* Names changed for protection reasons.

See also The Nansen Refugee Award website