Thursday, May 19, 2005

A quick six hour flight from London – on the outskirts of the beautiful city of Accra, Ghana – is a place known as Buduburam Refugee Camp. Established fifteen years ago as a temporary camp for Liberians fleeing the civil war in their own country, it has now become an essentially permanent home to 47,000 refugees.

The people at Buduburam are survivors of what was a horrible, tragic conflict that took the lives of so many people they loved. Some people fled onto boats, and in many cases dodged machine gun fire as they were trying to escape the harbor. One boat was at sea for weeks, being turned away by every country they tried to seek asylum in. Finally, as people were dying, they were offered refuge in Ghana. What these people have been through is unimaginable to most of us.

Within the camp are 600 “unaccompanied minors” - children who are on their own, without parents. Some were orphaned by the war or AIDS, many were separated from their families as they were running, fleeing the conflict. Often a child will end up in a camp in one country, and the mother or father will end up in another – with neither knowing what became of the other.

150 of these children are so young they fall into a category officially known as "very vulnerable." None of these kids are in school. (There are schools within the camp, but shockingly to most Americans, school is NOT free in most of Africa – even in a refugee camp. Even though it may cost only a few dollars a month for the school fees, it's beyond the reach of many of these people, especially the unaccompanied kids.)

The UN does have a presence in the camp, but they don't provide school or food or even water, which must be trucked in and purchased by the refugees.

But when you travel through the camp, the most striking thing is that you can feel the indomitable spirit of the people there. Nothing about it looks like our Western idea of a comfortable living environment, but the people have made do with what they have. In mud brick huts, they’ve opened businesses ranging from photo parlors to cinemas and replaced the traditional emergency tents with small crudely constructed but brightly painted homes. It’s less like our traditional evening-news perceptions of a refugee camp and more like a vibrant, sprawling shantytown.

Kids at Buduburam

In the midst of all this is one incredible man named Karrus Hayes. With zero resources of his own, Karrus has started The Carolyn Miller School - a free school available for any child who needs it. The teachers are incredible. They are mostly volunteer, although Karrus tries to pay them a little each month when he has money. These people are well-educated and many people in the camp are teachers, lawyers, and other professionals.

Currently, the school meets in a small church. There are about 150 kids enrolled, which is beyond maximum capacity. The building is low-ceilinged and boiling hot most of the time. The children sit so close to one another that they sometimes have to sit sideways on the benches, crammed in with thin bamboo dividers separating the classes. If someone from the church has a meeting, school has to be cancelled for the day.

Karrus has raised a small amount of money and found an abandoned building on land just outside the official camp area, about a five minute walk from the current school. The owner of the building has agreed to a 99 year lease, if Karrus will pay rent and finish construction. To you or I the building would seem pitiful – there’s no roof, no bathroom, no running water, dirt floors - but to the eyes of the kids there – it’s the most beautiful thing they can imagine.

The kids took me on a tour of it, showed me where they hope one day to have a soccer field, their future classrooms, maybe even a library room with books. They don’t have anything material yet – not desks, not books – but they do have enthusiasm and big dreams. So much could be done at this camp with so little, to change the lives of these kids forever. That’s where you come in....

Big Dreams!The future school!

TEN DAYS: Sept 15-24, 2005

Our Ten Day Mission is to create a beautiful expanded school/resource center for 350 kids. With our help, the school will not only have a place for all of its 150 current students, but will have the space and resources to take on 200 more students – all of them unaccompanied minors.

We’ll be raising money, traveling to Ghana, and working with Karrus’s group of local volunteers (refugees themselves). The bulk of the physical labor will be done before we arrive (none of our team will be roofing!) but we’ll be doing everything else to makeover the school and get it ready for the kids. Activities will range from painting walls and murals to shopping (in Accra) for needed school supplies, to outfitting each classroom with everything they need.

Additionally, there are many writers, artists and musicians in the camp who have offered to teach the children through the arts. The war decimated the country – and the kids in the camp have learned little of their once-amazing artistic culture and traditions. Art, drama, and music also offer a way to heal the pain and trauma of what these people have gone through. When I was there, a group of the unaccompanied children serenaded me with an impromptu song – with haunting and heart-wrenching lyrics along the lines of “Mother, Mother, please come for me.” To offer them a beautiful place to come together and explore their feelings through art would be a gift beyond comprehension.

As for logistical issues, Ghana is a completely safe and very very friendly country. I’ve been there several times – and in January helped shepard a group of American volunteers there to teach a workshop on preventing AIDS in infants. The camp is located about 45 minutes outside Accra and there are flights on KLM and British Air from the UK.

Each volunteer will raise $5,000, which will include their airfare and accommodations in Ghana. (Each volunteer will have to pay for their own visa and all necessary shots. This could range from $300-$600.) All donations are tax-deductible through a US-based non-profit corporation. It may seem like big amount to take on, but in the past, my volunteers have been amazed at how quickly they’ve been able to raise the money through friends and family, fundraising dinner parties, email campaigns, etc. People are often VERY excited to give when someone they know will be involved directly in seeing how the money is spent. Additionally, some things (school supplies, etc) can be raised as “in-kind” donations and can be taken out of the budget, reducing the amount needed by the volunteer who gets the item donated. If anyone wants to use their own airmiles, that would reduce the amount they need to raise as well.

As for requirements, you need to have: generally good physical health, an open heart, a willing spirit, and...ten days to spend changing our world.


Post a Comment

<< Home