Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

Chased away


Watching God heal children’s hearts at refugee camps

by Nancy Smith-Mather, mission co-worker in South Sudan | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Drawing can help children express their pain and start to heal. (Photo by Nancy Smith-Mather)

BIDI BIDI Refugee Camp, Uganda – Squeezed together with girls about her same age, Mary sat on a bamboo pew in the sanctuary. It was the first morning of a three-day children’s trauma healing workshop. The list of things written in her new notebook included: too much housework, loss of my parents and missing school.

Mary’s parents died when she was 7. She is now 17, living in Bidi Bidi refugee camp with a woman she calls “stepmother.”  Mary was not alone in lamenting the increase in housework in the camps.

“In South Sudan, we cooked with charcoal,” another girl explained, “now we have to go very far to cut trees for wood to cook, and we get tired.”

While other grievances included lack of a good door to keep rain out of the house, fear of the many snakes in the camp, and not having mattresses to sleep on, collecting firewood got the most attention in this conversation.

“If you go to cut trees, the nationals [Ugandans] will chase you away with pangas [large knives]”, one girl said, pointing out the high tension over limited resources among refugees and their host community.

“And there are animals in the forest that will chase you,” Mary added, pointing to a bruise on her knee from one such incident. The children described the different types of animals in the woods; the only one translated into English was baboon.

Fetching firewood proves difficult for many reasons, yet the account of a 9-year-old girl beaten to death for cutting down trees raised the chore’s level of danger to “life-threatening.”  “But we have to get it anyway,” explained Mary, “because if we return home without wood for cooking, my stepmother will be angry.”

Children pray for Christ’s healing after taking their pain to the cross during a trauma healing workshop in a refugee camp in Northern Uganda. (Photo by Nancy Smith-Mather)

Pointing at the list on her page, I asked Mary: “Which one is the most difficult for you?”

Without hesitation, she replied, “When I have to miss school.”  Looking down, she added, “It pains me so much.” Sometimes Mary has to stay home to cook, to get firewood or to fetch water. She longs to remain in class and continue her education. With her sister’s arm around her shoulders, she concluded, “We are really suffering here.”

The first day felt heavy with the weight of tragedy held in the hearts of about 80 children. By the second afternoon, the heaviness began to lift a bit. Sharing painful stories in a safe space created a healthy release. At the end of the third day, the children took their pain to the cross, trusting in God’s love for them. They are beginning to envision a brighter future for their lives.

Mary, in the light green shirt, and friends laughing and singing during trauma healing training at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp. (Photo by Nancy Smith-Mather)

After the closing session, almost all the children left the church, walking to their different “zones” or “villages” within the camp, but Mary stayed behind. Her beaming smile, and desire to linger with friends, bore witness to a change in her outlook and to the power of the Holy Spirit’s work in her life.

Perhaps the most encouraging part of the workshop, though, was the presence and response of the adult church leaders. The leaders arrived two days before the children to learn about facilitating trauma healing groups from Presbyterian World Mission’s partner RECONCILE International, a Christian organization that seeks to bring peace and healing to communities broken and hurting from decades of war. These mentors were deeply moved by the stories they heard from the children during the workshop, and now are better equipped to provide psychosocial support in their lives. The church leaders live in the different camp zones, serve various churches, and will be present long after the RECONCILE trainers leave. Please pray for their ministry and their own healing as they seek to prepare the next generation for a healthy and peace-filled tomorrow.

The Revs. Nancy and Shelvis Smith-Mather, mission co-workers with the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan and RECONCILE Peace Institute since 2011, currently serve in the ministries of education, peacebuilding and reconciliation through their work in South Sudan and in refugee camps in northern Uganda. The Smith-Mathers are both alums of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Young Adult Volunteer program. Subscribe to their letters from the mission field for periodic updates on their work with global partners in South Sudan and Northern Uganda.

 Watch a new video about the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project.

Give to South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding:, where a portion of your gift will be generously matched by Westminster-Minneapolis.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.