In 1965, our parents,
Mollie and George Bersch were host parents to a boy from Uganda, John
"Rex" Omwony-Ojwok. He lived with the family for one year and
graduated from Wauwatosa High School in Milwaukee with his American brothers, David
and Danny. He was a member of the family, a son and brother.
When he returned to Africa our letters to him were returned stamped "No
Such Person". We knew there was unrest in Uganda and since he was
a politically minded person from a politically active family we assumed
that he had been killed at the hands of Milton Obote or Idi Amin. The
grim news out of Uganda gave plenty of credence to that suspicion. All
these years we have spoken of him as people do of one who is dead.
In July of 2000 George called the family and said "Rex is alive!"
While in Atlanta attending a conference on Conflict Resolution at the
Jimmy Carter Center, Omwony (he is no longer called Rex) had
found George on the Internet and called wondering if he was the same George
Bersch he had stayed with in 65. Omwony had been in exile for many
years but had returned to Uganda and was then the Minister of State for
the Rehabilitation of the Northern Districts. At this writing he is now
Minister of State for Financial Reform and an elected representative with
the Ugandan Government.
In September 2000 Omwony was in the States again, he visited Mary on this
way to attend a conference on "Children of Conflict" in Winnipeg,
Canada and told her of the abducted children in Northern Uganda whom rebels
force into slavery and child soldiering. During the visit Omwony extended
an invitation to all of the family to visit him and his family in Uganda,
and George and Mary began to make plans to go there in December. George
was unable to go because of health concerns, but Mary made the journey.
Before Mary left this country, she spoke with the gallery director at
a New York college. She told of her brother in Africa and his job in the
north of Uganda. A socially conscious man, he knew of the plight of the
children of northern Uganda and wondered if while in Uganda she could
obtain drawings from the victimized children who have escaped captivity.
The goal would be to mount an exhibit that would bring public awareness
to the situation.
Omwony was enthusiastic about the idea of raising consciousness of this
horrific situation and was in a position to open doors for Mary. She was
given the privilege of spending a good amount of time in two rehabilitation
centers for escaped or rescued children in Gulu, Northern Uganda. The
psychological and physical trauma that the children have experienced is
hard for us to imagine and hard for them to describe in words. Drawing
is an important part of the rehabilitation therapy and the children are
encouraged to tell their stories in visual form.
Gulu town is four or five hours north of Kampala It is a bustling, crowded,
beleaguered town in the middle of a war zone. It has become a haven for
thousands upon thousands of villagers who have sought refuge in the relative
safety of the resettlement camps that swell the population of the town
and strain the resources of that poor place. In addition, thousands of children, called "the night commuters," walk as many as ten miles from their remote, unsafe villages to the relative safey of Gulu town where they sleep in churches, the bus park and the street, only to walk back to their homes in the morning.
It is also home to two remarkable facilities, World Vision: Uganda Children
of War Rehabilitation Program and GUSCO, Gulu Support the Children Organization.
These rehabilitation centers opened their doors in 1994 and have given
psychosocial counseling, medical care and occupational training to approximately
30,000 children who have escaped or been rescued from captivity. New children
At first glance, one gets the impression of bustling, clean, well-organized
childrens summer camps. But as the visitor looks more carefully,
the bandages, the casts, the missing limbs, brutalized faes, the scars and the crutches become apparent. When
the individual child is approached and spoken to, the eyes and the soft,
low voice reveal unsurpassed pain, sadness and a weariness beyond his
or her years.
Mary came back from Uganda with 50 drawings made by these traumatized
children, their photographic portraits and individual testimonies of their
time in captivity. While there she made plans to return and work with
the children to produce collaborative murals depicting the experiences
that their individual drawings suggested they share.
In January of 2003 she returned with her brother, David and father, George
and again had the profound experience of working with the children who
produced two eloquent 17 paintings on canvas that we are most anxious
to share with whomever wishes to see them.
At the end of our stay we received a visit at our hotel from two of the
children from the centers. With great dignity, they presented us with a
list of their needs and the cost of their schooling. We decided that we
could each commit ourselves to one child and wondered if others would
be so moved. When we returned to the US we established a federal non-profit
tax exempt entity which we named Ugandan Children of Conflict Education
Fund, or UCCEF.
After two years of difficulties with the money transfers for tuition payments, we hired a young woman, Anena Irene, a graduate in social work, who worked with the children to create the murals. With the assistance of the rehabilitation centers she identifies a child who shows interest and a sincere desire to go to school. She receives the tuition money from us and hand delivers it to the schools, obtains scholastic reports, letters from the children to their sponsors, photos of the children and sees to the needs of the individual child. Our work is possible with her help.
Because we are a small volunteer organization with relatively few sponsored children, we are able to provide quality attention to the children that we are helping. Several of our sponsors have an ongoing relationship with their often orphaned child which we believe contributes to their healing.
We will continue to work for the children whom we have committed our selves to help and as our support increases we will add new children to our program.
Mary Bersch Westring