Saturday, May 23, 2009

Amani Jean-Paul - refugee Kyangwali

Giving chances - Aimee Heckel, as presented to Americans For Philanthropy in February 2009 in Alamo, California.
I met Jean-Paul three years ago.I was visiting a refugee camp in western Uganda as a journalist, chasing the perpetual question: What can we do about the problems in Africa? How can we help? What a question. It almost sounded more like a rhetorical shrug. As I looked around the refugee camp, the problems seemed just too heavy, too big to even fathom. One thousand brown eyes stared at me. Some yellow with malaria. Some bloodshot with exhaustion. Some with tears. Then, Jean-Paul. His eyes seemed to smile, with that freshness, that unscathed hope that you see in a child’s eyes, even though he was 23 with a pregnant wife. That glance changed everything. He told me his story. Jean-Paul was a teenager when he fled the bloody civil war in his homeland, what’s now known as the Congo. Most of his family and friends were slaughtered by rebels, tortured in ways I can’t bring myself to repeat. Jean-Paul bears a bullet scar on his right forearm, a permanent reminder of the horror he survived. Survived. Jean-Paul ran for weeks. Then, one day, across a field, he saw her: a newborn child lying abandoned, near her murdered parents. He stopped. Picked her up. He carried her with him the rest of the way.Why? I asked him. What made you stop and help? He answered, "You never know who she’ll become some day." That’s when I realized: It was true about him, too. If he was given a chance.
It has been three years since I met Jean-Paul, the Congolese refugee with the bullet scar on his forearm. When I met him, he couldn’t afford school, and he was working in the fields for 33 cents a day. Today, he is in a vocational school. His daughter is in school, too. His 10-year-old adopted daughter. The newborn that he found in the field while he was running from the rebels. Alice is the number one student in her class, even though she is the only refugee in school with Ugandan nationals. Jean-Paul volunteers as a project manager of Think Humanity, with his focus on the orphanage. In his words, "I’m committed to work for my community and ready to transform it." And remember his pregnant wife? Well, she gave birth the day I left the camp three years ago. They named the baby girl Bahati Aimee, after me. Bahati Aimee has caught malaria three times, and her life has been saved three times by Think Humanity’s donors. "Bahati" in Swahili means "chance." Which reminds me of something her dad told me three years ago: You never know who she will become some day. That is the answer to the question "Why?" And also the answer to that perpetual question: How to help Africa? One chance at a time.

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