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Ugandan refugee creates education awareness

Ugandan refugee creates education awareness

April 13
22:57 2010

By Shea Yarborough / Senior Staff Writer –

Rape, abduction and murder have plagued the African nation of Uganda for 23 years, but a survivor has stepped forward to raise awareness about what she calls the country’s greatest need: education.

For three months, Lilian Ajok, a 21-year-old student from Koro-Abili, Northern Uganda, has taken center stage in any venue where people would listen, she said, carrying the story of Africa’s longest running war to campus Tuesday night.

“I have hope the world is going in the right direction because people are willing to step into our shoes,” Ajok said.

(Video by Cristy Angulo / Staff Photographer)

In January, the grassroots organization Invisible Children launched a campaign using interns to take Ajok and the new documentary “GO” to as many U.S. cities as possible, said Lindy Bateman, an intern and sophomore from the University of Missouri.

The film talks about the organization’s program Schools for Schools, she said, in which American schools raise money for schools in Uganda.

“They have raised money in the millions for Schools for Schools,” Bateman said. “It helps pay for better technology, cleaner water, new buildings, textbooks, anything the school needs.”

Displaced by the millions

When she was 7 years old, Ajok’s village was attacked by the Lord’s Resistance Army, looking for children they could manipulate into becoming soldiers. Her father was murdered, and her mother abandoned her, she said.

She went to live with her uncle who paid for her to go to school, she said.

“He threw me out when I [was] 16 because he could no longer pay for me,” Ajok said.

The only place Ajok had to go was the Koro Internal Displacement Camp, where her grandmother had been forced to live to try to save their lives from the rebels, she said, and where they remained for four years.

“The Ugandan president gave us 48 hours to leave our homes and move into the displacement camps,” Ajok said. “When we got to the land, there was nothing.”

One million people were displaced in more than 200 camps. Cholera, HIV and AIDs were rampant. No one was allowed 100 kilometers beyond the camp’s borders, said Lanyero Benna, a survivor and Ajok’s mentor.

Uganda is an agricultural state with lush soil, producing the best crops, Benna said, but the people had nowhere to farm. There was no food, no water and no toilet, she said.

“There was no nothing for the people,” Benna said. “My mother would say, ‘My children, we have nothing to eat tonight.’”

The rebels still found their way into the camps, beating and raping the young girls, kidnapping the children, and no one stopped it, Benna said. There were only two options: sleep in the jungle with the wild animals or make the night commute into the city and risk being abducted on your way to the city’s walls, she said.

“I want to be honest with you,” Benna said. “We were protected by God.”

Stepping Stones

Two years ago, the Ugandan government began to allow people to leave the displacement camps and return to their homes. But after years of living in the camps, there were no homes to return to, Benna said. Education was and is their way out, she said.

“In Northern Uganda, only 1 percent of girls go to college,” Benna said. “They are treated as born to be housewives and nothing else.”

Uganda’s education system consists of private institutions that require attendees to pay out of pocket. Ajok received a scholarship from Invisible Children, paying for any expense necessary to attend college and work on her diplomat in Kampala’s Institute of Information and Communication Technology, miles away from her home in Koro, she said.

“I would never have been able to go to college without it,” Ajok said.

When Ajok was awarded the scholarship, Benna was appointed as her mentor to work with her guardians and her teachers to ensure she would make it through school, Benna said.

“Lilian has no father and was abandoned by her mother,” Benna said. “At times she breaks down — you have to help her find her way through.”

Being on the road in America has inspired Ajok and now, she said, she believes every little bit makes a difference.

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