A single parent.
A human rights student at the University of Winnipeg.
Working to pay the bills.
AND creating a centre on the other side of the world.
All in a day’s work for Rebecca Deng.
Three weeks ago, I received an email from a colleague about an upcoming concert, “Winnipeg is Singing for Hope.” I was intrigued to hear that the proceeds were allocated towards a Winnipeg Women’s Resource Centre in Bor, South Sudan. The fact that I hadn’t heard of this initiative once again demonstrated to me how vast Winnipeg’s human rights sector truly is. Curious to learn more, I arranged an interview with Rebecca, one of the South Sudanese women leading this fundraiser.
Arriving at Rebecca’s apartment yesterday afternoon, I was delighted to see that she was the kind woman I’d sat next to at the Institute for International Women’s Rights’ Local to Global event 2 weeks ago! At the time, Rebecca had mentioned that she was traveling to Rwanda and South Sudan this summer, but we had not made the connection that we were e-mailing each other to plan this interview! I was grateful to meet with Rebecca, alongside ally Cathy Campbell, and learn a bit more about Rebecca’s story, their plans to build a resource centre and their upcoming fundraising concert!
I’ve removed my prompts from the dialogue, as they weaved a thoughtful narrative together without me! Rebecca’s words are blue, and Cathy’s are red. (Two colours of the South Sudanese flag :D)
There are 4 of us South Sudanese women who are active in the meetings – myself, Martha Dau, Mary Nyuon and Mary Akoul. We also have allies who work night and day to help us move forward. Without them, we couldn’t do this.
We came to Winnipeg in different years. I have called Winnipeg home for ten years. I came after the referendum was signed [the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government of Sudan and people’s Liberation Movement in 2005]. We did that separation, it was a wonderful time. The government of Sudan and peoples of Liberation Movement leaders sat down together and talked through 25 years of war. The people who were leading South Sudan carried on like that, and then independence came for South Sudan in 2011. Even here in Winnipeg, we celebrated! There was a big march on the road. We were so happy.
Then the crisis happened again, the government in Juba broke down. I couldn’t reach my people, my siblings. The next day I saw the pictures, where the town that I come from was burnt down. So I made phone calls to Cathy Campbell, Marilou McPhedran, all of the women that I knew here. I remained speechless because it set me back. Have you heard of the Lost Boys and Girls? I was one of them. I was in Ethiopia, and grew up without parents, it was difficult. So what was happening in 2013 I witnessed. With the response and strong encouragement I got from the women, they said we could do something. So we sat down and planned.
We originally wanted to collect clothes here and send them, but shipping costs were too high. So we — the Emanuel Mission women, and the Community of Winnipeg with people of goodwill — did fundraising and then sent the money through the Red Cross in early 2014.
In July 2014, I went to Juba, and then from Juba to Bor where 33 women had been massacred in a church – including my aunt – so going back was a trauma for me. When I came back from that trip with a plan (we the group the of women with people of good-will) sat down to do something to honour the women that were killed and also empower the women that are living there now with children. To show them that even though they are far away we are still living with them and still have a lot of connection to them. Even though we’re in Canada here going to bed in tears all the time and thinking at night, we are here for you and are a strong support.
The church donated land for the women’s resource centre. When Rebecca came back, having made all of these contacts and talking to the women in Bor, we were able to begin the conversations to create a women’s resource centre there.
And the exciting news is…. Three weeks ago, we went and had a meeting with an ‘anonymous friend’ here in Winnipeg. I talked about why we want to build this centre, and the man offered to build the building! We thought it was just a normal meeting, we weren’t expecting this!
So the $100,000 that we are fundraising is all for programming costs. Right now we have the first year done, and we’re beginning the process of fundraising for the second year. Rebecca is leaving at the end of June to actually find the people to hire, get the sewing machines, begin the teaching and begin the gathering of women and creating the spirit of the centre.
It’ll start in the church building, which is actually a good thing. It’s different from Canada, women’s activities are more limited, more circumscribed than here. Back home, there are things that women aren’t expected to do, BUT they can go to church. And so if they happen to go to school when they go to church, all is good. Whereas the idea that you might go to a women’s centre may not be as easily accepted.
According to the UN in 2013, South Sudan has the worst women’s mortality rate in the world. So what we do matters. It’s possible to do real good with relatively straightforward interventions like literacy, increasing economic self-sufficiency – that’s the sewing and agriculture. The elders circles are to deal with the trauma of 30 years of war and the kind of silencing that happens through the trauma. So it’s break that silence and allow women to begin to be able to talk and share.
In Fall 2015, Rebecca and others talked in a circle. A fellow called Greg Oliphant was so moved. He said, “I can’t do anything tonight, but I would be happy to organize a concert with my musical friends to honour the women who were massacred.” He’s gathered a fabulous group of musicians who are going to offer themselves to support this work.
On Friday, we’re singing for hope. Tickets are $20, and can be paid for at the door.
Come, bring your friends, it’s going to be a wonderful night of music, and you’ll be doing good in the process.