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Over a recent one-month Ugandan school holiday, ChildVoice had the opportunity to host a group of South Sudanese boarding students at the Lukome Center in northern Uganda. These girls are in the African Soul, American Heart (ASAH) program. We first learned of ASAH in 2016 when we were contacted by its Founder and Executive Director, Debra Dawson. She asked if ChildVoice might consider taking one of their girls who had become pregnant and could not stay in their program. We said yes, and although Sarah had some problems assimilating early on, she eventually settled in and thrived at the Lukome Center.

The 40 ASAH girls we recently hosted, ages 10 to 17, are all orphaned and have suffered the trauma of losing their parents at an early age. Their time at the Lukome Center was spent interacting with ChildVoice students from both South Sudan and Uganda, as well as getting a taste of vocational training that would add another dimension to the education they receive at St. Noa boarding school outside Kampala.

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Interestingly, the visiting ASAH girls are of the Dinka tribe, while our South Sudanese girls at the Lukome Center are from a different part of South Sudan. Conflict between these two regions is at the heart of the current bloody civil war in South Sudan, and that conflict initially spilled over into some friction at the Lukome Center. By God’s grace, cooler heads prevailed, and many of the minor tensions between the girls were diffused by loving staff and student leaders from both regions, pictured here.

Another challenge became apparent as the ASAH girls settled into life at the Lukome Center. Though most had been born into impoverished village life, they have been attending boarding school in the city of Kampala. It seemed they’d forgotten the work related to carrying water and some of the other daily chores carried out by our students at the Lukome Center. Soon, however, they fell into a comfortable routine of doing chores.

According to Deb Dawson, ASAH started in 2011 in Duk Payuel, South Sudan, as an after-school program for 11 girls. By 2013, there were 32 girls from six villages in Duk County living on ASAH’s fenced compound in traditional tukul housing.

In February 2014, the village was attacked and the girls scattered. ASAH staff located some of the girls fairly quickly, but it took a year to find them all. They were in 11 refugee camps in Kenya, South Sudan, and Uganda. Eventually ASAH rented a compound in Moyo, Uganda, and began moving the girls there as they were located. They also enrolled the girls in local schools, adding more students over the years for a total of 43 girls.

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“All of our students have suffered as a result of the current war in South Sudan,” Deb continues. “Many have witnessed the murder and rape of relatives and other villagers. They all fled for their lives with no food or clean water to drink for some days. Many of our girls still suffer.” As orphaned children, Deb says these girls have little value to their relatives except for the work they can perform or the dowry they can bring.

ChildVoice staff and students at the Lukome Center demonstrated love and compassion to the ASAH girls on more than one occasion during their visit, but one instance stands out in Deb Dawson’s mind. She had gotten news that a young cousin of two of the girls, who are loosely related, had been killed by a landmine. A little boy found the landmine and was hitting it with a stick. It blew up, killing him and two girls who were nearby. Deb traveled to the Lukome Center to tell the two girls in person.

As Deb explains, “Cecelia (a Lukome Center staff leader) was present when we told them. The girls screamed and fell to the floor, wailing in grief. Cecelia had her hands on Rebecca and I had my hands on the other young girl, Elizabeth. Cecelia then told them that this was enough and they must stop. They quieted down. A group of about five Lukome girls then came in. I asked Cecelia if she could say a prayer, which she did, so moving and beautiful and comforting. Then one of the Lukome girls sang – she has a beautiful voice, and it was a beautiful song.”

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During their time at the Center, the ASAH girls had the opportunity to experience everything from hair salon to auto mechanics. They were there for baking day, and the girls loved it. Even ASAH’s “matron,” who was staying at the Center and is married with two small children, said she had never learned how to bake, and now she will be able to make buns, cakes, and chapatti for her children. The girls who stood up during the leaving ceremony talked about how happy they were that they had learned to bake.

Deb Dawson adds that their time at the Lukome Center was a good experience, and she hopes the girls can visit during school vacation for many years to come.