Student/faculty trip to Uganda: stories heard, lessons learned

Ten students and two professors traveled to Uganda and Rwanda May 5-18 as part of the Yale Divinity School spring travel seminar 2012, entitled "Refugee Ethics and Care: Trauma, Justice, & Resiliency."  Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling Jan Holton and Margaret A. Farley Associate Professor of Social Ethics Willis Jenkins led the seminar as a discussion intersecting pastoral care and social ethics within the context of the experience of refugees in the Great Lakes region of Africa.

GroupSome of the central questions of the course were: Who is a refugee? What is trauma?  How does faith matter? What role does faith serve in the resiliency of refugees?

The travel seminar partnered with Uganda Christian University, located in the town of Mukono.  We traveled and collaborated with 10 Ugandan seminarians and three professors.  As a larger group, we traveled to Mbarara in the southwestern region of the country and spent two days visiting the Nakivale Refugee Camp, a settlement with nearly 68,000 refugees from Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, and other nations.

After meeting with and listening to different groups of refugees and reflecting on the experience with UCU peers, our YDS group parted ways with the UCU students and faculty.  We continued on our own to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest on the DRC border to meet with and learn from the Batwa community, an indigenous internally displaced group.  Lastly, the travel seminar crossed the border into Rwanda and spent the final days of the trip in Kigali, where we visited the Rwanda Genocide Memorial, began to reflect on the experience, and intentionally prepared to return home.  The following passages are brief reflections offered by three of us who were part of the seminar.

Additional reflections on the trip are posted on the YDS Facebook "Notes" page.

-- Daniel Meyers '13 M.Div.


By Leonard Curry '13 M.Div.

CurryI was overwhelmed by the Rwandan Genocide Memorials.  Never had I faced so much death, so much senselessness.  Poverty. Disease. Bones. Bloodstained clothes. Weapons. Death. It was unreal but more frightening—it was unraveling.  I felt dissolved, like my intellectual and spiritual world had come apart.  I couldn't handle it, so I turned from feeling and vulnerability to stoniness and facade and eventually to anger, feeling that the indignity of so much senseless death should receive indignation in response.

I've been grateful in retrospect, since then, to the men and women living in Nakivale Refugee Settlement.  Hearing the men talk about a lack of meaningful work or the women talk about the difficulties of providing a meal for their families was devastating.  Many had survived brutal attacks before finding their way to Nakivale.  Still, they are people who choose daily to live and who choose to look to God for meaning and purpose.  It is a choice, an exercise of agency by people—refugees—in a place where agency seems improbable, where perennial crops are forbidden, where tin roofs are a sign of wealth, where life is made when no life seems possible.  They exercise agency, and they choose to survive today in hopes of thriving tomorrow.

That choice to survive in hopes of thriving is the lesson I will carry in my mind and spirit throughout my life.


By Gracie Killman '13 M.Div.

Listening at the Border

Throughout our seminar and our travels in Uganda and Rwanda, our class wrestled with the recurring theme of "border crossing." How do we define "borders"? Who gets to cross them? Who gets to determine them? How do they demarcate identities, influence international refugee policy, encourage or discourage conflict, and control our movement?

As Yale students traveling to West Africa, all of us for the first time, we found ourselves constantly crossing borders both seen and unseen, politically determined and socially felt. This movement is often an unacknowledged privilege, but it took on a new meaning for me as our experience unfolded. I could suddenly see and feel that privilege like never before, and it left me feeling heavy.

LaToya and groupAt the close of our time with our colleagues from Uganda Christian University, Professor Jenkins asked us, "What will you take with you?" I worry about that taking—am I taking something that wasn't offered? And how do I take something on a journey that some people wait their whole lives for, never to get to take themselves?

Rather than "taking" I'd like to think I'm "keeping" something instead—something that was offered to me.  I'm keeping with me a re-frame of what borders are, through the stories of witness, stories of suffering, and stories of hope. Rather than thinking of a border as something that solely separates, a border is now something that also connects and pulls. It pulls me to the men of Nakivale in the stories they shared; it pulls me to the skulls resting beneath the Rwanda Genocide Museum; it pulls me Pastor O.'s work with women in Goma.


By Daniel Meyers '13 M.Div.

Clapping my hands in time to a drumbeat as a song sung in Swahili swirled around my ears, I was shocked into an unanticipated moment of unadulterated worship. The Congolese women who were refugees and worshiping in front of me wore beautiful bright clothing, and several of them were singing while tending to their small children.  The church in which we sang had no roof, so when these women turned their palms up to worship there was nothing between them and the divine sky.  The beat and the notes accompanied by the bright colors and big smiles were joyful.

MeyersThis moment, which I will always treasure, was jarring and disorienting because it came directly after a series of personal stories these women shared with us about their lives before they became refugees, the violence and suffering they experienced, and the challenges they face now in Nakivale Refugee Camp. To hear a group of people relate their concerns regarding physical pain, medical needs, inadequate education, separated family members, and idleness then turn around and worship God came as a gift to me.

The stories we received demonstrated how enormous the disparity is between my life as a white American man and the lives of African women refugees.  This chasm of experience highlighted many barriers to fully understanding the stories, and I found myself simultaneously recognizing the disparity while losing sight of the possibility of empathy.  Yet the worship we joined in after hearing these stories of hardship acted as a ladder of unity, and for a brief moment I could climb over all those barriers and be united in a shared faith and shared hope in God.

The chasm of experience was not bridged, and empathy was not achieved; but, nonetheless, the worship and joy in the open-air church brought me in and I felt unified.   Hearing the stories of trauma and hardship and recognizing I had no understanding of this suffering was a new kind of heartache.  Hearing the music and feeling my own hands clapping to it despite that heartache, or even as a result of that heartache, was a new kind of gift.  My trip to Uganda to hear the stories of refugees and displaced people was full of new aches and new gifts that I am blessed to continue to carry.

Date Posted: Monday, July 2, 2012 - 9:22am