CEDAR RAPIDS — Kari Hamilton received her master’s degree in social work from St. Ambrose University in Davenport in May of 2012. Less than a month after graduation, she was putting her skills to use thousands of miles away in Uganda.
Hamilton, of Cedar Rapids, spent four months volunteering with Children of Peace Uganda, working with former child soldiers and war-affected children, including those who were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army, were born in captivity or orphaned by war.
Her focus was on art therapy, allowing children to share their experience through drawing, writing, music and dance. This program — called The Peace Club — was introduced at two area boarding schools.
“Art therapy works because their culture is so expressive,” Hamilton says.
Children who haven’t been able to act like children love to pick up a marker and draw a picture. Youth who were forced to witness horrors most people can’t even imagine found joy in writing music.
The therapy wasn’t a free-for-all art program, though. Each activity centered on the participants’ experiences, whether they were acting out their abduction or writing a story about the murder of their family.
“The more they tell their story, the stronger they get,” Hamilton says. “The more they share, the more it becomes a memory. It’s a painful memory, but they are learning how to take control of it. They are able to say, ‘Yes, this is what happened to me, but it did not define me.’”
This is important because former child soldiers have a tendency to live in isolation. They are free from the captivity, but many of them are scared or unwilling to go home — if there’s even a home to return to. Battling internal shame, rage and fear, these children can easily remain victims forever. Children of Peace Uganda works to combat that, focusing on emotional, educational and psychological rehabilitation.
“We do talk about their past and what they went through, but we focus on their future, too,” Hamilton says. “Our hope is that these former children of war become the future peace leaders of Uganda – and they believe it. Acts of war have not taken away their hope.”
Instead, Hamilton says she discovered strength she never imagined within the 107 children she worked with. Teenage girls given to high-ranking officers as sex slaves, boys forced to kill their own parents and girls who became mothers too young grew stronger in the weeks she met with them. Each visit, she said, revealed light where there was once darkness.
“They taught me so much about forgiveness and hope,” Hamilton says. “It was the most amazing experience.”
Hamilton returned to Cedar Rapids in October, but her heart remains in Uganda. Already planning for her next trip, Hamilton hopes to spread the word about Children of Peace Uganda by speaking to local churches, community service groups and youth organizations.
“I want to show the faces of these children,” she says. “I want to share their stories and their drawings. I want others to be inspired by them.”
At the same time, she wants to continue publicizing the horrors of the LRA, which was formed in northern Uganda in 1986 to fight against the government. At the height of the conflict, nearly two million people in northern Uganda were displaced.
The LRA withdrew from Uganda in 2005 and 2006, but the guerilla group led by Joseph Kony continues to operate on the border region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and the Republic of South Sudan. The United Nations estimates that more than 465,000 people in that region were displaced or living as refugees during 2011 as a result of the LRA threat.
“The LRA is still active,” Hamilton says. “They are still killing. They are still abducting children. They are still a threat.”
A fact sheet released by the U.S. Department of State in March 2012 states that “the LRA retains the capacity to cast a wide shadow across the region because of its brutality and the fear it arouses in local populations.” The department has included the LRA on its “Terrorist Exclusion List” since 2001.
To learn more about Children of Peace Uganda, visit http://www.childrenofpeaceuganda.wordpress.com
Kari Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com to arrange a speaking engagement.