In October I travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo as a global ambassador for War Child UK, a child protection charity focused on helping children survive and recover from the trauma of war. Abandoned half-built buildings, abandoned half-destroyed buildings and slums form the bulk of the cityscape of Goma, on the border with Rwanda. Nothing works. Corruption, power outages, and impassable roads - and the palpable threat of chaos - are part of daily life. One in six children born today in the Democratic Republic of Congo won't live to see their fifth birthday. Since the outbreak of fighting in 1998 almost three million children have died here.
Within these dire conditions I saw the extraordinary work of War Child and met children who, despite every element working against them, astonished me with their warmth, intelligence, determination and desire to learn and build a better life.
On our third day in Goma I met Grace, a 13-year-old orphan with Cerebral Palsy. She had been rejected by her stepmother because of her disability and was found on the streets by a kind stranger who called the War Child helpline; a simple toll free number that is quite literally saving children's lives. Children who have been forced to carry weapons as child soldiers, children who have lost everyone they love and children who have been victims of sexual violence, rape and abuse can call this number and get referrals and counsel from trained social workers.
Grace was one of those children. The very afternoon that the call came in a War Child staff member drove out to go and find her.
Through counselling sessions, War Child encouraged Grace's stepmother to agree to care for her again as her legal guardian. Unfortunately, just a few months after their reconciliation, Grace stepped on a rusty nail. Because of the almost completely defunct healthcare system in the DRC, Grace didn't receive the care that she needed and by the time she was hospitalised it was too late. They couldn't save her leg.
War Child learnt of her terrible misfortune and we went to the hospital to see how best to help her. I knew her story up to her arrival in this hospital but I wasn't prepared for what came next.
We walked into a dark room with four other beds. I passed a toddler the same age as my godson covered from head to toe in plaster, seemingly without any family. I shook Grace's hand and sat on her bed. We talked to her about her life before the accident, about going to school. Her eyes lit up when she showed me two scrappy school textbooks that were her most prized possessions. She told me she loved to read and that she wanted more than anything to continue her education. The stench of the place was overwhelming, my jeans were wet with urine that soaked her mattress. As we talked, a brusque doctor thrust a hospital bill into my hands; 2000 dollars and counting and he said Grace wouldn't be allowed to leave til it was paid. I talked to Grace's stepmother who simply wept. She was haunted, drawn, incapable of communicating. She told me that even if the bill was paid they would have absolutely nowhere to go.
Back in England I appeared on a talk show to talk about War Child and in preparing for it asked the team for an update on Grace so that I could tell her story. The news that I received demonstrates the extraordinary commitment that War Child has to each and every child.
A plan is now in motion. Grace's hospital bills are being negotiated down and will be paid by War Child. This is happening in partnership with the local government - advocacy is a key part of War Child's work. As well as this their focus is protection, education and livelihoods. So in Grace's case they are talking to other local agencies that deal specifically with children with disabilities so when she leaves hospital she can receive the specialist care that she needs. Grace is a very smart girl and once she has recovered, there's a good chance that War Child will be able to get her back into school so that she can finish her education and might even be able to enrol in one of War Child's livelihoods training programs which aims to give children skills to help them get jobs or even set up their own businesses.
Because of War Child Grace will have the chance of a future again and this is something that they are doing for many many more children in the most dangerous places to live in the world. In Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Gaza, Jordan and Uganda, they are reinstating the most basic human rights that children have been so aggressively denied.
When I was very little I was afraid of the dark. I needed just a little crack of light from the landing to protect me from the monster I was pretty sure was hiding in my wardrobe. The light made me feel better, it reminded me there were people close by who loved me and would keep me safe.
When I went to visit 12-year-old Anna in Rutshuru I asked her what she was afraid of. She told me that she too was afraid of the dark. She told me that every single night she had the same nightmare that lots of men would come into their house and shout that they were going to take her away to rape and kill her.
What War Child are doing is opening the door. For children who live with trauma, fear and grief amidst wars they should have no part of; War Child are that crack of light that gives them comfort, tells them they are not alone, reminds them that there are people just in the other room who love them and will do everything they can to keep them safe.
Learn more about War Child's work at warchild.org.uk and donate if you can.
You can help a child in conflict today by donating to War Child's Emergency Fund at www.warchild.org.uk/emergencyappeal
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