Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The sentence that confirmed I'm having Reverse Culture Shock

Hope whizzes down that flat black driveway next to that darn perfect grass underneath the patriotic flagpole in front of the most amazing house.
You guys, I'm in America. Wisconsin to be precise. We're here as a family for Tutapona work for a week and then onto LAX for my little brothers wedding. And the SECOND I stepped off that plane onto American soil my eyes could barely take in all that was happening around me. But it was last night when I stood over the kitchen sink in a daze and said, “This kitchen sink is absolutely gorgeous.” and our host, Sherri put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Hunni, I think you’ve been in Uganda too long,” that I realised what was happening. Reverse culture shock.
See, when you’ve been living somewhere like Uganda for 3.5 years, certain things become normal. And then when you come back to your own culture, you realise that in fact you’re the abnormal one. Let me try bring it to life for you. Here’s my thoughts over the last 24 hours.

  • Everyone and everything is SO clean.
  • Goodness gracious this place is ridiculously orderly. Where is everyone?  
  • Man that girls skirt is high. 
  • Lock the doors. Especially the boot so no one can grab a suitcase and run.
  • These cars are ginormous. Seriously who needs a truck that size?!
  • Why are you staying in this traffic Carl? There’s a huge grassy area to the left you should just whip up the side.
  • Since when did road signs have restaurants logos on them telling you which restaurants are at this turn off? 
  • There is literally one person in each vehicle. Max, 2.  Why don’t people carpool? 
  • Man that woman looks comfy sitting in her air conditioned car right now, sipping on her latte and chatting with her friend in her 4x4. Oh look, she’s pulling off the road to buy a donut. Of course she is. 
  • Man, this neighborhood is stunning. These houses are like out of a movie.
  • This driveway is so flat, the grass is so green and everything is perfect.
  • This house has carpet that looks like one gigantic rug. Usually, you would have a shaggy pile rug but these people have their entire house in this soft, plush carpet. And it’s white. Shock horror.  
  • We need to allow at least 15 minutes to run the bath for the kids and allow it to heat up (water speed resembles a drip and I usually forget to turn the water heater on). Oh wait, no we don’t.
  • My children have left a ring of red dust around the perimeter of the bath water and we left Uganda three days ago. #bonedeep
  • This couch is ridiculously comfortable. And it has a lever where I can put my feet out. Oh yeahhhh.
  • This kitchen sink is absolutely gorgeous.
  • Their fridge is incredible. Everything I could ever want is in this fridge right now.
  • Out of the shower. Straight onto a bathmat that feels so soft I can barely handle it. There are three of them in the bathroom. And that shower was PIPING hot.
  • These sheets are so freakin’ soft that I can’t get into my normal sleeping position because my knees are slipping on them!  I prefer sheets with bobbly bits on them for the grit.
  • It’s 4am, I cant sleep. Lets have a look in that fridge. Queso (cheese dip with nachos). Tick.
  • Yes, I’d like to try that Cinnamon Swirl bagel. Let me get a knife to cut it in half. Oh wait, it’s pre-cut!  
  • Must stop using my car horn. This is inappropriate. 
Here's to the next 24 hours.


Thursday, June 29, 2017

When Starbucks and Syrian refugees collide

A little Syrian girl peeks out from behind the curtain of her tent
NOTE: All photos are from my iphone until the 'real' ones come out in a few weeks. 

What a burnt out Syrian school bus looks like before it gets bombed
So, for the last few years I’ve been feeling really disillusioned about the church in the West. Because from where I’m sitting, it looks to me like most of our Western churches care about things like building bigger campuses, installing better sound systems and tossing a few crumbs from our table to the poor when we feel guilty enough to do so. But before you get your knickers in a twist and all offended. Relax. I know many incredible pastors and churches - my Dad is pastor and not like this, our home church in NZ is not like this and countless others are not like this. But many are.

And so for years as I’ve held the hands of mothers in refugee tents with tears running down their cheeks I’ve found myself repeatedly thinking, “Where the HECK is the church? Cause we sure aren’t here. And I am so deeply sorry that we have failed you. Our Western church has failed you miserably. We’ve done a little, we’ve done ok…. but it’s not nearly enough. So you can only imagine how happy my heart felt last week when I arrived in Lebanon and I saw the actual church. Hands and feet of Jesus stuff. Christopher Wright sums it up,
“It is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world as that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church, the church was made for mission. God’s mission.”I don’t know about you, but for me, the Syrian refugee crisis has certainly captured my attention for the last four years. The chemical weapons attacks, the burnt out school buses and the images coming out of Aleppo are ones I can’t forget and so the opportunity to spend a week with the people who’ve escaped these horrors was one I would never miss. I’ve wondered what it was like for these people to be in a warzone.  I‘ve wondered what life’s like for them now. I’ve wondered if the money we’ve sent got there and helped. This trip was the chance to answer those questions. 

But first, a quick recap. Syria used to be a country of 25 million people. But because of the war, 11 million have either fled the country or been displaced within Syria. Most have gone via boat, bus, foot and car to the borders of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Some have resettled in Western countries. For this trip, I was in Lebanon. Lebanon is a tiny country bordering Syria with 4.3 million people in it. But today, it has an extra 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in it too.  

25 day old Amina sleeps in her Mums arms as they wait
for a food box at the church

If you’re a Kiwi, Lebanon is approximately the size of Northland. Can you imagine if 1.5 million people showed up there? How would the public health system fare? The transport system? Employment opportunities - especially when Syrians are willing to do your job for cheaper. This is part of the extremely complex nature of a refugee crisis. Although it is good and right that Syrians are able to come to Lebanon, the host country has a big job. Especially when a mere 12 years prior, the Syrian Army had just ended its 29-year occupation of Lebanon. 

To now see Syrians turning around and knocking on their doors for help was an ironic twist of events. Many Lebanese—including church pastors—felt fear and hatred towards them. But as they chose faith over fear they began reaching out and providing food, blankets and support to their once oppressors. I was reminded of a quote by Dorothy Day, “Love is a harsh and dreadful thing to ask of us, but it is the only answer”.

Money that's been donated provides
mattresses and blankets

The Syrian refugee crisis is like nothing I’ve come across before, and quite frankly it messes with your mind. I think it was somewhere on the road between Beirut and the Syrian border where I found myself sipping on a Starbucks Frappuccino that I knew this trip was going to be way different. 

In my job I get to meet a lot of refugees, from a lot of different crises and the environments we meet in are, for the most part, the same. Formal refugee settlements, accessed through a security team, white tents in rows, long lines for food, and tens of thousands of people crammed into a small space. UNHCR provides shelter, World Food Program provides food and other NGO’s chip in here and there to make life better.  Lebanon is different.

For starters, there are no formal refugee camps. So when a Syrian refugee crosses the border they are left with little other options than to ‘rent a tent’ or rely on the kindness of a stranger to set up some kind of shelter on their land and pay rent that way. If one particular orchard owner allows it, you may see up to 15 or 20 tents on one piece of land. These refugees also have to truck in their own water and provide for most of their own food. They are unable to work legally and are encouraged to go back as soon as they can. All very hard for a family who’ve just fled a war zone and come with nothing.

But what messed with my mind the most was the urban refugee situation. In central Beirut you’ll find hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees living in garages, unfinished buildings, back rooms and abandoned houses. These refugees are given little to no assistance, are surviving hand to mouth and yet could easily live next to a Dunkin’ Donuts. Lebanon is fondly called the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ and so shops like H&M, Zara and Topshop sit in malls next to buildings riddled with bullet holes (from the Lebanese civil war). And inside those bullet-ridden buildings are, you guessed it, Syrian refugees hanging out their washing. Some of the tents I visited were even using billboards featuring ads for Pizza Hut or shampoo as the external covering of their house. It is SO weird to interview someone about ISIS with a picture of a mouth-watering pizza behind you. My two worlds collided. This isn’t how it was supposed to look.

And don’t even get me started on the fact that our field car was not the large white eight seater UNHCR vehicles I’m used to. Ours was a Kia. The Syrian crisis was also the most personally challenging environment I’ve ever had to photograph in because hardly anyone wants to show their face for fear of serious repercussions. Faceless portraits are certainly not an area of expertise for me.

I was there to photograph the work of three different organisations serving Syrian refugees. But the one I want to talk about right now is the one that is using the local church network to reach Syrian refugees because my goodness, I was blown away by them. I walked into churches on a weekday afternoon to find the pastor and his volunteers buzzing around like bees in a bee-hive doing food distribution to 1500 Syrian refugee families.  And that’s for a church with approximately 80 members. I found another church doing clothes distribution to those who came with just the clothes on their backs. Yet another church is giving diapers and milk to stressed-out young mums. I saw the church in action, doing what it was made to do. Not sitting around pointing fingers, judging or offering help with an agenda. Simply being the hands and feet of Jesus.

But the coolest thing of all was that the ones actually giving food to refugees were Syrian refugees now attending the church and working peacefully alongside Lebanese locals. The dignity in that was really beautiful. You see, many Syrians came from middle to upper middle class backgrounds. But when bombs started hitting their towns and cities—they left everything behind and ran.  To humble yourself to receive a food box or a blanket is hard. But knowing you have nothing left to support your family as someone stole it or burnt it is harder.

The Syrian crisis has layers upon layers of complexity woven through it and there are no easy answers. The geo-political climate is a historical nightmare to wade your way through and the cultural differences run deep. I don’t know much, but I do know that the Syrians I spent time with were some of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. Survivors of a war they want no part in. As my plane took off this verse was ringing in my heart.   “Do you know what I want? I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness, rivers of it. That what I want. What I really want.” Amos 5:24 Message Version

I interviewed a 70 year old lady with a tattoo.
She's got serious street cred in my books.

Monday, June 19, 2017

20 photos that bring to life what the USA is doing in Uganda

Earlier this year I was thrilled beyond belief to be given a job working for USAID as their photographer. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is the United States Government agency which is primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid. Their budget is a cool 31 billion each year....My job was to bring their work to life through photos. #nopressure

Together, with my colleague, AnneAckerman, we spent the next two months travelling around the country photographing their work here. Considering they deliver a whopping USD$865m in assistance to Uganda every single year, we certainly had our work cut out for us! Each week we'd take turns heading out to the field visiting a selection of their projects in every region of the country.

In total I think I personally visited about 28 projects. It was so incredible to see the work they are doing with so many different partner to do their part to help build a healthy, prosperous, inclusive, educated, empowered and stable country. In total I delivered 1700 edited images from about 10,000 that I took. These are a small selection of some of my favourite photos from our time together creating the Report to the Ugandan People from the United States Mission to Uganda.

Full report can be found here.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Iraq Video

This is it. The 5 minute video we've been working on since we got back from Iraq. Made with deep thanks to the team at Exposure International. Tune in close, turn it up and let it move you like it did me. To learn more about Tutapona you can visit www.tutapona.com


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The 20 images of South Sudanese refugees I can't forget.

 I promised you photos - so here they are! The 20 images I cant forget and that mean the most to me from my recent trip to the border of South Sudan. I was there with Medical Teams International, Food for the Hungry and Tutapona for TearfundNz’s East Africa Crisis Appeal. If you missed the blog I wrote about my experience there gathering stories and images of the refugees fleeing both war and famine - you can check that out here. But if these images move you at all, let them move you to action. You can donate to Tearfund's appeal right now, right here.

A little South Sudanese baby is given polio drops as he arrives at the border crossing in Uganda.

A young girl finally makes it to the front of the line for food distribution and hands over her ration card. 

I will never forget this woman. She was brought into the camp hospital run by one of Tearfunds Integral Alliance partners by her relatives after fleeing the famine in South Sudan.

I will never forget this woman. She was brought into the camp hospital run by one of Tearfunds Integral Alliance partners by her relatives after fleeing the famine in South Sudan.

“I remember the evening when the war broke out in South Sudan. There were a lot of gun shots. We could not sleep at home so we had to run away to look for a safer place. During that commotion, my husband got lost because we were running amidst confusion. I managed to escape with our five children to the border of Uganda and we were brought to a refugee settlement. Life was extremely rough and I could not sleep at night thinking about my husband whom I have never seen up to date and that continued to torment me day and night. I had no appetite and nightmares of what I saw while running with my children. My children also were heavily affected by what we saw on the road on our way to the border of Uganda. My children hardly sleep at night. One day I attended a program (run by Tearfund's partner). Ever since then I've learnt a lot and my life has changed. I've learnt to let go of the past hurts in my life. Most importantly the program gave me hope. Now I feel much better than I used to". Tearfund is providing trauma counselling to victims of war and refugees like Mary.

The line waiting for food at one of the South Sudanese refugee settlements in Northern Uganda 

This man reminded me of my Grandad....it was so deeply sad to see him at a refugee settlement at this stage of his life.

This little boy is given a drip to help him recover from malaria

Nutritional screenings at the border crossing for malnutrition. I think this boy's ok...:) 

A typical house in a South Sudanese refugee settlement.

This little South Sudanese girl is at the border crossing in Northern Uganda sitting atop her families belongings as they wait to be moved to the reception centre where they will register as refugees and begin their life in Uganda. 

“I have seven children aged 3-10 years old. When the war broke, we had to leave very quickly. We saw many dead bodies as we fled. My children and I also saw many people lying on the side of the road screaming as they were in the process of dying. I had to keep going in order to save myself and my own children. As we fled to Uganda, my husband disappeared. My brother is also missing. We don’t know if they are dead or alive and it’s been nine months now.” Ayenyo, South Sudanese refugee living in Uganda

“My name is Mary and I am 42 years old. There was war at our place in South Sudan and that war killed my husband so my five children and I fled here in 2013. We came in trucks with the UN and were taken to this settlement. My children are aged 4-14 years and have had no education since then. We live in nothing more than sticks and a UNHCR sheet because we have no-one to help us build a house. I have two children with mental problems who have never spoken since they were babies. I wish there was a medicine that could help them. I do not know why they were born this way but I think they both have the same thing. We have no money to help them so they stay as they are. I feel so vulnerable here with just myself and my children. How could we ever go back to South Sudan? We don’t have anything else to do each day other than wait and hope that our food distribution comes at the end of the month for the next month. I don’t know what my future holds. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” 

A typical house and 'kitchen' in the settlements

Make-shift medical clinics and the doctors who staff them are incredible. 

Taking a moment to rest in the refugee reception center 

Taking a moment to rest in the refugee reception center 

Taking a moment to rest in the refugee reception center 

Kids will be kids. This little boy plays in the dirt outside his house making sandcastles that resemble his home (behind him).

What is Tearfund doing?
Tearfund and their partners have been working in East Africa for decades providing lifesaving humanitarian assistance and basic emergency needs to the most vulnerable people affected by this crisis.  But their resources are stretched to capacity and they desperately need more people to come alongside them. I can’t tell you what it feels like to have to turn away a mother and child or a desperate father simply because we don’t have the funds. 

We want to help South Sudanese refugees fleeing into Northern Uganda by: 

1) Over the next three months, sending in 2,950,000L of water to help people living on only a small amount of this vital element.

2. Providing trauma counselling to some of the thousands of traumatised refugees.
How can you get involved?

1. They need your prayers. Our weapon of warfare against all that is unfair, unjust and wrong in this world, is prayer. Prayer moves mountains, and we need to constantly lift up the people of South Sudan and Somalia in our prayers.
2. They need your money. We're asking our supporters and anyone who cares to show  with their actions that the people of South Sudan are not alone. We see them. We hear their cries and we can and will do something to help.
Final thoughts
 No matter how much we want to, we can’t fix the drought. We can’t fix the war. But we can help those who are affected by them. I read a quote years ago I’ve never forgotten; now seems like a good time to share it. “Sometimes I would like to ask God why he allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world when He could do something about it, but I’m afraid He may ask me the same question.”
Please join me in giving to our East Africa Crisis Appeal today.