JWW Board Member Diana Buckhantz and Director of Policy and Programs Mike Brand are traveling in the Democratic of Republic of Congo's eastern provinces to work with survivors of the country's decades-long conflict, which has claimed nearly six million lives. They are meeting with JWW's partners on the ground, with whom JWW works to create innovative programs and projects that change lives and transform communities. This is Diana's sixth trip to Congo with JWW, and Mike's first as a staff member of JWW. For more information on supporting the projects described, please contact Jewish World Watch at email@example.com.
The young man, Valentin, looked sad and expectant. "We learn here what it means to be a leader -- that we are the hope for the Congo -- and I believe that. But I have seen such terrible things in my village -- women raped, people killed. I don't like to even go home. I sleep in the bushes for safety and then quickly return to school." He looked at us expectantly. "What can I do to make a difference? I am only 17 years old. I hope you can tell me what I can do. Then maybe I will have some peace in my heart."
It was difficult to know how to respond. Needless to say, we did not have the answer that would help him find the comfort he was seeking. We replied that change happens one person at a time. We affirmed that by educating himself and sharing what he learns with others, he was beginning the process of change. We answered that we were certain several of the students in the room would become leaders in their community. And we knew our answers were inadequate, but it was all we had.
We were visiting with a group of Generation Hope students, the program started by our partners Camille and Esther Ntoto of Africa New Day. The program is working to develop a generation of young people who can lead Congo and be the change-makers the county so desperately needs.
Up to now, we had been listening to amazing young people who responded to the question of what it means to be a good leader with thoughtful answers: it means to think about the community first; to be open to listening to other viewpoints; to not accept the violence ravaging their country. All of them expressed confidence that they would affect change.
One young woman, Charmante, presented us with a speech that implored her fellow citizens to stand up to the raping of women. "I hope that this is the beginning of a new day for women in Congo," she cried. "We need to have a new vision and determination and to say no to rape in the DRC. If you believe it is possible, raise your hands up and say no to the violence in the DRC." All the hands went up.
Generation Hope is a powerful program and Camille and Esther are doing extraordinary things with these young people. Their students are inspired and determined to make a difference, and I have no doubt that they will. Young women like Charmante are truly on the path to a future informed by these lessons in leadership. But when Valentin spoke, I was once again reminded of the complexity of the problems here in Congo and the trauma so many experience.
It will be many years before the safety, well-being, and economic security of the Congolese people are assured. The conflict, while somewhat abated, is not over. Militias still roam the countryside, and women still experience unspeakable sexual violence. Young men are still kidnapped into the militias and the Congolese army acts with impunity in all areas of the lives of the people. Sometimes it's hard not to despair, but then I look around the room and realize that thanks to this program and others like it, a new generation of hope is growing up inspired to become the change-makers that Congo needs. I remember what we told Pascal - change happens one person at a time, and here in this room, I see the faces of 50 of those change-makers looking back at me with hope and determination.