Her name is Mary. She is an eighteen-year-old Rwandan teenager, whose smile brings sunshine to the cloudiest of days. A friend brought her to the center to register for English classes during my second week in Kampala. The only English word she knew was hello. Even though I taught the Beginner’s English Class, all of my students had at least a basic foundation of grammar and conversational phrases.
I decided to privately tutor Mary twice a week in order to catch her up with the other students. She worked really hard over the next several weeks to learn the alphabet, days of the week, and basic conversational phrases. Whenever we would start class, she was always incredibly excited to practice the words she had learned. She would say with joy and excitement “My name is Mary! I am from Rwanda! Today is Wednesday!” We had profoundly connected, through mutual loving action. Although this connection was established, I knew very little about her.
One day as I was writing our practice exercises on the board, Mary was flipping through her notebook. I noticed that she had what looked like an essay on a few of the pages. I smiled as I told her that I was proud that she had written so much. But as she looked up at me, a sullen look overtook her face.
She handed me a letter that was addressed to me . . . written in English. It said:
This is Mary, your student. I asked someone to write to you because I cannot know how to tell it to you in English. The first of all I would like to kindly ask you to bear with me and read my long story. Here I start:
I was born in of the camps in Democratic Republic of Congo (Mary’s parents were amongst the thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees who fled to DRC after the genocide). When the 1996 war started, my parents tried to run. I was about three years old. That is what people who found me in the bush where my mom left me told me. Since then, I have been living in the forest near Walikau with the family who took me in. I have never been lucky in that forest. We used to live in fear and despair because men came anytime they want. They take one of the girls or women, and then raped us. I have seen the worst. It is just four months ago when one of the families sent some money and someone to take us from the forest. When we reached Kampala, they told me that they have to go on with their journey to Europe and can’t take me with them. I sat on the floor near the bus and started crying. But, God sent a woman to ask me why I was crying. I told her my story. She took me home with her till now. She told me that I must find a way of living because she also doesn’t have a job. She depends on her husband.
So dear Missy, help me with prayer or any other means so that I can have a stable life. I need God to help me find shelter, food and all the basics in life. When I can find a chance to study I want to be fruitful to the society that I live in. My story does not end here, but I tried to make it short. Wednesday I will come for the last lesson because the family which are relocating to _____. I don’t know where it is but I think it is far. I can’t make it to school. I will always be grateful for your kindness, tenderness and generosity. May God almighty be with you? I love you.
After reading this letter, with her hand in mine, we sat together and cried. I was actually grateful to God for the language barrier that existed between us. It prevented me form attempting to say something to make her feel better. The truth is there is nothing I could have said that would take the terrible memories or pain away. What she really needed in that moment was a friend by her side to listen, take her hand, wipe her tears and pray for her.
Gregory Smith, a Jesuit priest who assisted Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda, described this loss of words as the following: “to preach to this sea of suffering is like learning how to talk again. Herein lies the sobering truth: I am free when I am out of control and when I get out of the way.” It was in moments of listening to the heartbreaking stories of students like Mary that I learned how to talk again and let go of comforts and preconceived notions. I learned how to let go in order to have a deeper trust and reliance on God—who created Mary, loves her, and has the power to bring healing and transformation in her life.
God has placed a passion on my heart to assist the many Marys in our world, female refugees who have experienced sexual assault, trafficking, and domestic violence. My student is one of millions of women throughout the world for whom political instability, violence and vulnerability are a daily reality. Will you join me in praying for these precious sisters and daughters in Christ?
Missy Ward is a student at McAfee School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia.