Time Abroad: Fall 2009
Major: International Studies
My most memorable study abroad experience was during the Independent Study Project (ISP) portion of the SIT program where I conducted research on the resettlement of unaccompanied minors from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I went to Kyangwali Refugee Settlement, which is located in northwestern Uganda on the Uganda-DRC border. I lived on the settlement for 3 weeks and spent the majority of the time accompanying aid workers in their needs assessments of the various villages on the settlement and eventually conducted my own interviews of unaccompanied minors (UAM). In the chaos of the war, the minors had either come to Uganda separated from their families or were the only surviving member. The majority of UAMs were living alone on the settlement.
I went into the interviews knowing I would probably hear very heart wrenching stories from my research participants, but from day one I was overwhelmed with the gravity of the predicament that I found these unaccompanied minors to be in. One story that became a narrative in my ISP paper was from a fifteen year old girl who had witnessed her parent's death in the Congo, only to then be kidnapped and raped repeatedly for 2 months. Once she became pregnant, she was abandoned by her captors, and eventually found her way to the Ugandan border by herself with her baby. Upon reaching the border, she was sent to Kyangwali refugee settlement, where I eventually met and interviewed her. When I interviewed her, her baby was around 6 months old and he was clearly malnourished and suffering. She told me that she didn't receive enough food for herself and her baby and that it was impossible for her to grow her own food due to injuries incurred during her kidnapping back in the Congo.
Hearing this horrific story was overwhelming both intellectually and emotionally. My preparations at DU and the several classes I had taken on poverty, aid, and conflict in Africa had prepared me in the sense that I had a contextual and historical background for the reality I encountered on the ground, but I was not prepared for the emotional heartache and moral distress I experienced as part of my research. I left the interview feeling obligated to do something to tell her story and to help her in any way that I could. Her difficult story not only touched my heart, but it made me realize how important it was for me to be a messenger and to tell not only my fellow SIT participants and instructors, but also my family and community back home. Before finishing the interview I told her that I would try my hardest to make sure her story was told and at the very least make sure that the tragedies unfolding everyday in the DRC would not be forgotten.
From my time abroad, I realized that the most amazing experiences happened within—the more I learned about different cultures and peoples, the more I learned about myself. Living in Uganda challenged me to step outside of my comfort zone and to challenge myself to reassess my beliefs, values, and ways of thinking. The gravity of my experience in a developing country also challenged me to rethink my notions of well-being, prosperity, and poverty.