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Stamps or Stories

Photo: Jon Warren/World Vision

Photo: Jon Warren/World Vision

I read a report from UNICEF that “More women and children have been used as suicide bombers in Northeast Nigeria in the first five months of this year than during the whole of last year” and that one-third of all attacks so far this year have been conducted by children–specifically girls–aged 7-17. UNICEF believes most of these girls are unaccompanied and are being used intentionally by cold and calculating adults, not instigating these attacks themselves.

As I was telling this to my wife Janet tonight, she asked me what I meant by the term “unaccompanied.” She wondered if I was saying these girls carried out the suicide attacks without an accomplice.  Rather, I explained, “unaccompanied” is shorthand to designate that children have been separated from their parents or other guardians. They are unsupervised, unprotected… unaccompanied on the road of life by a caring adult.

In this situation, of course, they are far more vulnerable to many forms of abuse, particularly female children. Who knows, who can imagine, the crushingly personal story that leads an individual to the tragic act of self-annihilation and terrorism?

I find it quite frustrating that in humanitarian work there are many terms like “unaccompanied” which are technically precise, and yet which are completely devoid of the real human drama behind them. I’ve been hearing terms such as “unaccompanied children” a lot lately in relation to the recent earthquake in Nepal and the children left without parents or separated from adult family members. For these children, the tragedy, destruction and disorientation felt by everyone around them is compounded by the additional loss of those who protected and watched over them.  “Unaccompanied minor” captures none of the pathos of a child who lacks a caring and compassionate guardian as they navigate the confusing and sometimes dangerous world around them.

I understand the value of creating categories and monitoring statistics. Yet I’ve come to spurn these terms that are technically accurate yet prophylactic and clinical. My grandfather owned an auto dealership in North Dakota, where I grew up. When I’d visit Trenda Motors, sometimes I’d take a big rubber stamp and ink dauber out of his desk.  I’d roll the stamp in the spongy dauber and plaster some blue/black word or phrase on a piece of paper…something generally meaningless to me, and yet the act of stamping an indelible label on a piece of paper seemed magically declarative, authoritative and permanent.

Unaccompanied!

“Internally Displaced Persons” is another of those stamps.  An IDP is a refugee still located in their home country, but living away from home, often in a crowded encampment.

In Uganda recently, we drove past an area which had housed an IDP camp during the 20-year reign of terror which the Lord’s Resistance Army visited on the northern Ugandan countryside. Hundreds of thousands of families fled their homes and villages to flee the violence of the LRA.

On this trip, Janet and I had the pleasure of meeting a little girl who is one of the children we sponsor.  Her dear father Pius is a kind and soft-spoken farmer who in his spare time serves as a sponsorship volunteer, overseeing 306 children, and also as chairman of the local Child Protection network. Protecting children is close to his heart.

Pius himself was the youngest of 12 children, only six of whom survive today. I sought him out away from our group to hear more about his story privately. Two of his siblings died of AIDS; another was killed by Idi Amin’s army in the 1970’s. Then in 1995, his brother’s son was abducted by the LRA and has never been never found. And in 1997, their home was ransacked by an LRA raiding party while he was away. At that point, he and his family finally fled to an IDP camp for protection, living there for four long years before returning home.

Other than proximity to home, life in the IDP camps is much like any other refugee camp, with relief rations, crowded and unsanitary conditions, and the unsettled disorientation that comes from not having a safe and secure home.  Pius’ 7-year-old daughter was born after those years and has no more experience of life as an IDP than I do. But this makes the experience no less real, frustrating and emasculating to her father. He has worn the IDP stamp, and I expect some of the markings are indelible.

One of the stamps I most loath is “Child-Headed Household.” The rubber-stamped acronym “CHH” became very common during the worst years of the AIDS pandemic. But visiting the shabby hovel occupied by Rosy, Lamiri, and Lomiani in rural Tanzania was anything but common. Their faces and ragged clothes are etched in my mind, along with the face of Evelyn, their Home Visitor volunteer. Evelyn is not some neighborhood Avon Lady knocking on the door to sell something. She’s an angry mom, angry that there was ever need for such a term as “child-headed household,” angry that any children should have to fend for themselves and run a household on their own… especially a household of girls orphaned by the ravages of AIDS.  As long as she could help it, kids without parents living in Evelyn’s community would navigate the life with someone they could trust and count on… to listen, to pray, to provide whatever resources she could make available, to care, to let her heart be broken… again. She would make sure they were accompanied.

For Evelyn, there was no such thing as a CHH. There were only kids like Rosie and her sisters, living alone, just trying to survive, the older ones often forgoing any chance of schooling in order to grow or scrounge or exchange sex for food for their younger siblings.  Evelyn understood that a technical term like Child-Headed Household might serve some statistical purpose, but it would never take the place of compassion and love for the children living in one.

These are the invitations I feel nowadays, to move from the stats and the stamps to the stories, from my head to my heart.

“Just the facts, Ma’am.” Maybe that worked for Joe Friday on the old “Dragnet” TV show, but terms that allow the statisticians to check various boxes do little to explain the exigencies, the unique stories and personal traumas of individual lives.

I take comfort that God knows each person inside the numbers, not merely as a statistic, but in the personal and unique realities of each singular life, those uniquenesses that don’t fit neatly onto a rubber stamp… those whose very lives are in fact the polar opposite of “neat.”

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