[A write-up by my friend from the Philippines, Sister Maria Jose on her work in a refugee camp in Uganda.]
The situation of the women in the refugee camps is quite disturbing. I see the women in their homes, buried in household tasks, surrounded by many children working endlessly. I see them on the roads, walking long distances, carrying heavy loads of fire wood on their backs, or water on their heads, or some crops from the field. I see them going to the fields at the break of day with hoes in their hands. I observed their expressionless faces, exhausted, weighed down by life’s burdens. I feel their struggles, their isolation and loneliness. Is there nothing more to life than these? Are these women destined to a life of misery and bondage? Do they want to stay where they are or simply because they don’t see any way out? Yet these are women of great strength and quiet dignity.
The women support group started when a number of women responded to an invitation to “come and meet”. It is a simple socialization exercise to break the ice of isolation. Some women came out of curiosity, others with great expectation to get something that can assist them in their difficult situation, still others with sincere desire to reach out, to expand. Although the women are staying in the same camps they barely know one another. Most people in the camps live in isolation, minding their own affairs, their time taken by their daily need for survival. It is essential to break this isolation and to provide a forum where people can share openly, and touch one another. This is what the support group does in the initial stage of formation. Through simple activities people learn how to trust, to respect, to accept one self and others. In an atmosphere of openness and mutual respect, people start to relax, to visit their experiences and feelings that have been buried in the deep recesses of their being which very often they themselves are not willing to visit. Through these sessions, some forms of relationships developed, some growth took place.
In this program the resources are within the individuals, gathered and shared in the group. There is need for someone to facilitate this process, someone who is in touched with self and his /her basic goodness, a believer in life and its Source, someone who recognizes the value of another person, his / her potentials that lay dormant waiting to be awakened, to come forth to fuller life.
As a process, when people come together and break the barrier of isolation and fear, trust and confidence developed, hope and love emerged. The person learns how to value self, often reluctantly especially in the beginning. It is important to accompany the person in this process, to support and give encouragement. This is best done in a group. This is where individual persons learn how to give and receive affirmation and mutually empower one another. Given the space and the right climate, people begin to grow, to unleash their potentials and experience wonders in themselves and others. This common experience generates power. As a result people are happier and more appreciative of life in spite of many difficulties. There is a shift of orientation. They begin to look at possibilities rather than limitations.
This is in a nut shell what women support group is all about, the recognition of the great potential of a human person and his /her inherent dignity often covered with thick layers of unfreedom and fear waiting to be released so that life can have a chance.