By John Thurman
On this deployment, my office was the old guard room of the facility. Most likely built in the late sixties or early seventies it was a triangles shaped room that had served its primary purpose but was now mine for the two weeks that I was “in country.” The ominous, heavily armored, black door bore the marks of generations of paint. The bulletproof glass was covered with a colorful African print that reminded me of a dashiki that my wife made me back in the 70’s. The floors were covered with a dark green, glued down carpet, and the walls were a very familiar, “Sea Foam Green” that I had become used two after being in and around the military for most of my adult life.
James and I had visited several times during my TDY and today he was going to take me to a little Lebanese restaurant. I always enjoyed time with a kindred spirit. James is a career diplomat who is filled like an overflowing cup with joy and excitement about life and his various assignments. James saw every job as an opportunity to learn about the people and the local culture.
As we enjoy our Hummus be Tahini, Tabbouleh, Shwarma, cucumbers and yogurt and Pita bread he began to tell me about his administrator Nicolette.
As he began to tell me of her journey, my draw dropped in both bewilderment and amazement.
During the second Congo War, otherwise known as the Great African War, which began in 1998 and ended with a peace treaty in 2003. By the way, between 1998 and 2008 5.4 million people had died.
This was the background for Nicolette’s story.
During these dangerous days, there was indiscriminate killing, destruction rape, mutilation and every other type of degenerate behavior that people can do to each other. Men and women were being hacked to death. Women and girls were being raped, beaten, and forced into sexual slavery. Children were being kidnapped, and many were trained as soldiers.
Nicolette lived in the southeastern area of the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and up to this point had managed to survive most of the carnage that was going on around her. As the violence, once again began to flare up in her region, Nicolette was facing a crucial choice, stay and take your chances and live in fear or leave and hope for a better, safer place to raise your children and make a life for yourself. She had an almost impossible God size dream.
After much prayer, and planning she made a courageous choice to begin an 800 kilometer (500 mile) track to freedom, and safety.
I know, you may be wondering about her husband, I did not ask about him, and the subject never came up.
Nicolette, like so many others in her country, was about to become a refugee. Over the next several months, she and her children began their long walk to safety. Some days they traveled with other refugees, other times, she and the children would go into the bush when they heard that military or rebel patrols were in the area. On some occasions, villagers or relief agencies would provide food, other days she had to count on foraging skills she learned as a little girl living near the jungle (Bush). During our conversation, she shared how God had provided for others but also how she was able to feed her children in the bush.
As she moved into the portion of her story about coming into Goma, she began to tear up and shared how humble and grateful she felt about arriving in this safe town. After walking 800 kilometers (approximately 500 miles) she and the children reconnected with family members who had made room for them and welcomed them with great joy and relief. Her initial dream was realized. Like Moses and the Children of Israel, she survived her exodus with the combination of hard work, the grace of God, and the kindness of strangers. She and her children finally enjoyed sleeping in real beds, eating regular food, enjoying the company of family and friends.
She felt blessed that she had taken the risk, pushed through the fear and made it to Goma.
She soon began looking for work and within a few days interviewed and was employed to be a medical assistant in a facility that treated girls and women who’d been raped, mutilated, and disfigured in many cases by soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Nicolette was not trained as a medical profession, but the nurses and doctors at the facility noted that she had the gift of mercy and was a great listener and encourager. She told me that she had listened to hundreds of hours of stories, that she had prayed with and encourages hundreds of girls and women in the time that she was working at the facility.
Nicolette shared how important this part of her life was to her. She believed that God had led her and spared her to be able to protect her children and to help others. She found a great sense of completeness while providing much-needed encouragement and support to others in this season of her life.
But there was a cost.
As God lead her through the circumstances of her life, she was able to move to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo and find stable, well-paying work.
In recent weeks over 200 people had been killed in the eastern part of DRC, In Kinshasa, there was palpable political pressure as the current president does not want to step down, while most of the population wants him to go away. With the current political strife and threatened increase in violence, Nicolette made a choice to come and see me.
The massive, armored door to my office was slightly cracked when I heard the muffled thump on the door. It was Nicolette.
She was a humble, gentle woman of faith who was dressed in the bright, bold, traditional colors called “pagne.” Despite all of the wars, oppression, corrupt government and challenging history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, along with many other sub-Saharan countries, these dynamic, colorful designs show the strength, resilience, and optimism of the people of the DRC. On this day she also wore a matching headscarf. Her outfit that day help me see some of the inner strength this woman had.
As we exchanged ‘Bonjour’s” she mentioned that she liked my accent as I made an attempt to give an appropriate greeting.
As we sat down, I asked here how I could help her today. To which she replied, “I have been having great difficulty sleeping and concentrating at work and home.” I sat and absorbed her words, intonation, and nonverbal cues to discern what she was trying to tell me. After a short pause, I asked her to share her story with me. For the next several minutes she brought to lite some of the parts of her journey, her work in Goma, and how her faith had grown and how much better her life was today.
Her mood and eyes suddenly became sad and tearful. She began to tell me about the flashbacks and memories that she was currently having. She kept saying she thought she’d put these behind her. As she continued to share her burden, I gently asked a few more questions; she told me that with all of the rising political descent and the troubles in the eastern part of the country, she was afraid that war would break out again.
As we talked, it was evident that she was dealing with some PTSD issues, but with the status of mental health in this part of the world, we needed to look or some practical things she could do until there could be an appropriate referral.
I asked her to tell me more about her faith and how it had helped her. I shared a few things about PTSD and how do manage it. One of the truths that I shared was the importance of finding meaning in the traumatic event. I also mentioned a phrase that intrigued her, I encouraged her by saying, “Don’t Waste the Pain.”
As Nicolette opened up, she began to articulate how she believed that it was part of God’s plan to take the long walk, to work in the hospital with all of those girls and women and to place her in the job that she has today. During her time of answering my question, I was hoping that she would be able to see how the Lord was leading and guiding her through all of the ups and downs that she had experienced.
It was an almost miraculous moment when I watched the light bulb turn on. Nicolette sat up straight, with a hope-filled, determined look as a smile slowly revealed itself. She said, “I get it, God was there all along, he is with me now, and will be with me in the future.” She went on to tell me how much better she was feeling. With that, our session ended. Over the next several days she checked in a couple of times to tell me how much better she was doing.
What motivated her to take the risks that she did for she and her children? What big dream did she have to help her find the faith, courage, resilience, and grace to make this trip happen.
First, like many ordinary people who accomplish incredible things with their lives, she had the almost impossible dream of getting her family to a safer place.
Second, she developed a plan with options to make it happen. She worked her plan, and she was prepared to the possible adversity that lay ahead. Looking back, she noted, “ I learned many lessons as a child that would teach me how to provide for my family on the darkest of days.
Third, she trusted God and served others. And while there is some residual pain as a result of this arduous journey, she is a stronger, more faithful servant of God for taking the trip.
She continues to enjoy working with James and the rest of her team. She is also actively involved in her church and ministers to girls and women in her community.
I will never forget the enduring strength of this incredible woman, and when I think I have some fears or troubles, I will remember her godly example.
Nicolette’s motivation, her God-sized dream gave her the courage to push through her fear and provided for her family.
That same spirit lives in you.
What is your “God Size Dream?”
Let me know what you think?