Author’s Note: Due to security concerns, the names and locations in this story have been altered.
In the Summer of 2016, I was on a short-term deployment to the central sub-Sahara as a part of a stress assessment team. During my stay, I made new friend James.
James and I had visited several times during my TDY, and today he was going to take me to a small 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 enjoyed our hummus, tahini, tabbouleh, shawarma, cucumbers and yogurt, and pita bread, he began to tell me about his administrator, Nicolette.
As he told the story of her journey, my jaw dropped in both bewilderment and amazement.
The Great African War, began in 1998 and ended with a peace treaty in 2003. Between 1996 and 2006, 5.4 million people had died. In the years since 2006, there had been and continue to be rebel flare-ups in the eastern part of her country.
During these dangerous days, there was indiscriminate killing, destruction, rape, mutilation, and every other type of corrupt behavior people can do to each other. Men and women were hacked to death. Women and girls were raped, beaten, and forced into sexual slavery. Children were kidnapped, and many were trained as soldiers. Sadly, this is still a widespread occurrence in many African countries.
This is the palette for the story Nicolette shared with me that morning.
Around 10:30 there was a muted knock on the heavy armored door of my office what was a converted guard station. As I opened the door, there was Nicholette and a translator. I rapidly exhausted what little French I knew, she and the translator smiled as we sat down and began our session.
She was a humble, gentle woman of faith who was wearing the bright, bold, traditional colors called a pagne. Despite the wars, oppression, corrupt government, and challenging history of this part of the world, these dynamic, colorful designs show the strength, resilience, and optimism of the people of this region. On this day she also wore a matching headscarf. Her outfit helped me see some of the inner strength this woman possessed.
She began to share her incredible journey, with the help of her translator.
Nicolette lived in the southeastern area of her country, and up to this point had managed to survive most of the carnage that was going on around her. That is until her husband was killed. As the violence once again began to flare in her region, Nicolette faced a crucial choice—stay and take her chances and live in fear, or leave and hope for a better, safer place to raise her children and make a life for herself. She had an almost impossible God-sized dream.
After much prayer and planning, and with the encouragement of her church, she made a courageous choice to begin an 800 kilometer (500 miles) trek to freedom and safety.
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, when they heard that military or rebel patrols were in the area, Nicolette and the children would go into the bush. 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.
As she moved into the portion of her story about coming into a large regional city, she began to tear up and shared how humble and grateful she felt about arriving in this safe town. After walking 800 kilometers, 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 accomplished. 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 she had taken the risk, pushed through the fear, and made it.
She soon began looking for work. Within a few days, she interviewed and was hired as 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 professional, 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 she had listened to hundreds of hours of stories and had prayed with and encouraged hundreds of girls and women during the time she worked at the facility.
Nicolette shared how vital this part of her life was to her. She believed 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 led her through the circumstances of her life, she moved to the country’s capital and found stable, well-paying work as a for the U.S. Government
In the past couple of months, more than 200 people had been killed in the eastern part of her country. Also, there was the almost never-ending political pressure that is an everyday adventure in this nation.
As we continued our time together, I felt it was time to ask, “How can I help you today?” She replied, “I have been having great difficulty sleeping and concentrating at work at home.” I 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 light some of the parts of her journey, her work in Goma, 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 she was currently having. 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 dissent and the troubles in the eastern part of the country, she was afraid war would break out again.
It was evident she was dealing with some PTSD issues. But with the status of mental health in this part of the world, we needed to look for 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 to manage it. At this point in our conversation, I shared some information on post-traumatic grow and how we have choices in how we deal with trauma. One of the truths I shared was the importance of finding meaning in the traumatic event. I also mentioned a phrase that intrigued her: “Don’t waste the pain.”
As Nicolette opened up, she began to articulate how she believed 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 hold the job she has today. During the questioning, I hoped she would be able to see how the Lord was leading and guiding her through all the ups and downs 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 felt. 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 herself 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 relocating her family to a safer place to be a better provider for them.
Second, she developed a plan with options to make it happen. She worked her plan and was prepared for 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 in 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 lady. When I have 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.
As a follow-up, James emailed me several months after I’d returned to the States to tell he how much Nicolette appreciated the time we shared and that she was doing fine.
That same spirit lives in you!
Here are some proven things you can do to make it happen: Know your “why.” Nicolette’s “why” was to give her children a chance to grow up in a safer place to have a better life. Expand your “dream.” Her dream was to get to a safe place. Write it down. Everyone has dreams for their future. It might be to write a book, start a new hobby or venture, or to make some life changes. A great way to bring a more concrete feeling to these dreams is by creating a dream board, also known as a vision board. A dream board (or vision board) is a visual tool that serves as a guide to your goals for the future. It is a visual representation of your dreams and your ideal life. Making your unique dream board can be a chance to explore your own goals and dreams and exercise your creativity.
Share your why and dream with people you trust. The accountability will be an excellent source of help and encouragement. Nicolette did share her plans with a few friends, who agreed to pray with her.
Get a coach, mentor, or accountability partner to help you develop a plan.
DO IT! Nicolette did it.
Have a Great Mother’s Day