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Mission of Mercy: El Segundo woman opens school for children in the rebuilding of war-torn Uganda

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Jeami Duncan

Jeami Duncan opened a school in northern Uganda in January for kids like Mercy, for whom Duncan named her organization, Mercy's Village. Photo by Mark Berggren

At the age of 10, Patrick became a soldier.

As he slept one night in his home in the countryside of northern Uganda, he was yanked out of bed by rebel soldiers, given a club and told to kill his younger brother, who slept in the same room. The soldiers belonged to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an organized band of rebels that had been terrorizing northern Uganda and drafting children as young as five into its army for years, though the atrocities went largely unnoticed around the world for most of the time.

Nearly 10 years later, Patrick recounted what happened next to Jeami Duncan, an El Segundo woman who last month opened Mercy’s Village Primary School in the Gulu District of northern Uganda for kids who were born into war. Two years ago, Duncan, a member of The Rock Covenant Church in Manhattan Beach, founded Mercy’s Village, a non-profit organization that aims to provide education to children living in poverty.

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“Patrick told me, ‘I didn’t want to do it,’” Duncan, 29, recalled. “But they told him if he didn’t, they would use a machete against him and he would die a slow and painful death.”

Patrick did what he was told. He later told Duncan he remembered hearing his brother’s bones crushing.

“Then he said, ‘If that wasn’t bad enough Jeami, when he was dead, they grabbed a piece of his skull and made me drink his blood out of it.” Duncan said. “‘And they said if I cried after, they would kill me the same way.’”

For three days, Patrick was led shoeless, unfed and without water along with other child abductees through the African bush, loaded like a pack mule with food stolen from villages.

“A lot of people don’t make it on the march and die along the way,” Duncan said.

At the end of the march, Patrick was led to Joseph Kony, the founder and leader of the LRA who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes against humanity. Believing himself to be fighting a spiritual war, Kony built the bulk of his army with thousands of children over nearly 20 years.

Kony put a mixture of coconut oil and white powder on Patrick’s forehead, shoulder and back, prayed over him and said, “Now I know where you are at all times.”

And that’s how Patrick became a soldier.

The Night Commuters

Jeami Duncan didn’t believe the stories when she first heard them so she had to go see for herself.

In 2006, she used vacation time from her IT job to take the first of many trips to Uganda after her roommate returned from a year-long church mission trip to Africa, the last two months of which were spent in the war-torn country.

“When she got back, she told of rebels and child abductions,” Duncan said. “I was so shocked and surprised, I literally didn’t believe it. It’s hard to believe when you hear something so horrible and you’ve never seen it on the news.”

Duncan had been attending El Camino College in Torrance, interning at a hospital and trying to figure out whether to transfer to a four-year college when she took the trip that ultimately inspired her to build a school on the other side of the world in the aftermath of a bloody, ruthless war.

The United Nations had declared the war in northern Uganda, which left nearly 2 million civilians dead or displaced, the most neglected humanitarian emergency in the world. The conflict went back to Alice Lakwena, a Ugandan woman who in the early 1980s believed the Holy Spirit ordered her to overthrow the government. Lakwena was exiled and Kony, who claimed to be her cousin, took control of her rebel army, turned it into the LRA and began indoctrinating children into the group through extreme violence. In 1996, the Ugandan government removed thousands of citizens from their homes and placed them in camps for protection.

“It basically made them sitting ducks,” Duncan said. “The rebels found them all in one spot, rather than having to go from village to village. Imagine living in the smallest camp of 20,000 people with only two armed guards.”

As a result, thousands of children fled the northern Ugandan countryside every night into cities to escape abduction by the LRA. The children, who became known as “night commuters” would pour into cities where they stood better chances of survival near armed guards hired by businesses.

Village Primary School

Students at Mercy's Village Primary School get ready to begin the day by singing with teachers and Mercy's Village founder Jeami Duncan (back, center).

“They would just walk into town, sleep on verandas, on the street – anywhere they could fit,” Duncan said. “For the most part, they were safe. Despite the occasional raid, it was rare for rebels to make it into town.”

In 2001, the U.S. Patriot Act declared the LRA a terrorist group and three years later the U.S. Congress passed the Northern Uganda Crisis Response Act to provide support to Ugandans affected by the war. In 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Kony and his commanders.

When Kony refused to sign a peace agreement unless the charges were dropped, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni rallied the support of other countries to chase the rebels out of the country in 2009. Museveni was successful, but the LRA has since spread to the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo where it continues to perpetuate the same crimes.

The spirit of a people

In 2006, Duncan booked a trip to Uganda through an agency that groups travelers, but a month before she was to depart the trip’s organizer told her that no one else had signed up and she would be going by herself. When she arrived, the LRA was still very active in Uganda. She set off for Gulu – the district most hard-hit by the LRA — on a bus packed with people and livestock heading down a road known for regular ambushes by rebels who bombed or attacked vehicles and robbed passengers.

“It was the longest eight hours of my life,” Duncan recalled. “I was just praying the whole time we that we’d make it there safely.”

She visited a rehabilitation center that housed 30 kids who had been rescued from the LRA, one of whom was Patrick. AIDS was prevalent among children drafted into the army and teen moms who were rape victims made up 95 percent of the girls at the center.

“The situation with girls was even worse,” said Duncan, who feels an extra special calling to help females in countries where they are treated as second-class citizens. “They would get abducted and all be made to line up. They’d put the pretty ones on one side and the ugly ones on the other. The pretty ones were instantly given as wives to the commanders and the ugly ones were used to carry food, weapons and be raped by all the soldiers.”

Duncan heard story after story of war atrocities. Along with every dinner to which she was invited came a grim story, often strangely accompanied by sardonic humor, that “spared no details” of an uncle, brother, sister or son who had been slaughtered, tortured or stolen by the LRA.

Noses and ears chopped off. A padlock forced through a girl’s lips. Murdered victims chopped up and others forced to eat them from a pot.

“To mess with them psychologically like that is as if to say ‘We have absolute power over you,’” Duncan said.

Yet, the spirit of the people touched Duncan.

At a church service, she heard the prayer of a young girl who had lost her ears, nose and lips.

“‘Thank you God that I have my hands and feet,’ she said. And I just lost it,” Duncan recalled. “Here I am complaining that I don’t make enough money and this girl somehow finds it in herself to be happy in life.”

Restoring Souls

When Duncan returned from Uganda, she was a mess.

The thought recurred to her that without a meal a day, clean water and a safe place to sleep, the kids in Uganda were treated more poorly than most Americans’ pets.

Newly engaged, Duncan recalled feeling destroyed emotionally and unable to focus on a job she hated and a wedding that needed planning.

“Every time I thought about it, I’d burst into tears,” said Duncan, who the following year married Paul Duncan, a musician she met at Rock Covenant where he is a worship leader. “It had changed the way I thought about everything. You’re so affected by what you see, there’s no going back. I was crying for a year trying to figure out what to do.

She resolved to help.

In 2008, Duncan got Rock Covenant involved with an organization through which church members sponsored 50 Ugandan children in war-affected areas. She and her husband sponsored a girl named Mercy from Gulu, with whom Duncan shares a birthday. When the couple visited, they found Mercy and her family displaced and living in a temporary home that cost $5 a month. The family, unable to farm because of the war, struggled to make payments. Mercy’s father was later killed in a car accident, leaving her mother to raise four children in an area that was only beginning to recover both economically and emotionally.

During the Duncans’ first few visits, Mercy had malaria and yellow fever. The couple brought supplies and took her to the hospital, where Duncan fell in love with Mercy when she saw her “true fighter spirit.”

It is for Mercy that Duncan in 2009 named her organization after a trip during which she resolved to open a school when villagers expressed a desire for one.  Most of the schools had been burned and most of the kids had been too busy dodging rebels to find time to study anyhow.

An inspired case worker expedited Duncan’s non-profit application when she returned to the States and she set out to raise $10,000 for land. She raised it in two months.

In February 2010, Duncan purchased for $5,000 five acres of land that fittingly belonged to Mercy’s family. The negotiation took place in a hut over four days with every family member present, as according to village law.

Next Duncan priced out the cost of building a school with classrooms, teachers’ quarters, dormitories, restrooms, a kitchen, a dining hall, an administration building, a computer lab and a clinic, and set her next fundraising goal of $250,000.

“I just laughed and thought that’s going to take five years to raise,” she said.

After holding small fundraisers, Duncan was shocked when a couple donated $100,000 toward the school after she asked to hold a fundraiser at its Malibu home.

“We saw and so appreciated Jeami’s heart and passion for wanting to bless these kids in Uganda,” said the donor, who wished to remain anonymous. “She came to share her heart and she touched ours…We’re so impressed by Jeami and honored to be a part of her work. We’re hooked.”

chalkboardThe construction of two classrooms and an administrative building — which created jobs in the community for the first time in 20 years — was completed earlier this year and Duncan’s team on Jan. 31 opened Mercy’s Village Primary School, with first and second grade classes made up of kids either orphaned by war or AIDS.

On the first day of school, more than 89 of the girls and boys enrolled showed up and on time, unheard of in Africa, according to Duncan, who regretted having to turn away many children they are not yet able to accommodate. One of Duncan’s board members, a native of Uganda, told her he’d never seen such an amazing welcoming at a school opening.

“People are now starting to be less afraid,” Duncan said. “The look in their eyes is so different. One thing that will stay with me forever was the look in the mothers’ eyes before. Just a blank stare with no hope and nothing to look forward to. Nothing to be happy about because so many lost children to the war. It was like their souls were missing. When I go back now, there is a little spark of hope.”

More than A,B,Cs

Duncan showed up late for the first day of school in January.

When she arrived, she feared the worst – that after all her hard work, the students would have gone home on the first day because of her tardiness that resulted from all the things that typically go wrong on first days. But when she entered the school, she saw the kids and their parents packed into a classroom and patiently waiting.

“Rather than complain, they just waited for half the day,” Duncan said. “It shows their level of want for a project like this.”

Duncan watched mothers who once feared for their children beam proudly as students were handed the black and yellow uniforms they would start wearing every Monday through Friday. And just like in the U.S., a few criers had to be pulled from their moms as class began.

As the kids changed, Duncan realized many did not have underwear, so last month some were sent by a volunteer from Coast Christian School in Redondo Beach, sister school to Mercy’s Village Primary.

“The kids are super excited and love the school,” Duncan said. “They get there really early and start with morning prayers and singing. Because they don’t know how to read yet, they learn a lot through song. They’re so happy. The moms still linger and peer in to see that the kids are okay.”

“Most of the kids have never been to school and everything is new and exciting for them,” she added. “It’s the most incredible thing to walk by their classrooms and hear them singing their ABCs every morning.”

Just as every day the students learn a new letter, Duncan and her team work daily to continue building the school. By June, Duncan hopes to raise another $50,000 for more classrooms, a kitchen and a dining hall. The kids now sit on straw mats to eat lunch. In a country that is 90 percent without electricity, Duncan is also looking for ways to fund, build and power a computer lab that runs on solar energy.

Without office space, her El Segundo home has become headquarters for the futures of 89 kids on the other side of the world and no doubt more to come as the school grows. Duncan also has her sights set on India as the location for Mercy’s Village next school in several years.

But for now, she wants to expand the school in Gulu and the opportunities afforded by it to the children of northern Uganda. She recently made plans to meet with Ugandan First Lady Janet Museveni and hopes to invite her to a grand opening for the school.

Duncan often wonders what would have happened if she had never met Mercy.

“There are so many more children in Uganda with similar stories like hers and they just need someone to love them and give them an opportunity to shine,” she said.  “One life is a difference. I know it’s a difference for these 89 kids, who are making a huge difference going home and teaching their parents what they learned. It reverses the cycle of poverty slowly.”

For more information, or to volunteer with or donate to Mercy’s Village International, visit www.mercysvillage.org. The organization is still in need of funds, local office and/or storage space and specialized services, such as web design.

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