Comforting Displaced Mothers in Liberia

Juluitte and her three children are refugees from Cote D’Ivoire, currently living in a camp for displaced people in Nimba County, Liberia. After Juluitte lost her husband in the Ivorian civil conflict, she and her children, all of whom are under the age of five, fled across the border to safety – and also the unknown.

The camp where they landed offered tents, floor mats and meager food supplies, but the food was only enough for one meal a day, and once the rains started, the dirt floors of the tents turned into pools of mud. The floor mats offered no protection against the mud, and sleeping on the cold, wet ground made Juluitte and her children constantly sick with respiratory infections.

“My suffering times are during the night,” Juluitte said. “My kids cry from being cold, and I have barely anything to keep them warm.”

The situation in the camp was desperate, and women and children were especially vulnerable to cold and disease. For pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, the circumstances could even be life-threatening. Even though several large international NGOs were providing assistance to the 4,200 refugees living in Juluitte’s camp, there were still some gaps that needed urgent attention. This is where the Episcopal Diocese of Liberia stepped in.

The Diocese of Liberia is a relatively small diocese, but the leaders of the Church knew they needed to do something to help – both to relieve suffering, and to express solidarity and care for those in the refugee camps. Liberia had gone through a long civil conflict of its own, which resulted in the displacement of thousands of people. The Rt. Rev. Jonathan B. B. Hart, the diocesan bishop, expressed that responding to the crisis of people living in the camps would be the Church’s way of identifying with them.

The camp coordinator at Juluitte’s camp informed the Church of several needs that they could help fulfill – supplemental food, clothing for children up to age 12, and mattresses for pregnant women and mothers nursing young children.

The Diocese of Liberia reached out to Episcopal Relief & Development for help in purchasing these supplies and transporting them to the refugee camp. Episcopal Relief & Development has a long-standing relationship with the diocese, particularly through the NetsforLife® program, and the request was answered swiftly. In all, the diocese was able to secure 10 bales of used clothing, which was enough to create 683 packages with two outfits each, 2,768 cans of fish to add protein to the limited diet provided by the camp’s food rations, and 350 four-inch-thick foam mattresses for expectant or nursing mothers.

The Church assembled a convoy that included Bishop Hart and his wife, as well as other diocesan leaders and staff, to take the supplies to the camp. Once they arrived, the camp coordinator took them on a tour of the area, stopping by a number of tents where families were living. One of these tents was Juluitte’s.

Although she was surprised to see the bishop outside her tent, Juluitte explained to him her situation – how the war claimed her husband and caused her to escape to safety in Liberia, and how difficult it was to care for three children in a tent that was inundated with water from the rain. She told him how worms would come out of the wet ground and crawl on the sleeping mat, making an already miserable situation worse. She pleaded with him to do all he could to make sure her name would be on the list for receiving a mattress.

Weak from hunger and exhaustion, Juluitte was afraid that she would not be able to get to the distribution tent at the center of the camp. Bishop Hart saw that she was having difficulty walking, so he personally guided her to the main tent, so she could be one of the first people to receive a mattress.

Over the next few days, 86 pregnant women and 264 nursing mothers – including Juluitte – received mattresses, 683 children received packages of clothes, and over 1,300 heads of households received cans of fish to supplement their rations. At the beginning of the distribution, Bishop Hart acknowledged: “We know that we do not have [the] resources that we need to administer to all of you in this camp, but we pray that the little we have [will] be distributed to meet some of your basic needs.” This dilemma of how to serve many with little is virtually universal in relief work, but so is the solution: determine who is most vulnerable, and do whatever is possible to help them make a full and sustained recovery.

In the case of the Diocese of Liberia, as in many other places, the latter part of this objective has helped to spur activity toward sustainable development. Through relief work, Church and community leaders are able to gain experience in program management and build important relationships that can drive future cooperative efforts. A need for improved infrastructure, combined with this increased capacity for leadership and management within the Church and local communities, can result in a loop where more and more people are empowered to do more and more good.

“This successful relief project actually marks a new stage in the Diocese of Liberia’s efforts to build its capacity to engage in development work,” said Saranga Jain, Program Officer for Episcopal Relief & Development. “Episcopal Relief & Development is committed to accompanying the Liberian Church as they take on additional projects, such as a planned initiative to build hand-pump wells in rural schools. This kind of project has had great results in other countries in Africa, where school children normally have to spend much time and energy fetching water. Helping kids save their energy for learning is one way to support the development of the entire community.”