Thirteen years ago today, 22 aid workers were killed in a bombing at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. In remembrance, August 19 was declared World Humanitarian Day to honor all those who have lost their lives in humanitarian service and to celebrate the spirit that inspires people to serve.
With 45,000 people serving World Vision in nearly 100 countries, today we honor those who work in the hardest places. Read the stories of three humanitarian heroes working in the newest and most fragile country in the world: South Sudan. After decades of fighting for independence, South Sudan became a country in 2011 and has been embroiled in a civil war since 2013.
When you see her, she is smiling.
World Vision’s leader in Warrap State, South Sudan, Madeleine Bilonda is Congolese, the mother of six, a medical doctor—and seems to glow from within.
Even in the hardest of places.
Madeleine’s first assignment in South Sudan was in Western Equatoria, managing health programs. At that time, Joseph Kony, the infamous leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Uganda, was wreaking havoc on the people she served.
Saving lives became a battle. World Vision constructed health facilities and Kony’s LRA destroyed them. “The whole community had to move and look for another place,” she says. “They could not go back. We could not go back. Everything we put into place—the LRA ruined it,” she says.
In Western Equatoria, Madeleine and the staff had to be evacuated because of Kony. “We felt like we could be killed,” she says. “When the bullet comes, you don’t know where it comes from.”
The first thing they always did was pray. “We prayed, ‘God, you brought us here,’” she says. “’Please take us someplace safe.’”
And God did. “We had to move with an escort of soldiers,” she says. “You move and you leave everything to God.”
Leaving Everything to God
In leaving everything to God, Madeleine had to leave her family. Warrap State in South Sudan is a hardship post so her family can’t live with her. They are spread over two continents. Her husband, Kande Paul, has a Ph.D. in soil science and lives in Nairobi with four of the children. A daughter is studying in Atlanta. Her son is getting a degree in biology at Western Carolina University, where he also plays football.
“My daughter in the U.S. sets up a conference call for everybody to be together,” she says. “I am so impressed with this. We have Nairobi, Kinshasa, South Sudan, North Carolina, and Atlanta on the same call. In the U.S., everything is possible,” she says, laughing. “We also pray. Despite the distance, God has really given us that strength and unity.”
Madeleine gets strength from music and gardening. On Sunday, she cooks for the staff. “I go to the garden on the weekends,” she says. “I listen to the gospel. I love gospel music. I also water the vegetables. Then I cook and teach the people who work here. I cook for the team.”
She also immerses herself in the Word. “I read my Bible. I can be happy every single day.”
And happy she is, her smile a sunbeam in the most fragile country in the world.
Jackson Omona is a peacemaker in South Sudan. For Jackson, the job is personal.
Jackson is from Gulu, Uganda, the birthplace of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. In 2002, they killed his father in a massacre.
“His death was a turning point in my life,” he says. “I decided to change my life. I decided to engage communities in dialogue to ensure that they are peaceful,” he says. “It came all as a result of the death of my father.”
In 1996, Jackson went to work for World Vision, working in Gulu, home to a center for former child soldiers who had been abducted by Kony and the LRA.
Today, Gulu is at peace. Joseph Kony is in hiding—some say in South Sudan. And since 2012, Jackson Omona has been in South Sudan as well, working as World Vision’s specialist for child protection and peace building.
“I have seen the extent of the abuses that children suffer in this country,” says Jackson. “We have seen a lot of abuse.”
Jackson remains committed to his work in South Sudan despite the fact that it separates him from his own children and family. But Jackson is on a mission, a mission of peace, rooted in his father’s tragic death.
“We can’t abandon the children of South Sudan,” he says.
He has good reason. For Jackson, it’s personal.
James Ring Ring
James Ring Ring is 27 and works with internally displaced people in Warrap State, South Sudan. He was once a refugee himself.
“I was a refugee for over 10 years,” he says. He grew up in Kakuma, a camp in Kenya built for families fleeing Sudan’s long civil war.
In the camp, James wanted to play rather than study, but his mother insisted that he go to school. Today, James is grateful for his education in the camp, to his mother, and to an uncle who paid for a boarding school outside Nairobi. “That transformed my life a lot,” says James.
James returned to his homeland in 2009 with one goal: to work for World Vision. “I believed in their vision and their mission, so I applied many times.” He was hired in 2011.
Today James works with camps of internally displaced people who have fled the fighting in South Sudan. With his team, he is helping to ensure they have clean water, food, healthcare, and that the children have places to play.
The boy who would rather play than learn in a refugee camp, James hasn’t forgotten the importance of fun.
“There is no difference between me and the children that I work with,” says James. “I really want them to have the same opportunities that I had—life in all its fullness.”
This God-fueled wish is the desire of James, Jackson, Madeleine, and humanitarian heroes around the world: life in all its fullness for every child—even in the hardest of places.
*Additional reporting by Melany Markham.
Join our humanitarian heroes like Madeleine, Jackson, and James around the world in helping the people of South Sudan. Make a donation to our South Sudan Disaster Relief Fund today.