Left Hand Valley Courier - All Local, All The Time

By Vicky Dorvee
Editorial@lhvc.com 

Local charity helps Congolese in need

 

Courtesy Photo

Students studying at Peopleweaver’s Kyangwali Refugee Settlement school.

Millions of Congolese have suffered for decades amid brutal corrupt leadership, unchecked criminal factions, and genocidal warlords. According to the International Rescue Committee, more than five million people have lost their lives just since 1998 and nearly four million more have been displaced. The complex conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has forced those fleeing the violence to escape across the border to Uganda, where they are welcomed.

Niwot’s Jeanne Ratzloff’s heart was touched when she first learned about Uganda’s Kyangwali Refugee Settlement just east of the DRC border. In 2009, she created Peopleweaver, a charitable organization that extends help to the disadvantaged who live in the Kyangwali community.

While they don’t own the land they live on nor the structures they live in, each family is allotted a small plot to farm and given six months’ worth of provisions to help them become self-sufficient. Peopleweaver’s initial focus was to offer micro-credit loans to the refugees, who grow maize, beans and cassava, and raise goats. But now loans are managed within the community and the organization’s emphasis has shifted.

“We were having a meeting and I asked the women what suggestions they had for projects, and they said school,” Ratzloff said. “A year later (in 2013) we built the school. This group of women is amazing, so we’ve gotten into education.”

Most of the refugees either never started school or were forced to stop their education. Some can’t write their names and many are unable to read or write in Swahili, their native language.  Learning English gives the refugees a huge advantage when it comes to selling their crops, and in preparation for immigration to other countries.

“English is the best asset they can have,” Ratzloff said, explaining why the students work so hard.

The once wall-less school room Peopleweaver first built is now a stucco enclosed one room building with a latrine. Teachers put blackboards back to back in the center of the room to teach two classes at the same time. They face their students and then take turns talking to make the arrangement work. Ratzloff said adding another room to the school would make things much easier so Peopleweaver is trying to get permission to use a portion of neighboring land to expand.

Peopleweaver also partners with other groups such as Take the Magic Step, ICU Eyewear, and Niwot United Methodist Church (NUMC), to help bring residents reading glasses, malaria nets, water pumps, and other essential resources.

Because of increased violence in the DRC, Kyangwali ballooned in size, adding close to 40,000 more settlers, nearly doubling the population of Congolese just this year. Residents are all hoping to leave at some point, but that can take more than 15 years, so they settle into a new life in Kyangwali.

“If a miracle happens and they finally get to immigrate somewhere, then they will leave everything behind,” Ratzloff said. “Several of our friends have recently left after over a decade in the settlement.”

Ratzloff and her husband, George Soule, just returned from their annual three-week trip to Uganda. In the past, they were able to stay in the settlement during their visits. Because of the huge influx of new refugees and an outbreak of cholera, the increase of aid workers on the settlement meant finding local accommodations for this visit was impossible.  Each day the couple drove an arduous five-hour round trip route to spend time at the settlement.

Ratzloff’s introduction to Benson Werege, the co-founder and executive director of COBURWAS International Youth Organization to Transform Africa, has been essential from day one in assisting Ratzloff to figure out what’s needed and how to get things done for the refugees.  

In the last couple of years, Peopleweaver provided the funds to build a second school in Bunagana, DRC, at the southern border of DRC and Uganda. Werege employed engineers and oversaw the planning and building process of a beautiful brick building. After it was built, Ratzloff and Soule were escorted on a two-hour trip to see the building, but this year it wasn’t allowed nor would it have been safe to do so because of rebel activity.

During each trip, Ratzloff loads up suitcases with handmade jewelry and decorative objects to sell in the states to help support the organization. Handwoven baskets, necklaces and bracelets made with paper beads, beaded animals and more are on sale at Pebble Art Jewelry in the Niwot Market. The store has been a big supporter of Peopleweaver, giving 100 percent of the sale price back to the organization. The latest inventory is now on the shelves.

Ratzloff and Soule pay all of the expenses for their annual trips, and they donate a significant amount of their own funds to the organization. Students feel honored to be in the program, so Ratzloff and Soule brought 50 Peopleweaver t-shirts with them so the students can wear them proudly.

“I would not be doing this if we didn’t have such strong face-to-face relationships,” Ratzloff said.  “When I would get the bios of the women and add them to the website, I would get so emotional that I would cry at the computer and I could only do about two at a time. But, sponsoring the students is the most important thing for us to focus on. “

Peopleweaver needs funds to pay for school supplies, sponsor students, and cover teachers’ salaries.  Eventually they want to add on to the school building in Kyangwali and they need to raise funds for that expansion.  

They also need volunteers to maintain the website content and assistance raising funds.  

Ratzloff said, “We need to raise $10,000 every year and we know where every dollar is. That’s what’s so nice about running a small organization.”

Note that every donation made will be doubled by a matching donation.

To learn more about the Peopleweaver organization or to donate, visit www.Peopleweaver.org. Jeanne Ratzloff may be reached at 303-870-7125, Jeanne@Peopleweaver.org.

 

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