"Peace is possible. Let’s start it ourselves"

Raymond's story in Uganda, the stories of Yulia and Vira in Ukraine and Italy. Here are the AVSI projects supported by the 2022 Tents Campaign.
Maria Acqua Simi

Raymond is 20 years old, and has spent most of his life in the slums of Kireka, one of the neighborhoods of Kampala, Uganda. His story, however, begins in the north of the country, in the Pader district, where he was born into a large and initially close-knit family. It is not easy for a young couple to raise young children in such a complicated area, under the constant threat of attacks by terrorists from the Lord’s Resistance Army, the notorious armed movement founded by Joseph Kony. Fear of looting, kidnapping, and the fear that their children might be forcibly recruited as soldiers prompted the two parents, John Bosco Owona and Rose Ataro, to leave their home to seek something better in the capital. In Kampala, however, things did not go according to plan: finding work was difficult, getting all their children to study even more so. In 2011, a boulder came down, and both John and Rose contracted HIV. Discouraged and physically weakened by the virus, the father decided to leave the family and return to the village. Rose was left alone to raise the children, but her financial situation was dire and access to schools was impossible. The disease advanced and with it the despair of not knowing how to provide a future for her children. "It was then that Mom heard about Meeting Point International. She decided to attend a meeting to find out what it was all about, and since then our lives have never been the same," Raymond says. "Mom began looking forward to the meetings with the other women at the center. We were able to study and so many people, including social workers, took care of us making sure we were all okay."
In fact, they became part of the large family of Mpi and the projects of AVSI Foundation, which has been working in the country since 1984 with a focus on education, sick women, and support for families both economically and socially/health-wise. Raymond studies, his mother is being treated and works, and in the meantime the wounds in his soul are healing.

"During the vacations we were able to go back to our village to meet our father," Rose and John's son recounts further. The change was not only in that recovered relationship, but also in the little everyday things. "Here we have learned that we are not defined by our problems. One day the director of the center came to our school and reminded us of something important: you always have to find something positive in the midst of all the bad circumstances. Whether it is a lesson or something else to be grateful for." Raymond mulled over that sentence for a long time. Then came covid and his life was turned upside down again. "While schools were closed because of the pandemic, I thought back to those words and realized that I had to use my time well. So I set out to study Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics, which I found very difficult. I read a lot, my family encouraged me, the teachers did not leave us alone, and eventually I was able to excel in my exams," he says. He dreams of becoming a teacher or a surgeon, "because I want to improve the lives of the people around me. I can only say thank you to God, my family, my friends and Meeting Point International for accompanying me this far."

The enthusiastic spirit of this young Ugandan is different from the more reflective and sorrowful tone of Yulia. Having fled Ukraine with her teenage son, she travelled through Hungary and Austria before arriving in Rome. For some time they were the guests of a Ukrainian acquaintance, then they moved to Como, where some families had opened their homes to refugees fleeing the war. "When we arrived in Como we literally had nothing. We needed water, food, clothes, money, a home. And this family took us in by giving us everything. I miss Kharkiv, my job as an accountant in an automotive center, my friends and family members who stayed there. However, I decided to get busy and was helped to enter a job program while at the same time studying Italian. I have found a good job, my colleagues are all very helpful, and we are gradually getting to understand each other. I do not know when I will be able to return to my country; there are still many difficulties as our host family will rightly not be able to do this forever, and finding an apartment to rent is not easy. But thanks to all the good we have received so far, I know that everything will work out."

Then there is Vira, who never left Ukraine. When the Russian bombing began, she immediately thought of fleeing with her daughters. She only carried one bag with her with a change of clothes and anti-cancer drugs. The cancer is eating her up; she was being treated but the war stopped everything. When she met AVSI volunteers in Lviv, where she found shelter, she said to them, "I used to be beautiful, but the cancer and this war have ruined me.” To make sure they believe her, she pulled out an ID card with a photo showing her still healthy, beautiful, with long hair. When Vira was asked what she needed, however, she did not give a long list consisting of medicines, clothing or money. No. "Peace, I only wish for peace."

This year’s AVSI Tents Campaign, entitled "Peace is possible. Let’s start it ourselves," is dedicated to Raymond, Vira and Yulia and focuses on helping AVSI’s projects in Italy, Ukraine, Uganda, Peru, Burundi, Lebanon and Tunisia. In Uganda, for example, AVSI operates in different sectors (health, education, financial support, skills development, infrastructure) putting the person at the center of each project, with particular attention to women with HIV and their families. In Ukraine, as Elga Contardi tells us, AVSI was already operating well before the war through support to the local NGO Emmaus. Today it works to help internally displaced people by providing basic necessities (water, food, medicine, blankets) with a focus on the youngest children and their education. "We do minor renovations in damaged schools, we have provided psychologists and teachers for recreational activities, and we do training for teachers struggling with distance learning," which is needed more than ever in the areas most affected by the conflict. In Peru, too, attention to minors is one of the Foundation's special features: here AVSI workers operate in the marginal neighbourhoods of Lima and in the most isolated and poor rural communities with education, training and agriculture projects, while helping more than 200 children through distance support. The goal of this campaign for Burundi is to provide 1,500 vulnerable people with the technical and vocational skills needed to access employment or start income-generating activities and empowering them as actors of change and peacemakers who support social cohesion in their communities. In Tunisia and Lebanon – two other countries at the center of the Tents Campaign – AVSI is engaged in vocational training, education and reintegration of "returning migrants" (Tunisia), the protection of refugees, providing schooling programs, and supporting the autonomy of young women (Lebanon). But AVSI, which turns 50 this year, is also and above all present in the country where it was born: Italy. It does so with a focus on the most fragile families, on young people struggling with their studies, and in the past few months supporting 200 Ukrainian refugees with hospitality, language courses, ID checks, and job orientation, thanks to the #HelpUkraine hub in Milan.