Meet one of our real life heroes in South Sudan
Tall, willowy and with a big smile, Jiji Stephen is as friendly as he looks! Aged 27, he heads Light for the World’s Sports for Peace, an initiative that uses football and volleyball to bring children together in South Sudan’s camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). On top of this, he works in two camps: Mahad and Mangattan – both about an hour outside the capital, Juba.
His energy is boundless. “I wake up at 3am and leave home at about 6:30,” says Jiji, describing his daily routine. “I take a motorbike to the office. Right now, I work with just under 300 clients in total.” He carries out home visits to find out how his clients are doing, whether they need medicine or other support. "The clients I work with at the moment range from age 2 to 20,” he says. “Some have motor delay, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities. Some were already soldiers, injured in combat, and now have a physical disability.”
Jiji works with children with movement disorders, cerebral palsy or intellectual disabilities. © Julia Gunther
Uprooted by war
The young people Jiji works with are often still dealing with the trauma of living in a war torn nation. Jiji, who grew up in troubled Jonglei state in the Upper Nile region, understands this well. “Life was not easy,” he says. “My father was a farmer and tended cattle. He left us when we were still young. It was hard for my mother, also a farmer. She pushed hard to earn enough money, collecting firewood and selling it.”
Jiji had once imagined that he, too, would be a farmer like his mother. But when civil war broke out in 2013, his village was destroyed. In that moment, he became one of millions uprooted by conflict in the country. “People were running up and down, trying to cross the border to Uganda and Kenya,” he recalls. “Those [like me] who didn't have enough money to cross, stayed behind and ended up in IDP camps. ”
According to the UN, 1.5 million people are displaced inside the country, while another 2.26 million have managed to find refuge outside. This comes to a quarter of South Sudan’s total population. “When I arrived in the camp, I was just 20 years old,” says Jiji.
New life, new dream
He may have been alone, but that didn’t stop Jiji from making an impression on the people around him. He knew several languages and became a community leader representing the Murule tribe, which he belongs to. When Light for the World came to South Sudan looking for someone to help them set up the Sports for Peace programme, community leaders recommended Jiji. “At that time, I didn’t know how to work with children with disabilities,” he recalls. “Through Light for the World, I was trained in community-based rehabilitation and now I work with them professionally.”
Today, Jiji lives with his wife and their two baby boys in tented housing in Mahad. He knows what his clients are going through. And because he does, they trust him.
Jiji Stephen with his wife and son in the Mahad refugee camp in South Sudan. © Julia Gunther
Daily challenges and COVID-19
Among Jiji’s biggest challenges are families who leave the camp to return home while their children are still in therapy. “We had one case of a child with epilepsy whose family left before completing treatment,” he says. “However, things have changed through the counselling and awareness we have brought.”
Already working against stressful odds, the coronavirus pandemic has made things even harder. “COVID-19 in the places where we work is really bad,” says Jiji. “There is transmission of the virus, and it is also stopping business. The borders have closed. The schools have closed. When we hear the ambulance, we feel scared. But even now, during the pandemic, I go to the client and check their wellbeing, refer the child to hospital. I give face masks to the clients and accompany them to the hospital. I’m spreading awareness.”
Jiji educates people about COVID-19 and distributes disinfectants and face masks © Light for the World
For every setback that Jiji may have, there are also individual gains. “I remember receiving a call from out of town,” he says. “The father of a client was in his village. He called up to say, ‘Thanks for being there.’ This client was a child with motor delay. The child had a growth in the nose. I took them to the hospital, aged 3. The parents remembered me and called me.”
These moments keep Jiji focused and determined to carry on. His work with Sports for Peace has been a great success, still running after six years and now operating across the country. “When I’m working with children and I see that children have changed – I’m proud that I’m really doing something for my community,” he says. “I keep doing it, because I am helping people. I have to be an example for the next generation. Because when the project ends, someone has to take over and carry on the work.”