If all anyone knew about South Sudan was gleaned from headlines — civil war, 3.5 million people displaced, drought, fighting and now famine — it would seem like a hopeless place.
To Rebecca Deng, a South Sudanese refugee who arrived in Winnipeg a decade ago unable to speak English or read and write in her mother tongue, it's a country bursting with untapped potential and an enduring resource: its women.
"I still hope for the women to rise up and have peace," said Deng.
The single mom with two grown children supports herself working as a security guard while attending the University of Winnipeg. She does more than just hope for South Sudan's future.
She helped found the Winnipeg Women's Resource Centre in her former home of Bor, in what is now South Sudan. The goal of the centre is to empower women — the only way peace and stability will come to the world's newest nation, said Deng. The centre offers classes on sewing, peace-building and life skills, literacy, and health and hygiene, as well as a meal program and child care. It's run by volunteers in Winnipeg and Bor with a paid project co-ordinator and instructors.
Last summer, Deng travelled to Bor to help get the centre up and running in space provided by a church. Fighting broke out and Deng literally dodged bullets to get from the capital city, Juba, to Bor. Making sure imported sewing machines got shipped along roads closed by fighting was a struggle, but it has paid off.
On May 5, its first sewing class students will graduate. Several have already started making money in the market at Bor selling dresses, shirts and school uniforms, the monthly report from the resource centre states. Up until now, the local clothing market had been cornered by sellers with goods imported from Kenya and Rwanda, said Deng. Now, local women are getting a piece of the action and the profits, she said.
The ability to earn an income is empowering, but so is earning a certificate that acknowledges their training and job skills, Deng said. Not-for-profit organizations in South Sudan offer well-paying jobs locally and that piece of paper will help local women get their foot in the door in a male-dominated society, she said.
Word about the women's centre and its programs is spreading, according to the April report from the project co-ordinator in Bor. The co-ordinator was hired partly because she had received training and had a certificate to prove it, Deng said. The challenge now is repairing and maintaining the old-style pedal sewing machines, the co-ordinator said in a newsletter showing photos of women at their work stations and eating rice and beans.
In a chaotic country with soaring inflation, keeping the program supplied and running is a challenge, said Deng, who would love to see it grow and empower more women in South Sudan.
"We cannot do it alone without Winnipeggers," she said.
On May 6, the second annual fundraiser for the resource centre is taking place at the South Sudanese Community Centre, 129 Dagmar St., with a documentary at 6 p.m., followed by performances and a party. Tickets are $20.
"I hope people will come out," said Deng.
Winnipeg has close to 3,000 South Sudanese people who send much of their income to relatives struggling to survive back home and in refugee camps, said Deng.
"People who came here to Canada 20 years ago can't establish themselves and buy a house because you can't afford it," Deng said.
The South Sudanese in Canada can't turn their backs on loved ones left behind, either, Deng said. "It's a heartache."