Simon Kuereng's story is a familiar one for a boy growing up in South Sudan. War took his father, his home and the family's cattle. He spent his childhood fleeing from one conflict or another, looking over his shoulder, wondering where the next meal might come from.
Simon and what was left of his family did what countless others did: They traveled in search of a safe haven. Simon found that haven in New Cush, an internal displacement camp along the Kenyan border in East Africa. Little did he know that his time there would pave the way to a career with the same agency that fed him in that camp: Catholic Relief Services.
Food Distributions Meant Survival
"In New Cush," says Simon, "I started becoming a human being."
It was 1994, and CRS was one of a handful of aid agencies providing food to camp residents. That food provided more than nourishment. It allowed Simon, now free from the threat of violence and the search for a next meal, to simply be a child.
"New Cush was a cocoon of peace," he says. "There were no Antonovs [Russian-made bombers] and no fighting. I came to realize I was growing up to be somebody. I started to spend time with other children. I began to appreciate the joy of education, because I was finally able to study consistently. I began to put behind the stresses of war, the loss of my father and other family members, and I began to make friends."
One of Simon's most vivid memories of New Cush was the monthly CRS food distribution. "It was the most colorful day of the month," he says. "Some people kept their best clothes only to wear on distribution days. It was so enjoyable, because you could meet anyone: playmates, schoolmates. People from all sectors of the camp came to watch."
The camp was divided into seven sectors, each with a designated leader, distribution site and list of aid recipients. On distribution days, the hand-built homes—conical "tukuls," or "mud huts"—emptied as residents with sacks and tins lined up to receive their food. The courtyard vibrated with the sounds of laughter and whimpering children amid the steady callout of names.
One-by-one, camp residents stepped forward to hand over an identification card. CRS workers punched the cards and handed them back. Each cardbearer moved on to stacks of bags filled with sorghum and corn. Workers scooped out the allotted amount into the resident's sack and poured oil into the tins. Residents then returned to their homes.
"That food," says Simon, "kept people in the camp and gave us security. We were with people, and we were safe. We couldn't farm because we'd have to leave the camp, and it was dangerous. If there were no distributions, we would have left New Cush, because there would have been no way to survive."
Receiver Becomes Provider
Almost 20 years later, shortly after South Sudan's 2011 independence, Simon was in the town of Bor in Jonglei State, in the eastern part of the country. This is the same town he fled as a child. CRS had recently launched the Jonglei Food Security program with generous funding from the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development's Food for Peace program.
Almost 40 years of intermittent war had scattered communities, denied much of a generation access to education and forced the people of Jonglei to turn away from the farming life they had known for millennia. Now, the Jonglei Food Security program is addressing hunger and a devastated infrastructure by paying people with food to build roads, dikes and water retention ponds for livestock.
Designed to empower the people of South Sudan in the development of their own nation, the program's massive infrastructure projects employ up to 1,000 people at a time. Neighboring villages whose ties were severed during the war are reconnecting as residents construct dikes to prevent flooding of crops. They also are rebuilding roads to allow vital transport during the rainy season, which makes the old roads impassable.
Critical to success is local staff with knowledge to work with communities. To date, the Jonglei Food Security program has hired almost 385 people from Jonglei. Simon is one of them.
For close to 7 years in New Cush, Simon and his family received food from CRS. And after years of collecting his family's sorghum, oil and corn, Simon had memorized the rhythms of the distributions.
"When I came in for my interview, I was asked how I would distribute food," says Simon, "I remembered my time in New Cush and described it. I did not envision I'd ever work for CRS. I thought CRS would end when the war ends. I did not know I would grow with CRS and become part of CRS. What they did in 1995 for me as a child is what I'm doing now for others."
Residents Invest in Independence
As a CRS team leader, Simon coordinates with local government officials, tribal chiefs and villagers. Together, they determine what asset the community needs the most. He then helps to employ enough villagers to make it happen.
When Simon was in the camps, food simply sustained families. Now, it is payment for the hard work residents are investing into projects—efforts that will achieve long-term dividends for the whole community.
"When we were getting food in New Cush, we had nothing," Simon explains. "We had no homes. We were migrants from a far-off land. Today, our people are not at war anymore. They are staying in their villages."
"Now we are teaching people to be reliant on their own efforts," he adds. "We want to make sure that they know how to work. As an organization, we can tell them to do something, but without them, nothing will happen. Tomorrow, when the road is paved, they can look back and say, 'I did that.' That's the Jonglei Food Security program."
Sara A. Fajardo is the CRS regional information officer for East Africa and southern Africa. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.