Throughout my life, I have been fortunate to work with many nonprofits and communities dedicated to service. There is, however, one that has been the most impactful in terms of both my own life and those we serve. Fourteen years ago, I wandered into a community exhibit called, Camp Darfur, that was dedicated to sharing the stories of resilience and humanity of those affected by genocide. I had no idea at the time that the stories and people I met there would influence my own life and thousands upon thousands of others for many years to come. Camp Darfur was an interactive exhibit that was built on relationships and a belief in putting humanity before all else. It was the “heart child” of Gabriel Stauring and his incredible family who were committed to connecting those affected by genocide and mass atrocities to people who cared about them around the world. Gabriel traveled to refugee camps in Chad and brought stories of humanity home. The simplicity of the approach I witnessed stayed with me for days after I experienced Camp Darfur. I found that I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing the faces I had encountered that day; the faces of families affected by genocide and the faces of the Stauring family who were willing to share their stories. The exhibit was an educational and developmentally appropriate mock refugee camp for the whole family to experience, learn, and grow together. It was a lesson in what it means to lose one’s home and yet, everyone who experienced it felt more connected to humanity and each other afterward. I was reminded how deeply we are all connected and that our children will share the planet for many years to come. I was led to act.
Within six months, I was on a plane and headed to Chad over the winter holidays. I found myself willing to leave my own family because the relationships that had formed from Camp Darfur had compelled me to take action in ways I had never imagined. I longed to work with a team that was willing to start by listening and connecting rather than trying to “fix” things. This is what we have come to call “The iACT way.” We went with humble hearts, open minds, and a recognition of the wisdom in front of us. We did this as a way to build lasting relationships that would, years later, inform how we might best support our friends in the camps through refugee-led programming. The framework has always been (and remains) connection above all else, listen first, offer what is needed, and trust the community to lead.
Fourteen years and countless volunteers later, iACT has won many awards, been asked to support other organizations in the “iACT way,” and rippled out into refugee camps in Greece, Central African Republic, Tanzania, and Cameroon. We have seen our Darfur United soccer team inspire the world and the making of a documentary. Our women’s soccer team breaks barriers and our Refugee United Soccer Academy players become leaders of peace in their communities. We’ve witnessed our refugee-led early education centers, Little Ripples, and our refugee-led community leadership program, LEAD with EMPATHY, foster a generation immersed in mindfulness, nonviolent communication, and restorative practices. iACT is committed to serving the most vulnerable populations first, but never at the expense of their dignity. We trust our refugee friends to lead. What we have seen has been a breathtaking testament to a will to not only survive but thrive. We’ve seen so much. We’ve seen hope planted and resilience flower. We’ve seen a heartbreaking loss of place and the all too human longing to go home. The thing that sustains this organization is the relationships that have been forged through time and that cross all borders. We have seen the pain of relational poverty where people can’t imagine how a refugee’s life might intertwine with their own, give way to the joys of sustained community engagement.
It is with this awareness, that I write about iACT because out beyond the numerous awards, international recognition, grants, and growth of this mighty little team is something far greater. iACT is a place of mutual liberation. It is a philosophy and a way of being with other human beings that acknowledges our mutual stake in the well-being and safety of those who have been affected by mass atrocities and genocide. iACT is a place with people who do not attempt to solve problems by re-enacting a “power over” dynamic. iACT recognizes the wisdom of the communities we collaborate with and how much we have to learn from our refugee friends. This model is a “power with” way of being with one another in the nonprofit world and it is very, very rare. iACT, at heart, recognizes that we all ultimately belong to one another and that that sense of belonging comes with deep obligations to honor the dignity of the 70 million fellow human beings who are living as refugees today. The sweetest secret of the “iACT way” is that these obligations do not deplete us, but rather enrich our lives and sense of what it means to be human among other humans.