To find the frequency of your calling, sometimes you must travel to the place within yourself that’s the hardest to go.
“For young writers, there’s a moment of truth where you let everything you actually are to the table,” writer George Saunders said earlier this year. “You may not even know what that is, and often I think you don’t even really like it. The stuff that you maybe unconsciously have been trying to keep out of the conversation is the stuff that saves you, if you’re brave enough to let it in.”
This month we sat down with someone who has listened to her inner voice to speak truth into a void. When asked where she found inspiration to start Exile International, an organization working to care for rescued child soldiers and children orphaned by war in Congo and Uganda, founder Bethany Haley Williams saw a need to act after sitting with child soldiers for the first time to hear their stories while visiting Congo. Many children she heard from there had been kidnapped, forced to learn to use a weapon, or even forced to kill their own family.
But before she could help anyone find healing, she had to go on her own search for healing years earlier. “I’d gone through a really deep depression after a traumatic divorce, and then some additional traumatic events happened post-divorce that led me down the road of PTSD,” Williams told us over the phone. It wasn’t until she reached a place that she describes as suicidal that Williams sought treatment. In her search, she eventually arrived at a place of forgiveness. “Really, we’re trapped in our pain until we’re able to learn to forgive,” she said.
As she listened to the kids in Congo, she was reminded of her own path to healing. “I just remember when I was at my lowest, I just needed someone to believe in me,” she said. “Someone to see past what I had done and what was happening to me. . . I wanted these kids to be seen and known and loved, and to know there’s hope beyond what’s happening to them at the moment . . . [T]here’s so much power in knowing that someone believes in you.”
Her trauma was a part of her story that could have prevented her from helping. Instead, she saw purpose in her pain.
Were it not for Williams’ bravery in being vulnerable, the more than 4,300 rescued children that have gone through Exile’s program in Uganda and Congo since 2008 may have never found care.
Once she saw the need, Williams said that she felt no choice but to act. Within two weeks of her return from Congo in 2008, she started Exile. With no money, no grants, and having “just gotten on the other side of [her] own trauma,” she jumped into the unknown. “Whenever you have a vision that’s fairly clear, and passion in your heart, you do whatever it takes to get to the other side of it,” she told us over the phone. “I didn’t look at it like I was building an organization. . . . I just looked at it like these kids have to be helped and we have to find a way to do that, even if we only help one.”
When it came to developing the curriculum, Williams took cues from local Ugandan and Congolese leaders who were already caring for war-affected children. Though there were no curriculum-based rehabilitation programs, she found a couple successful programs working with rescued children researching in Northern Uganda. She was surprised by the use of art in these programs. “I found out that one of the things working there so well was expressive therapy. . . . Art and dance and drama and music are just another language in Africa, and [a few therapy programs] were using them to help the children come back to life again.”
This is where Williams found the vision to use art-focused trauma care—something that she had first-hand experience with in her private counseling practice, as well as her own story of trauma. Through experience, Williams began to see that expressive art therapy accesses a different side of the brain than speaking. Sometimes the kids can access their story more easily when they draw, write a song or poem about it, or act it out.
“There’s a part of your brain that shuts down when you experience severe trauma, so it’s harder to come up with a narrative sometimes. I remember when I sat down with the therapist for the first time after I’d experienced trauma; I didn’t have the words. I didn’t even know where to start. You can imagine when a child is forming their own words; when they’re young their brains are still developing, so it’s even more beneficial to them to be able to express their woundedness in different ways.”
Exile treats the children’s wounds in a holistic, curriculum-based model that’s organized into three tiers—art focused trauma care, conflict resolution, and leadership skills. The kids are placed in groups called Peace Clubs that meet between one and four times per week, depending on the situation.
Though the arts are woven throughout the curriculum, the healing tier relies heavily on art-focused trauma care. This often includes giving the kids two handkerchiefs. On one they’ll draw their heartache, and on the other they’ll draw their hopes and dreams. “Their heartache is often full of dead bodies and guns and burning huts and blood, and so it’s just heart wrenching to see what these kids draw,” Williams says. “On the other they’ll draw their dreams of, ‘I want to be a minister one day,’ or ‘I want to be a doctor so that I can help other kids who have survived the war.’”
Expressive Art therapy helps them visualize their story; they’ll frequently use their drawings as a storyboard to stand up and share: “They’ll point and say, ‘This is where I was kidnapped, and this is where I was taken to the bush and trained to use a gun, and this is my time in the bush when I was hungry and thought I would die, and this is when I was able to escape, and this is when I was rescued and I’m in school now.’”
Williams estimates that about 85 percent of children in Exile’s program were orphaned by the war in Congo and Uganda, the two countries where Exile now does most of their work. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with Joseph Kony and the war still going on there,” says Williams, pausing from our curriculum topic to make sure I understand the nature of the rebel forces there. “There were over 60,000 children kidnapped from the more than 20-year conflict between the LRA and the government.” In a cause where awareness seems like half the battle, Williams has skill in taking every opportunity to educate. Hers is truly a journey of bringing others alongside.
In Congo, there are around 30 active rebel groups, Williams says. In the region of Congo where Exile works, around 100 children are rescued every month. The UN is responsible for leading most of these kids to Exile, whether UN forces rescued the children or were there to help when they escaped.
As the kids learn about themselves through healing, Williams says that she sees them find a new relational identity. “[Y]ou can see them identify with each other as everyone starts to share their story, because they realize, ‘I wasn’t the only child to have gone through this pain’ . . . they’re truly brothers and sisters because they’re going through this healing journey together.”
But Williams says the biggest lesson is when she starts to see a change in the way the kids see themselves. Exile’s therapy is designed to teach the kids how to be leaders. “Really the goal is that when they graduate they’re young peacemakers, and really ready to change their nation.” Later in our conversation, Williams elaborated: “A big turning point we see in the kids is when they’re able to understand that they don’t have to just survive their pain, but there’s a purpose . . . [B]eyond just surviving, a they can literally change their nation and be peace leaders in their country.” Just as Williams was able to take her pain and turn it into something beautiful to help the kids heal, so are the kids able to learn from their pain and go back into their communities to lead other war-affected children.
Williams shared a few example stories. One boy was abducted twice, and barely graduated high school because of his trauma. When he graduated from Exile International’s programs, he went back into the same village he was abducted in, putting his life in danger to lead rescued child soldiers through the same trauma care curriculum that helped him heal. Though he understood that he could be killed by the rebels, he said, as Williams summarized, “’This is why I was saved, so that I could use my life to help others.’”
Another girl escaped captivity after being kidnapped, and is now studying for a counselling degree to come back and teach in Exile’s program, “because she knows what it’s like to survive war and to be a child who’s been orphaned,” says Williams. “I think there’s just a passion when you survive something like that, that you want to reinvest in the healing model because you know how much it helped you.”
Turning pain into something beautiful is a common occurrence among Exile graduates. Many times, it requires the children to be vulnerable enough to reenter their trauma to lead others through it. It started with Williams being willing to face her own trauma. This is what Williams is talking about when, in a video on the website, she says: “We believe that when your greatest heartache becomes your greatest ministry, then grace comes full circle.”
Exile has been a non-profit partner of the Roosevelt since day one. When you buy coffee at the Roosevelt, you’re supporting Exile International.
Learn more about further steps you can take to support Exile on their website.