By Hiroyuki Saito
Twenty years after she spearheaded a fundraising campaign to build a trauma care centre for children associated with armed forces, beloved celebrity and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Tetsuko Kuroyanagi meets the ‘first child’ of the Totto-chan Centre, South Sudan.
JUBA, South Sudan, 1 April 2013 – It is a shelter of hope and survival she helped build 17 years ago. Since then, it has saved the lives of thousands of children in South Sudan and neighbouring countries.
Recently, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Tetsuko Kuroyanagi visited the Totto-chan Centre for the very first time.
“Peace, schools and good teachers”
Tetsuko, one of Japan’s most famous celebrities, is a renowned actress, popular television host, bestselling author and humanitarian. She spent time at the Totto-chan Centre, a trauma care facility in the nation’s capital, during her seven-day tour, and listened to the dedicated staff and the children who have been affected by armed conflict.
Tetsuko came to Juba for the first time in 1993 during the Sudanese civil war, and met hundreds of barefoot children. “At that time, there was a severe shortage of food, clothes and so many more things,” said the longest serving active UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. “Nonetheless, what children wanted most was ‘peace, schools and good teachers’, even in such a miserable situation.”
After her first visit to the region, Tetsuko called upon the people of Japan to help the Sudanese children through her fundraising campaign, and donated US$300,000 to UNICEF to build a trauma care centre. When the facility was founded in 1996, it was named after Tetsuko’s childhood name: Totto-chan.
Twenty years later, Tetsuko came to see the Totto-chan Centre and sat down with Patrick*, the first child to seek shelter at the facility 16 years ago. The now 28-year-old Ugandan man was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) at the age of 11 when he was at school in the northern part of Uganda. Tetsuko learned how the centre served as a lifeline for Patrick.
“The people from the LRA forced me to live like an animal and learn how to use a gun, and I couldn't continue like that. I tried to escape from them twice, but they captured me. They beat me up and tied me up with a rope for a week,” Patrick told Tetsuko.
Patrick managed to escape for good, after his third escape attempt. A soldier from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) found the 11-year-old boy bolting through the bushes and brought him to Juba. While he was free and wandering around the city, a poster of the Totto-chan Centre caught his attention. The facility had just opened to support children traumatized by war.
“At Totto-chan, Uncle Long took me to the hospital by himself immediately. A doctor treated my wounds. Then, we came back to the centre and stayed here for six months,” recalls Patrick.
Jim Long, or ‘Uncle Long’, the first director of the Totto-chan Centre, took Patrick under his wing. Soon, Mr. Long’s cause became Patrick’s mission, as well.
In 1997, still a child himself, Patrick helped Mr. Long look for other children who had escaped from the armed forces, some hiding on the streets of Juba. They rescued and sheltered 15 more children. “We had to take a risk to save these children because the LRA was still looking for the escaped children, and we had to run the centre very discreetly. My life and all the social workers’ life were in danger. Even the children were having intimidation and harassment from the community, at that time,” said Mr. Long.
UNICEF helped Patrick move to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, then to Kampala, Uganda, to provide him with a safe space. He was able to stay away from the LRA and alleviate his psychological pain. From there on, the first child of the Totto-chan Centre focused on studying and went all the way to university.
Support for more than 2,500 children
“I’m so happy to meet Patrick and learn about his story,” said Tetsuko. “He had to live an excruciating childhood, but he worked so hard to become a successful grown man in the end.
“I was also moved by the devotion of Uncle Long and other social workers who put their own life at risk. They helped numerous children find not only their parents, but also their life goals.”
According to Mr. Long, the centre has given support to more than 2,500 children. They came from the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, the Sudan and Uganda. The services offered at the centre include psychosocial support, interim accommodation and care, family tracing and reunification and welfare support.
“The Totto-chan Centre is a landmark. It has provided thousands of children a space to come back and recover from various traumas,” said UNICEF South Sudan Representative Dr. Yasmin Ali Haque.
“When I get back to Japan, I want to tell the Japanese people that all the money they sent me has been used to save children like Patrick. Visiting the centre was one of my happiest moments in South Sudan,” said Tetsuko.
During her mission to the world’s newest country between 14 and 20 March, the Japanese Goodwill Ambassador also visited various places for children and women in Juba: the children’s hospital, transit site for returnees, radio station, and the road construction site by Japan’s Self Defense Force. She then flew to Western Equatoria State and saw a transit centre, an HIV/AIDS counselling facility, a polio vaccination campaign and a maternity ward in Yambio and Nzara.
Patrick extended his gratitude, telling Tetsuko that, without Totto-chan, and Uncle Long, he wouldn't be the man he has become today.
- Name has been changed.