By Greg Warner
In her mind, she can hear the words: “Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the Yo-Yo Ma of Uganda.”
Jamilah’s ambition is as simple as it is audacious: “I want to be the Yo-Yo Ma of Uganda!”
She delivers the pronouncement with her big cheery smile, with only a hint that she might be kidding.
“My future, I would like to be a businesswoman and musician, to perform everywhere like one of the best in the world, cello player Yo-Yo Ma,” Jamilah said, this time quite serious. “I want to be like him. I can’t compete with him, but I can be some.”
Cello maestro is an unlikely dream for even the most privileged and educated child. But for this young East African refugee, whose adolescence was shattered by the worst kind of terrorist violence and sexual abuse, the ability to dream at all is a miracle.
At 14, Jamilah watched as her mother was murdered by rebel soldiers. Then those same attackers kidnapped Jamilah and held her prisoner for more than a year while they exploited and abused her.
When she bore a child to one of the soldiers, they suddenly discarded her and her newborn son. Only Jamilah survived.
But the danger was far from over. Life is always hard in a country in a near-constant state of war. Those who can leave usually do. That included Jamilah’s sister and her aunt’s family, who had fled to Uganda even before she was kidnapped.
For those who can’t leave, merely surviving can become an all-consuming challenge.
“For me, I couldn’t survive there because I was there alone,” recalled Jamilah, now 20.
An unmarried teenage girl, alone in a strict male-dominated Muslim culture, is powerless and vulnerable, always just a moment away from becoming a victim.
“I stayed there without mom, dad,” Jamilah said. “Do you know how hard it is when you are alone and underage without parents?”
She found shelter with some friends until, a few months later, she tracked down her older sister, Sarah, in Uganda. It turns out that Sarah, who was living with their aunt and her family, had been searching for Jamilah, but unsuccessfully.
Providentially, Sarah was working at a Christian ministry for refugees in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Refuge and Hope International, founded in 2004 by Jade and Shelah Acker, field personnel for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, provides crisis counseling, education, job training, life skills and much more.
Sarah sought help from Missy Ward-Angalla, who had just started a program at Refuge and Hope specifically for women victimized by war, violence and abuse.
“She said, ‘Missy, I’ve found my sister,’” recalled Ward-Angalla, also one of CBF’s field personnel. ‘“She’s been missing for a year. Please help her.”’
Sarah arranged for Jamilah, then 16, to flee to Kampala to join her relatives. The day after she arrived, she sat down with Ward-Angalla and told her story.
“Within a one-year period [she] had experienced just complete tragedy and horror,” Ward-Angalla said.
As family ministry coordinator for Refuge and Hope, Ward-Angalla has a special passion for vulnerable and traumatized women like Jamilah who bear the scars of misogynistic violence and exploitation.
Soon after joining the ministry in 2013, Ward-Angalla started Amani Sasa, a multifaceted program of Refuge and Hope that offers vocational training, social services, an emergency shelter and crisis and long-term counseling to refugee families who have been abused, traumatized or exploited.
Sadly there’s no shortage of need.
A near-constant drumbeat of war and violence echoes from many of the countries that ring Uganda, a landlocked nation at the heart of the continent. With its open-door policy toward refugees, Uganda is a magnet for those fleeing war and persecution all around it—and it’s usually women who suffer the most.
Jamilah was the very first woman that I worked with when I moved to Uganda,” Ward-Angalla said. “She arrived just a month after I did.”
“We got her the emergency medical care that she needed in order to heal physically,” Ward-Angalla said. “She and I began meeting every day for her to learn English—the basic ‘Hello,’ ABCs, numbers. We met together every day and built a relationship.”
Amani Sasa (Swahili for “peace now”) opened an emergency residential shelter and three-month recovery program later that year. Jamilah was one of the first clients.
“Even from those early days when her heart was in so many pieces, I saw God at work in her, just beginning to bring that healing and transformation.”
As she began the process of emotional healing, she also enrolled in classes offered by Refuge and Hope, learning English, leadership, life skills and other practical instruction.
“Within the first few weeks of her arriving, I remember Jamilah decided to go to our community worship,” Ward-Angalla recalled. “It was the first time I saw her smile. That stood out to me because, through that smile, I was reminded of the power of God at work in her life.”
“I’ve been through so many hard things,” Jamilah said, remembering her homeland. “My life was difficult to live. But [in Uganda] I got free life, so joyful, through Refuge and Hope.”
Even after they reach the relative security of Kampala, many refugees—and their families back home—are not completely out of the reach of rival factions or vengeful governments. For that reason, Jamilah’s real name and some details of her ordeal are being withheld.
Talking about her abuse is still traumatic for Jamilah—and other victims.
“It’s sad. It’s difficult. That’s very hard to me.”
But talking about her achievements at Refuge and Hope brings back her easy smile.
“When I came to Uganda, I didn’t know how to read and write,” Jamilah said.
In fact, she had never been to school—not one class, not one day. In her homeland, only 15 percent of girls attend primary school and eight percent go to secondary school. Jamilah said she did once register for school, “but I never went.” But at the shelter, she took to it quickly.
“Missy taught me my first letter,” she said proudly.
From the alphabet, she moved on to English classes, then to other topics, until—after just three years—Jamilah completed her high-school certificate.
Then something truly special happened when Ward-Angalla’s husband, Francis, put a cello in the young girl’s hands: A hidden talent emerged that is opening a new world for Jamilah—one full of big dreams.
“I really love music, and Refuge and Hope helped me have that chance to go to music school,” she said.
In 2014, she started learning piano and—just to make things challenging—the cello, considered the most difficult instrument in the orchestra.
Jamilah fell in love with the cello and progressed quickly. Soon, with the help of Refuge and Hope, she was playing in a community orchestra. From there, she was selected to study music in a local Christian university on a full scholarship.
“That’s the time I got into the classical music and going to school every day,” she said. “My dream was business and music, and they helped me do both.”
Just four years ago, Jamilah was learning her ABCs. Now she has completed university, studying music.
“We just couldn’t imagine that God would have worked so profoundly that she would be where she is today,” Ward-Angalla said.
Jamilah remains a part of Refuge and Hope’s youth department, a tight-knit group of 12- to 24-year-olds who gather every weekday to study the Bible, sing and dance, teach the younger children, and learn from and support each other. Most of the youth came as refugees with their parents; others came unaccompanied. But all find community here. “Many people are there; we still work as a family,” Jamilah said.
It’s a kind of mini-United Nations, with young people from as many as 10 countries. Back home, they may represent rival tribes or even warring ethnic groups—one youth’s parent was killed by the tribe of another youth. Yet “we are friends,” Jamilah said. Here they learn about tolerance and reconciliation by living it.
“Refuge and Hope has helped me to be myself,” she added.
From the air, Kampala is a random quiltwork of contrasting neighborhoods. Middle-class homes, with their tiled roofs and high perimeter walls, are jammed up against shantytowns—haphazard collections of small tin-roofed homes made of cinderblock or makeshift materials. Many refugees who can carve out a living in Kampala live in such cramped shantytowns, typical of cities in the developing world.
Four blocks down the hill from the Refuge and Hope ministry center, a motorcycle turns off busy Gaba Road into a maze of narrow dirt alleys deeply rutted by rain. Pedestrians and dirt bikes can navigate the alleys with caution, but bicycles and other vehicles struggle. Many of the alleys are bounded on each side by cinderblock walls six-to-eight feet high. Behind each locked gate of heavy metal is a huddle of three or more homes.
A city of 1.5 million can be harsh and unforgiving at times. In contrast, the modest home of Jamilah’s aunt is a bustling oasis of kindness. Twenty people live in the five-room house. Sixteen of them are the aunt’s own children, most of them young adults by now. The aunt cares for them all, preparing meals in the outdoor kitchen that is common in many Ugandan neighborhoods.
A guest who visits the home will be lavished with a bounty of food and coffees—not because the food is affordable, but because in this culture it is the mark of a gracious hostess. As the aunt entertains guests in the living room, family members trickle, one after another, down the hallway to add their greetings to the lively conversation. The room is trimmed with sheer curtains and family knickknacks. There are no frills, but the home is neat and comfortable.
Jamilah sits in a chair just outside the circle of adults, but she’s not shy to add her comments to the mix. As she recounts a recent youth outing, she ends each sentence with her ear-to-ear smile, looking every bit the schoolgirl. There’s no hint of the traumatic past she barely survived just four years earlier.
Music is her new refuge. “My favorite song is ‘Hungarian Dances’ and ‘Trepak,’” she said, referring to Brahams’ collection of ethnic dances and the Russian dance that’s part of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” Both pieces are lively and lighthearted, mirroring Jamilah’s easy manner and constant smile. Jamilah agrees that the cello is difficult. “It’s hard to see the notes,” she explained.
The neck of the cello has no frets—each precise note is created by proper placement of her finger on a blank fingerboard, with nothing to guide her but her ear. Other string instruments work the same way. But the cello’s in-between size—sort of an oversized viola but played on the floor like a string bass—creates the real challenges. The cellist must develop the hand dexterity to master the instrument’s oversized fingerboard. And the cello’s intricate bow movements have to be done while sitting in a most awkward body position. If one can do all of that gracefully, without making it look like contortionism, one can look like a cellist. But the real maestro must still learn how to create the cello’s unmatched range of sounds—from “bursts of passion” in its high-pitched range to the “calm, soothing, solemn” tones in its lowest register.
“I love playing cello because it has a good sound,” she explained. “So quality.”
Jamilah’s cello is symbolic of the new, positive life she has found at Refuge and Hope—far removed from the unspeakable horrors that brought her to Kampala. Her ambitious goal of musical stardom is more than youthful verve. It is proof she has learned to dream again—to believe life can be full of love and meaning.
Perhaps the cello is the perfect instrument for Jamilah’s journey, because it can give voice to both exuberant passion and to haunting sorrow.
Of such is life.
Experts say the cello’s unique range of pitch and tone makes it the instrument most like the human voice. Now it speaks for Jamilah.
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Watch a video story about Jamilah below: