Earlier this year, I was given the great privilege of traveling with a medical missions team to west Africa with an incredible organization called Restore Hope. As the photojournalist, part of my role was to interview precious kids who had been orphaned due to sickness, disease, or other tragic family events. The story you are about to read is only one of the many heartbreaking accounts I heard as I sat down with beautiful children to learn of their often painful pasts.
Despite the hopelessness of their circumstances – and just when it became almost unbearable to listen to what these children had endured – hope emerged in every story. Yes, HOPE. Dear friends, what is intended for evil, our God uses for good. There is absolutely nothing beyond His redemption; no brokenness beyond His repair.
The love of Jesus Christ intersected the lives of these little boys and girls through the work of Restore Hope, local Sierra Leonean churches, and faithful followers of Christ, and I leaned in close as sweet Sierra Leonean voices recounted testimony after testimony of darkness and death being transformed into light and life.
And you, my dear friend, are loved with the very same transforming, restoring, and unconditional love. You are seen, sister. You are beloved, brother. Hope and healing are possible. Keep reading and rejoice with me that the best is yet to come.
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.
*Nesia’s Story | Sierra Leone
Nesia sat unassumingly, her bright eyes observing me closely as I took my seat directly across from her. She watched me sweetly as I awkwardly scooted toward her until our knees were almost touching. The air was hot and thick with dust, but the shade of the guava tree proved to be a cool escape on an otherwise stifling African afternoon. Nesia’s tutor and mentor, Sunera, pulled a third plastic lawn chair over and became the final corner of our now triangular huddle. Sunera would be translating for us as I interviewed Nesia. I knew that Nesia was staying at a safe house – an interim care center located in Sierra Leone, for girls who have experienced domestic abuse, been rescued from trafficking, or have otherwise been abandoned – but I was in no way prepared for the pieces of her story that she would share with me on that bright and blistering Saturday as the other children yelled and played in the courtyard just beyond our shady refuge.
Nesia began to speak, steadily and earnestly, as I asked her questions through the translator. Nesia is a 14-year-old orphan who had moved into the safe house only three months prior to our conversation. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother passed away after contracting Ebola when Nesia was 13 years old. Nesia was sent to live with an uncle shortly after she said a final goodbye to her mom, just a year before our conversation took place.
When she arrived at her uncle’s home, he immediately drove his wife out of the house and chained Nesia to an interior wall. With a quiet strength and a gentle spirit, Nesia explained how this family member would tightly tie ropes around her wrists, cover her mouth to conceal her screams, and hold a knife to her throat every evening when the sun slipped over the horizon and the darkness of night protected him from the suspicion of neighbors. He would repeatedly and violently rape and threaten her, only letting her out for short periods during the day as long as she would stay within arm’s reach of his home.
One morning Nesia ventured just beyond the front door and was spotted by an older woman who lived nearby. This neighbor (whom Nesia now lovingly refers to as “Auntie”) could see that Nesia was walking slowly and carefully as if she was in tremendous pain, and noticed blood running down her shaking legs. Auntie approached Nesia and insisted on taking her to visit a nurse while her uncle was away. Upon completing a physical examination, the nurse immediately involved Social Welfare as it was evident Nesia had endured extreme and repeated abuse. The police soon arrested her abuser and the judge sentenced him to several years in jail for the horrendous crimes he had committed. Nesia explained that her uncle did not even get to state his full case when he was in court because the judge sensed his cavalier and unapologetic attitude as soon as he started speaking.
After only a few months at the safe house, Nesia says she feels safe and comfortable for the first time since she lost her mother. Sunera explained that Nesia was initially disengaged and unable to focus on schoolwork because of the trauma she had experienced, but that the last month had brought much healing and Nesia had begun to study and excel in her school assignments. Her favorite subjects are math, letter printing, and physical health.
I asked Nesia what she thought about Jesus Christ, and she told me that she had accepted him as her Lord and Savior. She said that through her teachers and pastor, she had learned about the Word of God and found comfort and hope in Jesus Christ. She said that even the physical pain was gone and that her body had been miraculously healed and restored by God.
Her brown eyes sparkled, and a big, beautiful smile spread across her face when I asked her about her dreams for the future. Nesia leaned forward and propped her head on her hands, fully engaged and honored to share her aspirations of becoming a nurse. Nesia longs to one day serve children and to be an advocate for the abused; she has a desire to help others the way Auntie and the nurse helped her. I leaned in, too, and took one of her hands in mine, throwing my other arm over the shoulders of Sunera. The three of us prayed together to our Heavenly Father, tearfully thanking Him for His healing and comfort, claiming victory in the name of Jesus Christ and accepting again our identities as beloved children of the King of Kings.
Nesia gave me a long hug and stayed close to me throughout the rest of the evening. We danced and sang and giggled, colored pictures and communicated quite seamlessly despite the language barrier. The road to complete healing and recovery is often long and full of difficulty, but I left my time with Nesia confident that she is surrounded by the Church – the very hands and feet of Jesus loving her and pouring truth into her life. Our God leaves the ninety-nine to find the one; The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
God, your God, will restore everything you lost;
he’ll have compassion on you;
he’ll come back and pick up the pieces
from all the places where you were scattered.
No matter how far away you end up,
God, your God, will get you out of there
and bring you back…
*Names have been changed and precise locations have not been disclosed in order to protect the identities of the rescued children and their teachers
Restore Hope is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization based in the U.S. bringing hope to individuals and communities worldwide through Christ-centered, church-based proclamation and service. We are passionate about helping churches do healthy mission.