Meet the Nun Who 'Restitches' Handbags and the Lives of Child-Soldiers

Ugandan nun saving women from the horrors of their past

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Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe had a bag under her arm during her recent visit to the Vatican press office. The bag was made of can tabs interwoven with strips of fabric. Some Hollywood stars will pay up to five thousand euros for it — not because this bag is made of discarded materials, but because in reality it has inestimable value.
Behind every stich, every tab painted in gold or silver, every knotted thread, there is in fact a story of rescue, of rediscovered dignity, a story of tears and blood. The story of the more than 2,000 women saved by Sister Rosemary, through education and work – girls who suffered rape, violence, mutilation and abuse by the LRA, the Lord’s Resistance Army.
The LRA is the bloody militia that since 1986 – animated by a syncretic mixture of traditional African mysticism, Acholi nationalism and Christian fundamentalism, has devastated northern Uganda, South Sudan, the Congo and the Central African Republic. Led by Joseph Kony, self-proclaimed “medium of God,” it is one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world, according to the U.S. State Department. It has caused some 30,000 deaths, 100,000 minors enslaved, and more than two million refugees.
The majority of the victims are women who, after having been sold as war booty, are trained by soldiers and constrained to destroy their villages and to kill their parents, siblings, friends and neighbors. None of them can keep their roots, bonds and affections: they are only exchange merchandise in the hands of the militiamen; they are invisible women.
So much so that, up to some time ago, very few people were aware of these tragedies. Not even Sister Rosemary knew that those young students that in 2001 frequented the school she headed – the Saint Monica Institute at Gulu, epicenter of the violence — carried such weight on their shoulders.
screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-12-41-14-pmUntil one day, she asked one of the girls why she did not look at her in the eyes. “I was a commander,” revealed the girl, telling her story. Once she asked Sharon, another girl: “Can you tell me what happened when you lived in the forest?” “I can’t, you would never forgive me.” “Why do you need my forgiveness?” “Because they made me kill my sister,” murmured Sharon.
Gradually Sister Rosemary discovered one by one the tragedies of the girls of the Institute. She, who at 15 expressed the desire to be a Sister to dedicate herself to the poor, risked everything and left the school to go to find the girls in the savannah, have the password spread, make announcements on the local radios. “Come here, to Saint Monica, there is room for all those who want to begin to live. Come as you are; no one will judge you.”
Knocking on her door these years have been thousands of mothers, pregnant women, girl-soldiers, kidnapped adolescents who then fled or were liberated – among them one of the 60 wives of terrible Kony. They were all received with affection; they received goods for basic needs and above all a glimmer of hope in that human horror that had robbed them of their innocence. By learning to sew, to cook, to read, many were able to be reinserted in society.
The details of this horror story and rebirth are all recounted in the book «Sewing Hope,» published in the United States three years ago. The volume has now come out in Italy and the author will present it in several meetings at Pordenone, Verona, Modena, Trento, Arezzo, Turin, Assisi and Padua.
“Thus no one will be able to say ‘I didn’t know anything about what is happening in Uganda,’” said the Sister. “”Everyone must do something, because certain situations can no longer exist. It is necessary to have an overview and to prevent such crimes. The past is past, but there is a future of hope. It is what I always say to my girls to help them to not feel themselves victims but victorious,” she added.
Accompanying the nun was the Director of EMI, the Italian publisher, Lorenzo Fazzini, who said: “We hear so many stories of missionaries, but we’ve never heard something like this. Sister Rosemary does not come from the rich West, she doesn’t have organizations that finance her, she has done everything by herself, on the spot, despite the threats of ambushes and attacks.”
At present U.S. lawyer Reggie Whitten, founder of the Pros for Africa non-profit association, supports the nun’s work, and she receives the encouragement of former President Bill Clinton and, in particular, of his daughter Chelsea, who went to Uganda to meet her. To export her handbags, sold as luxury crafts, the “Sisters United” company was created, which has involved VIP’s of the cinema and TV.
“I myself learned how to sew to teach it to the girls,” explained Sister Rosemary. “ By making these bags with recycled material, rubbish is transformed into something beautiful. In a word, it is the work we do with them: we re-stitch a life thrown away and make it something beautiful.”
This work has inspired hundreds of volunteers. It is no accident that Time Magazine inserted Sister Rosemary in 2014 among the one hundred most influential personalities in the world. And the Archdiocese of Krakow will award her on October 17 the “John Paul II” prize. But if you ask her from where she gets her strength to do all this, she answers straight away: “From God, from prayer and from my Community that encourages me. Ah yes, also from coffee!”
Sister Rosemary’s courage and action is the object of the documentary “Sewing Hope,” which will be broadcasted on October 15 on TV2000.

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Salvatore Cernuzio

Crotone, Italy Bachelor's degree in Communication Sciences, Information and Marketing (2008) and Master's degree in Publishing and Journalism (2010) from LUMSA University of Rome. Vatican Radio. Rome Seven. "Ecclesia in Urbe. Social Communications Office of the Vicariate of Rome. Second place in the Youth category of the second edition of the Giuseppe De Carli Prize for religious information.

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