Jewish World Watch’s field representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Amani Matabaro Tom, recently visited Los Angeles, where he briefed members of the board and staff on current events and our ongoing partnerships, and he spoke at a community event focused on issues facing refugees.
Tom, 41, is the executive director and co-founder of Action Kivu. The married father of six works with Jewish World Watch to run a program in the DRC that provides educational assistance to Children in order to keep them out of local militias and mines; he also partners with JWW on a center for women and teen moms who became pregnant as a result of rape or gender-based violence.
His home country has a history of conflict that shows no sign of stopping, especially with President Joseph Kabila still in power even though his constitutional mandate ended in 2016. Ethnic conflicts have intensified lately, and more than 2 million people are now internally displaced, with 550,000 more living in other countries as refugees.
Tom discussed this and more during his appearance at the “L.A. Jews for Refugees Assembly” held March 22 at Temple Beth Am. Other participants in the event were Tiyya, Save the Syrian Children, the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service (IRIS), the International Rescue Committee (IRC), IsraAid, League of Women Voters, CampGilboa/Count Us In, and Miry’s List Supper Club, which provided dinner.
Describe the state of things in the Democratic Republic of the Congo right now.
Right now the situation in Congo is really very, very volatile. Anything can happen anytime. We have a president whose time is constitutionally over since December 2016, but he doesn’t want to step down. We have seen the government and the police forces being very brutal against protestors, teargassing them, disbursing them violently to make sure they don’t make their voices heard. But we hope for better to come.
Historically, what are some of the challenges that the Congo has faced during your lifetime?
From 1994 after the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis, the situation in the Great Lakes region has never been calm, especially in the Congo, where we have seen civil war which lasted for almost two decades. From 1996 up to now, we count over 7 million people who have died. I have seen many of my friends, relatives, family members, and neighbors getting killed through the conflict. We saw a proliferation of armed groups fighting to have control over the minerals because the country is very rich in terms of minerals. The country has tin, tungsten, coltan, cobalt, copper, silver, diamond, uranium, gold, but unfortunately, paradoxically, people live in extreme poverty. There is no existing infrastructure because of bad governance and corruption.
How are your projects a response to all of those challenges?
Sometime in 2005 I felt there was no way to keep quiet and just watch. I came together with a group of friends and my wife, and we cofounded Action Kivu, working in response to the crisis around us trying to give more women and children opportunities to work through different programs, just to give them a chance for a second life. We give children a chance to get an education because children have no easy access to education in the Congo. If you don’t have the money, you don’t afford education. What we’ve been doing in response is to give children an opportunity to access education and we do that thanks to support of Jewish World Watch. Children who don’t go to school, they are exposed to the risk of being used by militia; we also have children who were working in the mines. We also organize a number of diversified vocational skills training where women sexual and gender-based violence survivors and other victims of the war. This becomes a path to socio-economic reinsertion and [a way to] stand up against stigma at the community level. We’ve been doing things at the vocational schools, and they include soap making, baking, cloth-making, sewing, embroidery.
How effective has your partnership with JWW been?
We started our organization in 2005, and I very well remember we only were able to send 10 children to school that school year. But since we started collaborating with Jewish World Watch, their generous support has enabled us to send 400 children to school every year. We have a teen mothers program where we give a chance to 15 young girls under the age of 18 every year to go through different vocational skills training, but also we give them an opportunity to go back to school and we have cases of young girls who recently graduated from secondary school, and they are determined and committed if we have funds we can send them to college and university where they want to become women lawyers and stand up for the rights of women and girls in the eastern Congo. Every year, we have 15 teen mothers that, because pregnancies were forced on them as the result of rape, we provide with accommodation, food, medicine, and they go through these vocational trainings and their children can go to school and without Jewish World Watch this would never have been possible. In addition to that, we are currently running a number of other vocational training skill programs that women from the community come to join. So this year we have 45 women who are in our programs making baskets, making cloth, making, sewing, embroidery.
What can Americans do right now regarding the threats in the Congo?
Right now, Americans have a responsibility. The risk of genocide is very high at the moment. We are asking Americans to express their solidarity. American civil society and organizations and groups, especially like Jewish World Watch, whose mission is to fight genocide and prevent mass atrocities, it is time to stand up and raise your voice, and continue to support civil society organizations in the Congo who are doing the work on the front line, but also continue the advocacy and education work here in the U.S. so people are aware of what is happening in the Congo and take action. What has been happening in the Congo for the past two decades – 7 million people dying in a civil war – it should stop. Enough is enough.
What’s your hope for the future in your country?
My hope for the future is to have a government which is responsible and which is providing for their people. My hope for the future is to have a stable and safe country. My hope for the future is to have a country where the Congolese people are enjoying their rights freely, where the worth that the Congo has benefits directly the Congolese people.
The post Meet Amani Matabaro Tom: JWW’s field rep in the Congo appeared first on Jewish World Watch.