Village of Hope

Land mines, shootings in wars and accidents maim impoverished children. The Peace Village in Germany heals them.

Twelve-year-old Rosaria from Angola carries a wide scar along the length of her right femur. It rises softly above her healthy skin, like a small ridge appearing on the horizon.

The scar is a visible sign of what she suffered and what she can overcome. Doctors in Germany stitched up Rosaria after surgery for a bone infection, or osteomyelitis. It’s an ailment seldom found in developed countries anymore. Now, two days after Rosaria was released from the hospital, she is smiling and in good cheer as nurse Bärbel Arens applies an anti-infection cream along the site of the incision.

Rosaria is one of 500 children a year who is receiving medical treatment through a charity called Peace Village. Near Oberhausen, Germany, not far from the Dutch border, the organization might better be called the Village of Second Chances or the Village of Hope. It is here that children are brought from the world’s crisis zones for reconstructive surgery. They’re children whose noses or limbs have been blown off by bombs or landmines; their hands are without fingers due to congenital defects, or their faces were completely scarred by fire.

77Wolfgang Mertens, a Peace Village spokesperson, says Rosaria and her playmates are among the lucky ones. “The children here at the Peace Village don’t need our pity, they need our money. We have to remember that millions of other children out there have no chance of recovering from their wounds.”

When Rosaria returns to Angola, she will definitely have a story to tell about her scar. It will be a tale about a land where lots of people wearing white robes hovered over her with shiny instruments trying to make themselves understood in German or Portuguese, a language still taught in Portugal’s former colony. She will tell about the friends she made among the other Angolan girls and how they all slept in bunk beds in a dormitory, warding off nightmares together.

The story behind Rosaria’s initial injury remains blurry. The doctors in Germany only know that osteomyelitis set in after Rosaria fell off a wall, and a concrete block landed on her legs. She was taken to the hospital but was not operated on.

In the case of 7-year-old Shabir from Afghanistan, doctors know he suffered from a gunshot two years ago in the province of Maidan Wardak. He arrived at the Peace Village in February 2013 and has not left the hospital since.

Insurgents started a gunfight in Shabir’s village, and he was shot in his right lower leg. Shabir’s parents took him to a hospital in Kabul and paid US$100, a small fortune for them, for his medical treatment. However, the injured leg was not treated properly. His fractured leg remains inflamed.

“In the fewest cases do we have a full understanding of the origin of the problem,” nurse Arens says. For Arens, it hardly matters why the child suffers. Her main focus is to reduce that suffering. Every day she is confronted with tragic wounds and heart-wrenching scenes: kids playing table tennis without hands or kicking soccer balls with prostheses instead of legs. Yet Arens still manages to often smile and laugh–spreading hope is part of her job description.

A Labor of Love

About 100 people work daily and full time at or around the Peace Village. Some receive the equivalent of full-time salaries and most earn reduced wages; hundreds more volunteer on a regular basis. The Peace Village operates on 3.5 to 4 million euros a year (US$5.2 million) and spends much of that money on logistics, including chartering aircraft to pick up and drop off children in crisis and impoverished areas.

Funding comes from individuals and foundations, and German Lions are a key sponsor. Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF) also has been a huge help by working with German Lions to fund five projects including a 1.8 million euro donation to build four badly needed dormitories and to repair the heating system. In 2012, LCIFChairperson Wing-Kun Tam visited the Peace Village to meet its children and see the latest facility modernizations that the Lions helped fund. LCIF and German Lions clubs most recently paid for renovations of the façade of the physical therapy center and the installation of a new surface on the kids’ basketball court.

“Without the Lions, we would have a big problem,” Mertens says. “German Lions clubs contribute roughly 300,000 euros a year.”

Growing Up with the Peace Village

Mertens has watched the Peace Village grow and transform itself since it was founded in 1967. He began his association with the charity as a 19-year-old conscientious objector to the mandatory military service that Germany had at the time.

Now 58, Mertens looks somewhat like an aging rock star with bright grey-bluish eyes. By the way Mertens talks, and the amount of time he takes, one can see how deeply he cares about the Peace Village.

Over the years, Mertens has witnessed the ups and downs and the full circle of impact. He keeps in touch with a Georgian woman named Anni who was treated on her leg as a girl. She grew up to become a doctor and visited Mertens in April to catch up.

And he is in contact with Gezaluddin, now working in Kabul, Afghanistan. Gezaluddin suffered from a bone infection and was treated at the Peace Village. He fulfilled his lifelong dream to become a surgeon to give back to others in the same way.

Mertens is watching another “cycle” impact the Peace Village, too. This year, the Peace Village is behind on fundraising because many of the individual donors who had supported the organization over decades are, to be frank, dying off. Apparently, their children are not continuing to donate.

Mertens draws only a small salary and runs an events business on the side to support his own family. He says, “I dream of the Peace Village being able to operate without worrying about money.”

A Healing Mission

Children typically stay at the Peace Village for six months to one year. Days are spent receiving physical therapy, getting treated in the hospital or playing on the grounds of the charity. The criteria for being selected for care are strict, given the limited capacity.

Since the focus is on reconstructive surgery, AIDS and cancer patients are not treated, for instance. Children are considered as patients only if they cannot be treated at home and only if the child has an earnest chance of recovery. So if the nose or ear cannot be reset or reconstructed or skin cannot be transplanted, the child may be passed over. It is not a requirement that children come from war-torn countries, though many do.

Repatriation is another point that organizers consider in choosing who to help. At present, 10 nations are represented at the Peace Village: Afghanistan, Angola, Armenia, Cameroon, Gambia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This allows children to find a group of playmates who speak their own language, know their own stories and can comfort one another when homesickness sets in.

Experience has shown that by keeping cultures intact and avoiding integration in Germany the Peace Village makes it easier for the children to return home to their parents. This is one reason– besides the complicated logistics that would be involved– why the children do not attend school while at the Peace Village. Many children learn German fast from soaking up their environment. But some do not, and teaching the language is not part of the program. The Peace Village is bound by contracts with the parents to bring the children home. Parents are not signing away their children when they agree to medical treatment in Germany; instead, they’re signing up for their child to have a second chance upon return. For this reason as well, the Peace Village actively avoids letting the children adapt too much to life in Germany.

Because it is so difficult for children to be separated from their parents and to keep costs down, the Peace Village is working to build infrastructure around the world so that many more children can be treated near their homes. It has built Peace Villages in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Romania, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan. It also supports projects in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Cambodia. The German Peace Village provides financial and logistical support and brings supplies to the various sites.

Staying Homesick

Sometimes it’s difficult for Peace Village employees and volunteers to avoid falling in love with the children. When little Karomat from Uzbekistan welcomes visitors with a drawing and a giant smile and then asks to be picked up and spun around, it’s hard to say no. Karomat, 5, is having the stubs on her hands separated so she can better grasp objects. Her left hand is bandaged, so she holds a rolled-up drawing in her right hand between her stubs and her only full-length finger, her pinky. That drawing, a sketch of a ship, suddenly becomes a pirate’s looking glass for examining the visitor.

Karomat was born with deformities to both hands, and her right lower leg was missing. She is receiving surgical treatment at St. Willibrord hospital in the city of Emmerich to allow better use of her hands. (The Peace Village has roughly 400 beds available to it at hospitals across Germany, most of them nearby.) In Germany since August 2012, Karomat also has a new prosthesis on her leg. When she arrived, she wore one made of plaster that was very heavy. “We were surprised how she was able to walk, since the prosthesis was heavy for an adult to lift,” says Anna Duleczus of the Peace Village.

Karomat’s bright eyes and the optimism she and the others exude–despite their situation– make it hard for all the staff to stay detached, including the surgeons who operate at hospitals kilometers away from the village. Some doctors have been known to want to take the children home for the weekend, to spoil them with attention and gifts. But, Mertens says, this just makes the job of repatriation harder. The Peace Village intentionally keeps the children from seeing too much of the material wealth of German society. Toys at the village are simple–a ball or a doll, a deck of playing cards or a sack of marbles.

“We want to keep the children homesick to a certain degree,” Mertens says. “Children start to get ideas if they begin to compare their home to that of the surgeon who has a pool in the back yard.”

One volunteer, an Italian woman named Manuela Rossi, says that working with Peace Village children definitely makes her thankful for the comfortable life she lives and the good health of her own children, who are 10 and 11.

“I always call it my therapy. I love to come here and be with the kids and to play with them. When I go home, I feel really enthusiastic. You realize what’s important in life,” she says.

Rossi’s job at the Peace Village focuses on bringing schools and other groups to the village to learn about the work and help. She says, “I have another concept of education now. When you come here, you learn from these kids. You’re thankful that you’re alive and live in a country without war.”

A Protected Environment

Though school classes and groups from churches and charities visit regularly, the Peace Village is extremely careful about allowing television teams and reporters access to the children. Over and over again, the media seems to want to put the children’s pain on parade. Mertens says, “If I had children from Syria, now that there’s a war there, I could have a TV team here every day.”

Mertens adds, “A German TV show once called me about bringing children to their studio, but they wanted to have really sick children, those that were constantly crying or those who were desperately ill. The children here aren’t suffering. They live and laugh and have fun. They squabble. They need to squabble.”

Individual TV celebrities have a different approach sometimes. Several have adopted the Peace Village project and become “ambassadors” for it, including German actor Günter Lamprecht, who lived through World War II.

Another is the Japanese TV personality Chizuru Azuma, who has written two books about her experiences at the Peace Village. Her work to make the Peace Village known in Japan and to collect donations has paid off: Young Japanese must first go on a waiting list before getting the chance to volunteer for a year at the Peace Village in Germany.

For Mertens, it’s easy to see why Japanese volunteers are eagerly lining up: “We make the world a better place. I’m convinced of this.”