Poverty, starvation and illiteracy are just a few of the tragic problems facing children and families in Sudan and South Sudan, where violence continues to rage following South Sudan's independence in 2011.
While these issues are monumental in scope and seemingly unsolvable, that hasn't stopped Kimberly Smith and her husband, Dr. Milton Smith, from risking their lives and safety to help feed, clothe, educate and house 1,500 young people trapped in the ongoing chaos. In fact, Kimberly has even been raped in the process of dedicating her life to the the children.
Through their nonprofit organization Make Way Partners, the Christian couple has focused intently on Sudan, where they operate three orphanages in an effort to bring education and the opportunity to kids who would otherwise be homeless and left with few prospects.
Their work also protects these orphan children from the dark world of human trafficking.
A Horrific Attack Hasn't Stopped Her
The road hasn't been an easy one for the Smiths, though, as Kimberly -- who frequently jumps through hoops and smuggles herself over the border in an effort to reach the orphanages she runs in Sudan -- was attacked and raped by a group of Darfuri refugees on one of her trips in the region about 10 years ago.
It was a horrific experience that she's still working through, but it hasn't dissuaded her from going back to Sudan and South Sudan again and again — all in an effort to help the poor, lost and downtrodden.
Now, Smith is using her tragic story to help other women who have experienced similar horrors.
"I have not overcome it. I still move through it. And I think my entire life, it’s a part of my story now, it’s a part of me,” she told TheBlaze in an interview. “It’s always a piece of me now, and so how do I learn to live with that? And how I am learning to live with that is to be willing to just continue in that sorrow, and see what God want to do with it.”
At first, Smith said that she lived in denial until she was able to process what unfolded. Eventually, though, she began working through her emotions surrounding the life-changing event.
One of the ministry complications Smith has is that her husband, Milton, is an insulin-dependent diabetic who is unable to accompany her into Sudan. While he struggles with her going into the danger zone without him, she said he blesses the decision, as they both feel called to help the orphans there.
“He does a lot of discipleship with our indigenous leaders. So it is a huge sacrifice for him but he sees the difference in his calling versus my calling, and he blesses my calling,” Smith said. “Doesn’t mean he’s okay with it, and he is on his knees a lot having to continue to surrender each and every time I go back.”
How Smith's Work Has Paid Off Despite the Struggles
Despite their struggles and the immense pain they've experienced, Smith said their hard work has paid off.
“Fast forward 10 years, and now we have three orphanages, one in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, one there on the border of Darfur, and one in Southern Sudan down near the border of Uganda,” Smith said, adding that her ministry has also launched the region’s first high school.
Rather than a seamless process where she has felt as though God has given her a nearly wrapped game plan, Smith said that launching and running Make Way Partners has been a long and grueling process, logistically speaking.
Take, for instance, the barriers she faced in both organizing the building the orphanages.
“All of the building supplies had to be brought … we had to bring it 2,000 miles away from Nairobi, Kenya, with no roads and no bridges, hostile terrain the whole way,” she said. “Everybody said, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it Kimberly, if you do it will kill your ministry.”
But she recalled her husband saying that they didn’t need to be afraid and that they simply needed to be faithful, so they forged on.
She also explained how hard it is to get into Sudan, noting that no commercial airlines fly in and that she cannot get a Visa to the country.
"They won’t legally let me in, so I have to smuggle myself across the border from the south into the north,” Smith told TheBlaze, noting that she will often drive into Sudan after reaching a refugee camp in South Sudan.
There's also the impending threat that their hard work and dedication will be destroyed by bombs as ongoing violence rages in the region.
“We’re not naïve to think that God has promised that all of this won’t be blown up,” she said. “It might, but I think that what gives us the courage, the faith to move forward in these difficult times is because we know that’s not where our promise is, that’s not what our hope is.”
How Smith's Battle Against Human Trafficking Began
Smith said that the journey into Sudan began when she and her husband served as missionaries in the Iberian Peninsula more than 10 years ago, where they noticed that a local Portuguese brothel was filled with African immigrant children.
“The youngest was six, the oldest was about 16, and the thing that was the most shocking to me is it was almost half and half boys and girls,” she said. “It wasn’t all just little girls.”
Smith said that it was a 6-year-old boy who initially told her in 2003 about the horrific things that were happening to him and the other children — a revelation that launched Smith and her husband into combating human trafficking head-on.
“We had one little boy that we were able to get medical documentation on the one that came and showed me what was happening ... — it was obvious he was being sodomized, he was very physically traumatized, cut, torn, and bloody, and so it was a clear case with him,” Smith explained.
She said that the little boy was taken to a hospital where a medical record was taken, but that the brothel’s owners were tipped off, leading to a long and painful legal battle.
Forced to take legal avenues to try and gain access to other children being abused in the brothel, Smith said that she and her husband had to send their own children back to Alabama to stay with friends and family following threats from the brothel owner that he would take her daughters.
This was all unchartered territory for Smith, who said she didn’t know much about human trafficking at the time. It took two years to shut down the brothel, as Smith and her husband sat on police and courthouse steps until authorities — whom she said were complicit in the problem — listened to their pleas.
“We spent days just trying to get someone that would even open their door and listen to what was happening,” she said. “But we’d already had this one child taken away and so they knew they were about to be exposed and they just clamped down and refused to see us.”
But rather than back down, Smith said she called the International Justice Mission, a human rights group that helped guide her and her husband through the process.
“They said this is the one time that you do want to be the ugly American, no matter what you don’t leave, you refuse to look away because it will only be from external pressure that, and exposure, that this will begin to change,” she recalled the organization telling her.” And they were right, but … the [brothel owner] threatened to kill us. It was a very just horrifying time.”
Afterward, she said that she and her husband felt a “deep…call to go where these children and women were being taken from and try to work to stop it from happening at the root cause.”
A Bittersweet Victory
In the end, Smith said the victory was “bittersweet.” While she and her husband ended up ensuring the brothel was closed, she said that none of the children were given any after-care.
“The Portuguese government just literally swept it under the rug and ended up sending them back to the shanty-towns where they had come from as illegal immigrants because they were all from Africa,” she said. “They were illegal, they had no documentation.”
Smith said that these kids might have ended up getting trapped, again, back in the same system she rescued them from.
“The government just sends them back to the shanty-town, where they had come from — been taken from to begin with — which means they were going to just be recycled through the whole process,” she said, with a look of sadness.
Smith said that she and her husband began to look at ways that they could curb the problem at its source.
They began studying the problem and quickly realized that some of the worst places where human trafficking unfolds are locations where there’s been active war or weak governance.
Soon, they found themselves in Moldova and Romania working with children there, but a ministry peer kept saying that if they really wanted to help the children in the direst situations that they would go to Sudan — something Smith said she initially pushed off.
“I was scared to death, I had never been in a war zone before. I hadn’t been one of those kids that thought, ‘Oh when I grow up I’m going to be a missionary in Africa,’” Smith told TheBlaze. “None of that was on my radar screen and so it was, it was a lot of time on my knees and with my friend encouraging me from Voice of the Martyrs to go before I finally agreed to go.”
Considering her husband’s condition, Smith went to Sudan alone to scope out the situation and what she observed there she summarized in one pointed word: “devastation.”
“Miles and miles and miles and miles of nothing except trees blown up where bombs had been dropped … villages burned to the ground,” she said. “Babies emaciated, can barely stand up, walking around naked, or I’ll be walking through a field and pick up a one shoe, you know, one little, like a sandal flip-flop sort of thing from a child and right next to shells, bomb shells, bullet shells, bullet casings and bones.”
Despite her deep desire to help the afflicted and the horrific sights she was observing, Smith admitted that she was so afraid that she found herself counting the days until she could leave.
“Honestly what I was doing is pulling out my calendar every day, checking that day off and saying thank God, I only now have ten more days, or thank God I only have nine more days, and then I can go back, and I will have done what I need to do,” she said. “And at time I even thought, ‘You know, I’ll write a book about it. I’ll inform people and then I’ll be off the hook.”
How She Ended Up in Sudan
But Smith said that God had very different plans for her. She met a Sudanese man named James Lual Atak at one of her last stops on the border of Darfur. Himself a former lost boy, he abandoned an opportunity to move to the U.S. so that he could stay behind and help orphans in need.
Having no resources, he worked with what he had in an attempt to educate young people and to assist them in learning valuable educational and life skills.
“He had no money, he had no resources, and when I found him all he had were three chalk boards … propped up on, against mahogany trees out in the Sahara desert,” Smith said.
Dr. Milton and Kimberly Smith (Make Way Partners)
At the time she remembered thinking, “What is he doing?” as she saw him bouncing around from group to group, reciting numbers and the ABCs in an effort to educate children whom she said were clearly suffering from malnutrition and starvation.
After staying with him for a few weeks, Smith decided to leave him $5,000 in an effort to help him get food and resources for the children. When she left, she said she felt as though her work was done — but she was wrong.
Despite having no running water or electricity, he had a satellite phone and, once Smith was home, he began calling her with positive updates about the children and about the suggestions Smith had given him that he was subsequently implementing.
Though she was skeptical, Smith decided to return one more time a few months later — and she was stunned by what she observed. The kids were eating and looking healthier and he had made additional progress in noteworthy areas.
It was at that moment that she realized she’d be much more involved in Sudan than she ever thought, partnering with the man to launch her first indigenous orphanage site. The number of children there has grown from just over 50 at that time to well over 700.
Initially, Smith planned to simply offer food and education programs, but after hundreds of children died as the result of not having viable living quarters, she launched full-scale orphanages — operations that continue to sustain lives.
While her reasons for going back and continuing her work are admittedly “complicated,” Smith said that she feels “called and compelled” by God.
She said that she hopes her story helps others recognize that, though there is immense darkness that there’s a great deal people can do to make positive change.
“You can support a child in a war zone that is raising up a generation of peace makers, not just foreign peacekeepers, but indigenous leaders that will change that nation one day,” she said.
Find out more about Make Way Partners here.