BY DAN MCNEE
LISTOWEL – “We can’t all go over there to help…but we can do something.”
Tracey Coghlin’s message rang loud and clear to Listowel Central School students, teachers and guests on Jan. 28, as the Listowel native and Ontario Provincial Police sergeant shared her humanitarian experiences in South Sudan three years ago. An OPP violent crimes investigator, Coghlin traveled to Africa in January 2011 on a United Nations peacekeeping/advisory mission, but wound up going down a very different path – one that would forever change her perception of the world.
“In 2010, I decided that I needed a change in my life,” Coghlin told Tyler Schaefer’s captivated Grade 7/8 class last Wednesday.
The change she sought could be considered by most to be one of the most drastic available, as Coghlin left the comfort of her OPP posting in Orillia for the relatively cramped squalor of Juba, South Sudan’s current capital city of approximately 372,000 situated on the White Nile River. Her UN placement was molded to her expertise in domestic and family violence, but upon arriving in Africa Coghlin found herself assigned to jail inspection duty. One of the most shocking things she found – other than the condition of the actual jails themselves – was that imprisoned mothers in South Sudan were required to take their children with them during incarceration.
“It wasn’t what I expected and it was pretty traumatic,” said Coghlin. “There are no laws there – the police can arrest you for anything at anytime.”
The OPP officer was in country when South Sudan declared its independence in July of 2011. Working with people from 50 different nationalities under the UN banner, Coghlin’s duties also entailed her to train Sudanese police officers.
“That was the best part of the experience – working and learning with so many other people,” she said.
But Coghlin would soon be drawn to another cause and her ultimate calling in Africa – working with the Confident Children out of Conflict (CCC) girls’ orphanage in Juba.
She became so involved with the orphanage that she began spending most of her time outside of her regular working hours at the CCC, often violating the strict UN curfew in effect.
“Next thing you know my whole life was immersed in that,” said Coghlin.
Coghlin helped with the building of dormitories for the girls at the orphanage, who were often street kids abandoned by their families at a very young age or victims of sexual abuse or gender-based violence. Coghlin’s knowledge and sensitivity to those issues because of her past career experience quickly endeared the girls to her, and she to them.
After unveiling one of the new dormitories to the orphans, the bunk-bed equipped rooms had the girls initially interested but perplexed, thinking the barred beds were some sort of jungle gym. They quickly adapted to what can only be described as a luxury in the South Sudan, where sleeping on a dirt floor was the only thing these orphans knew prior to their much-improved lives at the CCC.
“Life is easy over there,” said Coghlin. “The thing I love about [South Sudan] is that you don’t have to worry about anything (trivial). It’s all just about survival.”
After her year in Juba was up, Coghlin admits that she had a hard time re-adapting to Canadian life. Things that once seemed important became petty compared to what the Sudanese faced daily.
“It really changes your perspective on a lot of things,” she said.
Coghlin is planning a month-long return trip back to Africa later this year if everything works out the way she hopes. She has already returned to Juba twice since her yearlong stint in 2011 to bring supplies and money to the CCC.
After her career with the OPP comes to an end, Coghlin also plans to retire to the South Sudan so that she can work daily with the Sudanese people and orphans that have completely changed her way of thinking and the way she looks at life.
“You live each day in the moment,” said Coghlin.
For more information on the Confident Children out of Conflict orphanage or how you can get involved with the project, visit www.confidentchildren.org.