Sunday, March 8, 2009

Human Matters - Redemption for Children of War

This hard-hitting feature was published in BM Business Matters magazine in December 2007 and XL Extraordinary Lives, an international magazine for entrepreneurs, in 2008.



The blue-eyed blonde Aussie had an anxious wife and baby son back home and questioned his recklessness in venturing into a war zone. Dr Robi recalls his terror, “The first time I flew into northern Uganda, hostilities were quite fierce. I arrived on this tiny airstrip in the middle of nowhere and collected my bags from underneath the plane and all of a sudden there was gunfire overhead. My mind was racing with panic. I was thinking: Where am I? What on earth am I doing here? But over the next few days as I sat down and talked to the children it became obvious why I was there. There was work to be done.

“My first interview was with a 14 year old girl who came home from school one day and was working in the cornfield with her dad and brother and the three of them were abducted by rebel soldiers and marched for days to a camp where her father and brother were killed and she was given to a soldier as his sex slave. She was beaten and raped every day for three years since she was 11.

“I was horrified and numb with disbelief. And then I became outraged and furious that the world was ignoring this tragedy. The United Nations describes it as the worst unattended emergency in the most dangerous place in the world for children to live.”
A civil war has been raging in northern Uganda for 20 years. It is the most sinister of wars because it targets children. Gangs of rebel soldiers, known as the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by notorious witch doctor Joseph Kony, abduct children from their villages. Boys are recruited as child soldiers and forced to kill, mutilate, rape and commit unimaginable atrocities while girls are used as sex slaves, subjected to horrendous abuse and violation. Thousands of children who have miraculously escaped from the rebels are now living in refugee camps and are deeply traumatised.

Dr Robi, now 34, first became aware of the desperate plight of these children from an Oprah show but rather than shake his head in dismay, he heard a call to action. This was his area of expertise. He set off from his thriving clinic based on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland on that first fact-finding trip early 2004.

Shocking stories
On arrival he was mobbed by locals crying out for help. He recalls, “It was so confronting. Unfortunately I was seen as a kind of saviour. As soon as they heard there was a child trauma specialist in the camp, people came running with their stories. The shocking stories were endless. The children of northern Uganda have experienced horrors that even Hollywood is yet to think up. The human mind hasn’t prepared itself for this level of evil, cruelty and depravity. It is beyond our wildest imaginations.”

"For boys, the first thing they are required to do after being abducted is to kill straight away, he explains. The rebels will take the child back to his village and have him kill his parents, younger siblings and relatives so they will never be able to return there.”

It is common for girls to be abducted, taken to rebel camps and allocated to soldiers and raped continually for years, resulting in pregnancies and babies. Many girls have escaped with two or three babies in tow and are raising these infants in desperate conditions in refugee camps.

Dr Robi wrestles with anguish. “It’s hard to know how much graphic detail to report. Caring people need to know what these children have suffered. These stories roll around in my mind like hot lumps of coal and when I dredge them up and light the fire the after-effects burn.”

A shared commitment
His psychologist wife, Noleen shares his abhorrence and commitment to the traumatised children. With three young children, she is restricted in how much she can travel to Uganda after a heart-wrenching trip in December last year, but she is fiercely supportive of her husband’s work.

“I don’t deal with the atrocities very well, admits Noleen. I’m emotional and I get overwhelmed. Robi is a visionary. He sees the big picture and when he sets his mind to something nothing stands in the way. He’s very practical and gets on with the job. But he’s also compassionate and tender in dealing with people on a personal level. I admire him so much.”

Over the past four years, Dr Robi has trained Children of War aid workers in evidence-based trauma rehabilitation. He has developed a program called Empower and taken it to nearly two million refugees languishing in 120 camps dotted along the border of southern Sudan.

The program has been translated into the local Acholi dialect and teaches young refugees about post-traumatic symptoms such as flashbacks and nightmares, how to deal with the terrible memories and emotional torment of terror, shame and guilt, remorse and grief, rage and bitterness and gives them hope for the future.

“Empower has been more successful than I could have ever anticipated,” says Dr Robi. “These resilient children have been longing for recovery but just lacked the knowledge of how to go about it. One 16-year-old boy told me ‘We have been waiting for a time such as this where we can learn how to heal’.”

As young people graduate from the 13-session program, they become ‘wounded healers’ and facilitate groups of other trauma victims, ensuring a multiplier effect. Recovery groups are now underway daily, sweeping the camps with a spirit of optimism. Testimonies of forgiveness and redemption abound.

In 2006, 100,000 Empower manuals were printed. Dr Robi and his growing band of supporters have an ambitious goal: to rehabilitate one million young refugees in the next two years. And there is a sense of urgency. A tentative cease-fire means the refugees might soon leave the camps.

“Once these people scatter throughout the vast rural plains of Uganda, we will have little hope of reaching them. While they are gathered in camps we can provide rehabilitation and prevent the mentally scarred children from perpetrating retribution. We are aiming to break the cycle of violence for the next generation. We must reach as many young people as possible.”

How it all began
It is a daunting challenge but clearly this exuberant dynamo thrives on challenges. He grew up on the snowfields around Canberra and was taught to ski by his Swiss-born father from the age of two. By 11, he joined the ACT Junior Racing Squad and was one of the first youngsters to master the snowboard and as a teenager raced the Australasian circuit.

Driven by a desire for adventure, he took off overseas at 17 and in 1993, at 20, was an ace snowboard instructor to the rich and famous on the slopes of Switzerland. The golden boy was set for a glamorous career as an elite athlete in the Winter Olympics however another desire was also stirring. He wanted an education and to make a genuine contribution.

He returned to Australia to study at Bond University on the Gold Coast and on breaks, skied in Switzerland. In 1996, he instructed Prince Charles and Prince Harry in the finer points of snowboarding at Klosters ski resort. The spectacular photos made front-page news around the world.

Dr Robi’s thirst for thrills led him to the University of Tasmania in the hope of doing postgraduate studies at Antarctica. But fate threw a curved ball. On the first day on campus, he fell in love. “I saw this young girl walking in slow motion across the courtyard with sunlight bouncing off her long curly hair and I was instantly smitten!”

Romance flourished. Noleen, an idealistic young psychology student had grown up on an exotic island near New Guinea. They hiked through the wilderness of Tasmania and their love was sparked over the glowing embers of campfires.

Noleen challenged him to make a decision. She was committed to working with AIDS orphans in a remote village in Zambia. However the sports star had the prospect of a lucrative job as snowboarding instructor to celebrities during the Winter Olympics in Japan. Would he go with her to Africa or go to Japan?

Decision Time
“I climbed a mountain and sat agonising. I was so torn. Snowboarding was my dream and yet here was the love of my life going off to Zambia offering me a chance to make a difference. It was a choice between self-glorification and serving others.”

Following graduation, the couple set off to Zambia and spent a year battling bouts of malaria and primitive conditions and empowered the villagers to break the dependency syndrome and build their own health centre.

Ironically it was here that Dr Robi rediscovered his faith. “It is the great reversal. White missionaries used to go to Africa to teach but I ended up going to Africa to be taught by indigenous tribes themselves. The villagers taught me about everyday life, family and loving your neighbour. They have a natural, earthy, genuine, unspoilt form of Christianity.”

On the last day in Zambia, he took his sweetheart on a picnic on the edge of a glorious wildlife wetland and proposed with an emerald stone set inside a native fruit. The year in Zambia had crystallised the couple’s commitment to each other and to the children of Africa.

They returned to the Gold Coast and were married in 1999 and Dr Robi completed his PhD at Brisbane’s Griffith University, graduating with high distinctions and was appointed National Co-ordinator of a Commonwealth project treating traumatised child refugees.

While working in New Zealand, Noleen fell pregnant with their first baby, Jhae, now four, and they moved to the Sunshine Coast to settle near family. But ‘settle’ is not the right word. They established Family Challenge, a child and adolescent mental health clinic, which has expanded to 14 staff, with profits directed to humanitarian projects.

In 2005 Dr Robi launched The Frontline to motivate adults and youth to use their creativity to help the traumatised children of war. “Lots of people approached me saying ‘I’d love to get involved but what could I possibly do?’ And I’m thinking there is so much you can do! You’ve got resources and skills and so much to contribute, but you just don’t know how. The Frontline is a movement to answer that question. It encourages people to make a difference in their own right.”

The result has been phenomenal. The Sunshine Coast community, churches and businesses have rallied behind the cause. Last year’s Sole Savers shoe drive saw 10,000 pairs of shoes donated, which will be presented to graduates of the Empower program so they can “walk tall” into their new lives. In other initiatives, school students have made films and recorded songs and the media has thrown its weight behind the cause.

The website deliberately uses military language. Dr Robi believes, “This is a good fight. We are engaged in a fight, not against the rebels, but against our own apathy and indifference. We aim to ignite passion in the hearts of people to help these kids. That passion becomes contagious and enhances your own life. When you become enthusiastic about contributing to something greater than yourself there is no faster way to build self-esteem.”

The Empower program is set to go worldwide to reach child victims of war, trauma and abuse everywhere. With his irrepressible positive attitude, he declares: “This message of hope has such great transferability to trouble spots around the world. It teaches young people how to put their lives back together, push through the pain of the past and look forward to a successful future.”

Resourcing parents everywhere
Dr Robi has given more than 250 lectures to packed audiences across Australia and has just released a series of CDs aimed at strengthening families: 93% Stress Free Parenting aims to reduce stress and increase fun in families; Dads & Lads encourages fathers to be more involved and Childhood Emotional Resilience addresses childhood anxiety. These innovative resources can be purchased from the Family Challenge website with proceeds going to Empower.

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Images by award-winning photographer Kevin Evans. Visit

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