Photo by Hannah Smith

I lay on a foam mattress, draped by a thin blanket and a mosquito net, wondering if I should move my bed away from the window. Gunshots and screams continued long into the night as anger and guilt overwhelmed me. The injustice and unfairness was blatant: this reality was escapable for me but inescapable for others. Traumatic memories were being burned into the minds of the innocent, and all I could do was lie in my bed and hear their cries.

I went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in June of this year, and it changed everything for me.

War was something that always interested me. I remember watching a clip about the crises in Darfur when I was 10 years old and telling everyone I knew that I wanted to help kids in war zones. Growing up, I often read books about war survivors or child soldiers and followed various conflicts in the news. But going to a country that has experienced over two decades of internal conflict did something drastic within me. Out of my experience grew the type of conviction that gave me no opportunity for silence. I was finally looking into the eyes of the people I had, for so long, only read about. And I could not turn away.

Waking to the sounds of a violent bandit attack revealed the effects that continual violence has on a society, specifically the proliferation of theft, poverty, and rape. The wounds and trauma caused by conflict run deeper than I had imagined. Many live in constant fear for the safety of their family, and many face the horror and grief of seeing their greatest fears realized. Millions of people face this reality, people with stories far more compelling than any statistic, and I had the privilege of meeting a few of them.

I met a woman who witnessed the brutal murder of her husband, a four-year-old girl whose parents were killed outside her home in an effort to protect her, a man who narrowly escaped a beheading, and many more. The stories of raids and massacres still replay in my mind.

When I returned to New York City, I didn’t know how to process these stories and often found myself getting angry with those caught up in meaningless obsessions. Hundreds were being brutally hacked to death everyday and no one here cared—or was it that no one really knew?

I then began organizing a project called Faces of Courage, a one-night fundraising event featuring the photographs and stories of the war survivors whom I met in Congo. The exhibition is aimed to facilitate a discussion on the effects of war and our responsibility to prevent or stop it. My hope is that those who attend will be as impacted as I was and equipped to help create sustainable peace in Congo and around the world.

Don’t miss the chance to support this mission. You’re invited to the FACES OF COURAGE Exhibition in NYC on 11/12. Learn more.

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