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GENEVA, September 30 (UNHCR) - Tonight in Geneva, the UN refugee agency and many high-profile government and UN leaders will honour a humble and courageous Congolese woman who has spent years helping less fortunate women recover from abuse and suffering in a violent corner of Africa.
At a special gala ceremony, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres will present the annual Nansen Refugee Award to Angélique Namaika, a 46-year-old Roman Catholic nun who has helped hundreds of women - as well as a few boys - in north-east Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) Orientale province.
Most of those she has helped are young women and girls who were forcibly displaced and abused by armed groups, largely the brutal Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, a Ugandan rebel group that moved into north-east DRC in 2005.
Many of the LRA's female victims were beaten, raped and forced to become sex slaves. Over the past decade, in and around the Orientale town of Dungu, Sister Angélique has helped some 2,000 of them to overcome their trauma, counter the stigma attached to rape and rebuild their lives with newly learned trades.
It is for this work, that she is recognized with one of the world's top humanitarian prizes and feted by people around the world, including Pope Francis I, who will receive her in Rome on Wednesday.
But, Sister Angélique explains, the long journey that has brought her to Geneva almost ended during her childhood in the village of Kembisa in Orientale province. "I was sick when I was a child and I suffered a lot. I lost a lot of weight and there was not much hope that I would survive," she recalls. The young Angélique recovered and the ordeal brought her closer to her parents - the experience perhaps explains in part her strong faith and her empathy for others who have suffered.
After coming through this testing time, she had a happy childhood and made good friends, but she also learned painful lessons about human nature. "I did not like conflict. I always ran away when there were battles," she stresses.
In 1990, she started her training to become a Roman Catholic nun. "It was not a simple thing to choose to become a nun," she says, revealing that she was inspired by a German nun, Sister Tone, who used to come to her village to treat the sick.
"She had hardly any time to rest, to eat. That's why I said that I would do everything to become like her and help her in this work . . . I did not even know if there were black nuns. I only saw a white nun and said that I would like to become like her."
Like Sister Tone, when Angélique became a nun she decided to dedicate her life to helping the most vulnerable, particularly the young. And she soon began using a bicycle to help her reach those in need. Today, in Dungu, she and her bike have become a regular and comforting sight.
In 2003, after studying African spirituality in the DRC capital, Kinshasa, Sister Angélique was sent by the church to teach trainee nuns in Dungu, a small, dusty outpost in the far north-east of Orientale province that had seen better days. It was a move that was to change her life and those of hundreds of locals.
"I saw a group of women getting together but they had no one to guide them, to train them. These women did not have the chance to go to school, but they were willing to work and be helpful to society. I started teaching sewing, cooking and literacy classes," she explains, adding that she also set up the Centre for Reintegration and Development for this valuable work, hiring women and men.
At first, the women she helped were deprived locals, including orphans, young mothers and girls forced into early marriages, but after the Lord's Resistance Army arrived in the area in 2005, later sowing terror and causing population displacement, she had a whole new group of abused women to help.
"I identified them when they were coming out of the bush after being abducted by the LRA, and directed them to structures giving emergency assistance. We then involved them in the activities of the centre," she says, adding that she also started visiting women in their displacement camps or villages.
"I saw that displaced women had many difficulties; they lived through atrocities and had enormous trauma. It was important to help them. I realized that learning to write and training will help them forget the trauma, the LRA, and what they had to go through. This is what pushed me to help these women and help them become independent," she says, adding that self-sufficiency was vital for them.
The LRA threat peaked in 2009, when the group came briefly to Dungu, guns blazing. "I said that I cannot stay. I am afraid of war, I am scared of guns . . . That's why I also fled," says Sister Angélique, noting that she was at morning mass with "bullets fizzing around us." She left with other nuns.
"We did not know where to go. We followed the others who were fleeing. We rested a bit on the way because we were so tired, children were crying, others were looking for their kids. We reached a place more than 20 kilometres from Dungu," she says, admitting her fear and weakness during this horrible ordeal.
But, she adds, "this experience helped me to give myself to the women. When you are displaced you have to ask for everything. Sometimes you ask, but you don't receive help. It is the same for these displaced women." It helped her identify with the women and strengthened her determination to continue on her chosen path and to show "these women that they are not alone."
And the Nansen Refugee Award has reinforced this. "This prize is a big joy for me. It means that I have people to help me," says Sister Angélique, who quickly saw how it could be a benefit. "I said: 'Yes, now I can do something.'" I am very grateful to UNHCR for their help. I also thank the women for their courage, their perseverance."
But this extraordinary woman is determined to remain ordinary. "Today, I am recognized. I ask God to keep me simple and take away the wish to be proud. I welcomed this prize with all my heart."
By Céline Schmitt and Leo Dobbs in Geneva