Saving the 'Invisible Children'
Former UCSD student forms organization to help young victims of Ugandan conflict
Ioana Patringenaru | August 17, 2009
When he was just 19 and a student at UC San Diego, Laren Poole found himself in a small town in Northern Uganda. On his first night there, hundreds of small children emerged from the countryside and flooded the city, sleeping in the streets.
Laren Poole, a former UCSD student, spent more than six years documenting the plight of young children in Northern Uganda.
Courtesy of Invisible Children
Poole learned the youths were fleeing the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, which raided villages to kidnap boys and turn them into child soldiers. Kidnapped girls became slaves. Whole families would often be killed during the night-time raids.
Poole had come to Africa with two friends in the spring of 2003 to make a movie. They were looking for a story. That night, they knew they had found it.
“I thought: this can’t be happening,” Poole said. “I thought: this can’t go on anymore.”
Poole and his friends, Jason Russell and Bobby Bailey, spent the next two months documenting the conflict and the children’s lives. They found out one in three children in the region had been abducted and trained to become child soldiers.
The three students ran out of money and borrowed from their parents. When they got back to the United States, they used their footage to create a documentary titled “Invisible Children.” Poole, now 26, is the cofounder of a nonprofit organization named after the movie, which has recently grabbed the national spotlight with nationwide events featuring celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey.
“This is our moon shoot,” Poole said. “We’re going to end Africa’s longest-running war.”
Poole and Bobby Bailey are two of the cofounders of Invisible Children, an organization dedicated to helping children and refugees in Northern Uganda.
Courtesy of Invisible Children
He said his time at UCSD, and especially his experience at Thurgood Marshall College, helped ignite his interest in social justice. He decided to go to Africa because he felt the United States’ image abroad was being tarnished.
Once back in the United States, Poole, Russell and Bailey screened their documentary throughout the country. The response was overwhelming. So they created Invisible Children Inc., to help those whose suffering they had documented. The nonprofit puts to work refugees living in camps. It sends more than 700 Ugandan students to high school and 100 women to college. The organization is currently working on setting up a co-op, which will allow farmers to grow and sell organic cotton. Efforts are financed through donations to Invisible Children, scholarships and purchases of bracelets, T-shirts and other items.
Poole said he hopes the children of Uganda will finally be able to sleep safely with their families in their native villages rather than flee to the city. He also said he hopes children who were abducted and turned into child soldiers will be able to come home.
Invisible Children recently staged a day of action in Washington, D.C.
The war between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by warlord Joseph Kony, has been raging for two decades. More than half of the rebel fighters are believed to be children abducted from their homes. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and close to two million have been displaced by the conflict, according to Reuters. About five years ago, the Ugandan army drove the rebels out of the country. But Kony has repeatedly refused to surrender.
Poole has been following the conflict for more than six years now and his organization’s goal is to end the war and return the child soldiers to their families. Invisible Children recently staged several nationwide events to publicize the children’s plight.
In April, tens of thousands of residents in 100 cities around the world spent the night outside, mimicking the plight of Ugandan children. They then were symbolically rescued by a politician or celebrity in each city. The final city to be rescued was Chicago, where Poole and fellow Invisible Children cofounders made an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Sunee Washom, the daughter of UCSD staff member Byron Washom, poses with Poole.
The organization also turned to the U.S. Congress to put an end to the conflict. Activists enlisted the help of Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisc., and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, who co-authored a bill requiring the Obama administration to come up with a way to stop the fighting in Northern Uganda. The legislation gives the administration 180 days to craft a plan for peace, Poole said. The bill also calls for a comprehensive plan to redevelop the country.
But with the economic crisis, the war in Iraq and health care reform, Invisible Children founders were concerned that the bill would not get the attention it needs to pass. So in late June, they mobilized 2,000 supporters from all over the country, who converged on the nation’s capital. During a whirlwind two days at the Capitol, they took part in more than 500 meetings with elected representatives and their staff.
By the end of the event, 53 representatives and 23 senators had signed on as supporters of the bill. The legislation needs 200 signatures in the House of Representatives to pass and Poole said his organization aims to reach that goal by Christmas.
One of Invisible Children’s supporters who made the trek to Washington is Sunee Washom, 16, the daughter of Byron Washom, director of strategic energy initiatives at UCSD. “It was a very empowering event,” Sunee said.
She saw Poole’s documentary with her youth group and helped organize a screening at her high school. “It is just crazy to think that kids younger than me even are forced into this lifestyle,” she said. When she heard about the two-day lobbying effort in Washington, she jumped at the opportunity.
More than 2,000 supporters of Invisible Children turned out in Washington D.C. to lobby for peace in Uganda.
“We understand that a million things are going on right now,” she said. “But in the past two weeks, 135 children have been abducted, and no one has said anything. That’s just crazy.”
Sunee’s father said he was impressed with supporters’ ability to grasp all the details of a complex issue. He also said he was amazed at their ability to act as a cohesive group once they got to Washington. This was the biggest lobbying effort staged around an African policy issue, he said.
“The passion that these young Americans have about a problem half a world away is stunning,” Washom said.
Poole said he hopes Invisible Children will inspire young people to take action and make a difference. After all, he was just 19 when he stumbled into the middle of Africa’s longest-running conflict.
“I’m a story-teller,” he said. ”Sleeping in jungles and talking to senators is in my blood.”