Bush pilot’s wife Anna Youren is the only British mum bringing up three children in Juba, South Sudan’s war-torn capital city.
Dorset-born midwife Anna Youren knows the joys and challenges of bringing up three children under six. But she is doing it in Juba, the troubled capital of South Sudan. And hers are the only British children in the city.
Although the situation in Juba has been relatively stable for the past year, South Sudan remains far from peaceful. Civil war has ravaged the country since 2013, claiming the lives of over 400,000 and displacing more than 4 million. It has been described by the UN as one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. And now Ebola is edging ever closer in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Because so many South Sudanese families have fled, surprisingly few children are seen in and around the city. Most have relocated to vast refugee settlements in neighbouring Uganda and Kenya. NGO staff living in Juba are often single and live in the city short-term to deliver aid to field projects. The few who have families have left children in Western homes. All except seven families working for Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), the world’s largest humanitarian airline. Theirs are the only Western children in the city, living on a newly built compound for MAF families.
Anna and her husband Alistair moved to Juba in 2018 when their youngest daughter was just a few months old. Alistair is a bush pilot and flies aid, humanitarian staff and lifesaving cargo to some of the remotest parts of the country. Anna is full-time mum to Nathanael (6), Talitha (3) and Faith (17 months), offering health and midwifery assistance where she can for local projects. It’s a dream she’s always had to serve Africa’s overwhelming needs.
The Youren family live on a secure compound to the west of the city, but wake up every morning to the sight of huts housing refugees the other side of their wall. They share a precious water supply from a borehole with these families, who have settled close to the safety of Juba’s UN Camp, which is just down the road. MAF’s decision to allow families to live in Juba is part of a long-commitment to bring support and rehabilitation to the South Sudanese people – a country MAF has flown in for the last 70 years. The new compound housing the Youren’s and other MAF families speaks of this long-term investment.
Visiting a supermarket with three blonde, white children would turn heads in many African supermarkets. But in Juba, they attract a small crowd.
Anna recalls: ‘The first time we went food shopping, we were surrounded. People were taking pictures and asking to touch their hair. I had to explain to the kids there was no reason to freak out – locals were just so excited to see us. Some people from the NGO community raise their eyebrows that we brought our family here. But we are so sure this is where we are meant to be.’
Shopping includes items to make their own pizzas – often a real challenge with so few ingredients. Maintaining a pizza and film night is one of a few traditions from UK life the Yourens are determined to keep alive. This weekend treat relies on someone remembering to start downloading the film 24 hours beforehand.
The school run is an eight-mile round trip but can take Anna well over an hour. Traffic, potholes, torrential rain and police stop her every few minutes. She says: ‘Armed police looked intimidating at first. But now they stop me every day just to say hello to the children. They’ve got to know us – they love to see their blonde hair and fair skin. They’re quite friendly really, but I always say a quick prayer when they pull me over.
Anna laughs: ‘Schools don’t do late tickets here – we’ve learned to understand African time! It’s hard letting go of an ingrained British culture of tight schedules. Instead, we plan ahead and I pack my bag with games, water and snacks for the kids in case of long delays. Sometimes we can be stranded for hours because of the roads. They’re terrible, especially in the rainy season. That’s why so many people want to fly with MAF as it can take days to get anywhere by land. When we visit Kenya I have to stack up on nappies – they cost $20 for a small packet – you’ve always got to think ahead.’
The Youren family are helping a local project to build a school kitchen, so some of the local children can eat a hot lunch during the day. Anna explains: ‘When we first went to visit the school, I had to warn my kids that local children would want to touch their hair and skin because it feels different to theirs. But it’s their way of being friendly. The South Sudanese love kids – and sadly it’s a woman’s way of earning worth. The more children you have, the greater your value in the community. Women here can’t believe I’m choosing to stop at three!’
South Sudan has the highest infant mortality rate in the world, and with the country’s recent history of conflict, grief and suffering is a way of life in Juba. But three years have passed since the last episode of bloody violence, and the streets are beginning to throng with new live. There is a cautious optimism of lasting peace.
Anna reflects: ‘It is hard, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Of course, I miss things like meeting a friend in a nice coffee shop or treating the kids to an ice cream. But we’ve got used to making our own treats, and the children share a safe playground with the other MAF kids on our compound. They love the freedom to run and play outside.
‘The kids have amazed me with how quickly they’ve adapted. It’s inspiring really, they take it all in their stride. As long as Alistair and I are here, they feel secure. It keeps us all focussed on the bigger picture and our calling to help those who face so much suffering. It’s a privilege to be able to make a difference to the people of South Sudan.’