Today’s generation is too often pegged as being apathetic towards current events. They are much more concerned about Paris Hilton’s latest shenanigans than war and poverty. While this stereotype does have some truth to, there are many twenty-somethings who are taking the alternate route and taking a pro-active response to global issues. Two examples are Penelope Chester and Celina Guich, the founders and directors of the Niapele Project, a non-profit organization that aids refugee children in Ghana.
Chester and Guich met in the winter of 2007 when they both volunteered in Ghana’s Buduburam refugee camp. “While we were there,” Chester says, “we quickly became friends as we shared a lot of unique experiences and had a similar understanding of what was going on around us.” Even after they came home from volunteering—Chester is from Paris, and Guich is from Los Angeles—the two wanted to continue to be a part of the refugee community. “We had not planned on collaborating,” Chester says, “[but] we soon realized that our impact would be much more significant if we worked together, which is when we decided to team up and create the Niapele Project.”
According to the organization’s website, the Buduburam refugee camp was founded in 1990 to assist Liberians escaping from civil war. Today, there are more than 40,000 refugees living in the settlement, many of whom are orphaned and unaccompanied children. According to the Project, it is impossible for refugee residents to find employment in Ghana, and Ghana social services will not aid refugees. Also, there is neither running water nor a sewage system in Buduburam.
The Niapele (pronounced nee-uh-peh-lay, it means “children” in the Liberian dialect Kpele) Project was created to help the refugee children through community-based programs. “Our approach is based on the principles of sustainable development,” says Chester, “providing them with increased and improved access to health care, education, shelter, food, and a stable nurturing environment. By offering support and development services for local grassroots organizations, we ensure that communities work together to address their common problems and towards a common sustainable future.”
Thanks to a fiscal sponsor, the organization was not difficult to set up. “As time went on,” Chester says, “and the Niapele Project grew in scope and reach, the amount of work required to actually keep the organization going grew along with it. We have been lucky in that we have found some amazing people along the way to assist us in making the Niapele Project grow and improve. Without their help and support, it would certainly have been more challenging.”
The Niapele Project currently supports three programs in the Buduburam refugee community. First, there is the School Nutrition program, which feeds more than 650 elementary school children a day. The Project is also partnered with the Harmony Children’s Center, which aids physically and mentally handicapped children. Thirdly, the Niapele Project works with the Abandoned Refugee Children’s Home (ARCH), which currently houses 25 abandoned children.
All the work has not been in vain. “Our projects in the field are developing at an impressive pace,” Chester says, “and everyday, these vulnerable children have the peace of mind to know they will not go hungry, they will go to school and live in a stable nurturing environment, and that they will be showered with love and become more empowered in their lives both now and in the future.” The Niapele Project has gathered a number of different supporters, including a Los Angeles church whose youth group recently organized a thirty-hour fast to raise money for the organization. “It was a really great experience,” says Chester, “as the children were really engaged in the process. They were very curious, and asked a lot of interesting questions. The youth group took the initiative to write letters to the ARCH children, as they felt the need to communicate with them, to share and to reach out in friendship. We thought that was really touching, as it demonstrated the deep, personal involvement that these children had towards these important problems that other children in the world face everyday.”
Recently, however, the Niapele Project has faced some major challenges. The refugee camp will close by the end of the year, due to the Ghanaian government’s resentment towards the refugee community. Abandoned children are not registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), so they’ll have to be sent home with their own means. “Because of the closure of the settlement,” Chester says, “we have decided to follow our partner organizations back to Liberia in order to assist them in their reintegration efforts, and to continue working with them in developing their long term strategies for sustainability.”
There are many ways to become involved with the Niapele Project. “You can host a low-key fundraiser, for instance,” Chester says, “by having a barbeque or party at your house and charging a small fee or suggest a donation to attend. We can provide brochures and materials, as well as short movies to make the evening more interesting. We are also always looking for experts in the fields of education, nutrition, farming, physical therapy and special education to come share their knowledge and offer training to our partner organizations’ staff.
“In the coming months,” Chester concludes, “our work will be taking some exciting new turns, and we are thrilled to move forward and help rebuild Liberia through the empowerment of refugee children.”
To find out more, go to www.theniapeleproject.org.