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Pushing For Women’s Health in South Sudan

By Maggie Cassidy

In the next installment of the Roaring 20s series in the Sunday Valley News, you’ll read about 22-year-old Geneva Jonathan, a researcher at Geisel School of Medicine’s Center for Technology and Behavioral Health in Lebanon who is helping to test the effectiveness of smartphone apps to treat mental illness.

In between graduating from Wesleyan University in May and moving to the Upper Valley for the research job in July, Jonathan spent about six weeks in South Sudan this summer, laying the foundations for a women’s health clinic near the village where her father grew up. The country is in turmoil as the result of an ongoing civil war.

Jonathan was in South Sudan working on the project with her sister, who was an Arabic student at Wesleyan, two University of Vermont students with women’s sexual health experience, and her father, who teaches Arabic at UVM. They were joined by her mother, a pastor whose church in East Longmeadow, Mass., donated $1,000 to the project, and her brother, who came to see family.

Weeks after the group returned to the United States, though, the government burned the village “to the ground,” Jonathan says. She and her sister have since used a GoFundMe page to raise nearly $3,000 to help the village rebuild, with hopes of raising at least $4,000 total. She says the money will be distributed to the United Moru Community Associationwhich has an office in Kansas City.

The trip wasn’t Jonathan’s first to South Sudan, but it was her first attempt to visit her father’s home village.

“We didn’t even actually get to go there because they were raping women and children on the road, which is almost 72 miles from the capital city (of Juba),” Jonathan says. “It takes nine hours and you have to be in a Land Rover, as well as cross a river.”

Americans in the country face another set of dangers, Jonathan says.

“When they know Americans are in one place, they know, OK, there’s money there,” she says. “And you’re not necessarily sleeping behind a locked door. It’s not necessarily safe to be in one place for a really long time as an American in South Sudan right now.”

Jonathan, whose mother is white, says she was “constantly told that I wasn’t Southern Sudanese, and even when my dad would say, ‘These are my daughters,’ people would be like (laughing),” she says. “And then when they’d see my mom, they’d be like, OK, I get it. It’s tough because people just don’t believe that I’m Southern Sudanese.”

The current dangers mean Jonathan can’t make another attempt to visit her father’s home village anytime soon. But for the long term, she’s confident about her return.

“I will be back,” she says.