Grace: Ex-Bellevue family in South Sudan makes wrenching decision to flee, leave 10 orphans behind - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, January 4, 2014 at 1:00 am / Updated at 12:13 pm
Grace: Ex-Bellevue family in South Sudan makes wrenching decision to flee, leave 10 orphans behind

They had to leave the orphans behind.

A Bellevue missionary family living in South Sudan made the painful decision on Friday to leave an embattled part of a country that appears on the brink of civil war.

That meant that Bradley and Kim Campbell also had to say goodbye — for now — to the 10 children who had been in their care.

“We didn't see this coming,” Kim said Friday from a hotel room in Juba, the capital city. “We thought there was a possibility that because of the war, we could move (the children) to a better place. Doors shut all around us.”

The Campbells' plight has gained international attention after their harrowing Christmas Day escape to the relative safety of a crowded United Nations compound in Malakal in South Sudan, which has been gripped by new violence since mid-December. They had vowed to stay with the orphans they had sheltered, but they came to the bitter understanding that they would likely cause more harm than good.

“If we stay,” Kim said, “we deplete their food supply and draw attention to them. We're hoping someone might have some answers, some solution.”

So Friday, the Campbells and two daughters, ages 16 and 23, flew from Malakal to Juba. They had spent the past week with the orphans at the U.N. compound, where food and water were running short.

In an interview, Kim said their plan was to spend the night in Juba and then catch a flight today to Nairobi, Kenya. Yet rebels are reportedly two days from Juba, and Kim is praying their flight out of the city does not get canceled.

If the family gets out of South Sudan as planned, the Campbells will stay in Kenya, where Kim said they are better positioned to get much-needed food and other resources to the 10 children and others in Malakal. They are raising funds through a South Carolina-based organization called Keeping Hope Alive and expect to return to Malakal as soon as possible.

“Absolutely, we have 10 children there,” Kim said. In the meantime, the orphans are being cared for by a South Sudanese couple, who have helped the Campbells run their ministry.

The Campbells went to South Sudan in March 2012 after pulling up stakes in Bellevue, where they had lived since 2006.

They were drawn to Bellevue to help friends launch a church called The Dwelling Place. Kim is a Baird, Iowa, native who had previously lived in Bellevue. Bradley, originally from St. Paul, Minn., is a former visual artist whose submission to the rigorous World Trade Center memorial competition beat out some 5,000 others. His design didn't win but made the top seven.

Bradley traded Brooklyn for ministry school in the Charlotte, N.C., area, and gave up art for a new career as a pastor. He met Kim in North Carolina. The two married in 2005 and soon moved to Bellevue. Kim's school-age daughters from a prior marriage attended various Bellevue public schools and were also home-schooled.

The church eventually folded, and Bradley and Kim felt called by God to serve in Africa.

They chose South Sudan after visiting a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

“It was filled with South Sudanese refugees,” Kim said. “That just about set our hearts.”

They sold or gave most of their possessions away, then moved to Malakal in the northern part of South Sudan. They aligned themselves with Keeping Hope Alive and contacted local officials to let them know they were ready to serve.

The Campbells settled into a small house with no running water and enough solar-generated electricity to charge cell phones and their computers.

The next 21 months or so were difficult but rewarding. The hot climate was unforgiving. Several family members got sick right away. Bradley Campbell was so sick with malaria he had to leave South Sudan for treatment.

But they kept moving forward. They turned their front yard into a Christian church, attracting 80 people to their first service. And they invited four orphans — two pairs of brother-sister sibling sets — to move in. They tutored the children in English. A fifth child with one arm then joined the family. Eventually five more children came, bringing the total to 10 children, ages 6 to 16.

Kim said life was peaceful and happy until violence broke out in mid-December and became a frightening reality at Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, the Campbells watched as their neighbors started leaving and walking toward a U.N. compound about two miles away. They could hear gunfire but it seemed far enough away. The family decided to stick it out.

The next morning, they watched as soldiers marched up the road.

“We thought they were leaving,” Kim said. “About five minutes later, all hell broke loose. There were rounds of machine guns going off and some kind of missiles going off over our house. You could hear bullets hitting our roof. One bullet came through one of our windows.”

Brad, Kim, daughters Kassidy and Katie Talbott, and the 10 South Sudanese children huddled together in a room. They closed the steel shutters and pushed a mattress up against the window.

“That went on for several hours and shook us up pretty bad,” Kim said. “We decided we needed to get out.”

They gathered what they could carry but got about 100 yards before gunfire forced them to turn back.

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“They started shooting and we heard some kind of missile go over our heads,” Kim said. “We ran back to the house and waited it out another couple of hours and decided it was just now or never. It was terrifying, to say the least.”

The Campbells and the children made it to the U.N. compound on Christmas Day, joining thousands of others. The next day, Kim said an estimated 28,000 people were there.

Food rations were shared. Meals were small. The market in Malakal had been looted, so it wasn't clear on the ground how the U.N. would keep feeding the crowds.

The Campbells knew they had to get their group out, but how? They had not formally adopted the orphans. Without documentation, they were told, the 10 children were stuck.

Kim was hopeful the humanitarian crisis would loosen the rule, but it didn't. She and Brad tried to get permission to travel to a more peaceful part of South Sudan and was told no. The children had to stay in Malakal.

“We took it to the highest level we could take it within the state,” Kim said. “He denied us.”

The Campbells initially decided they would stay, too. They told that to news outlets. They turned down four seats on a flight for U.S. evacuees on Thursday.

The United States issued a travel warning to South Sudan, reduced its embassy staff and, as of Friday, had evacuated more than 440 American citizens and 750 from other countries.

Finally, the Campbells said, it became apparent that they could do more good outside the country. While still in South Sudan, they had no access to money, food or any resources.

In fact, as white Americans in an overcrowded U.N. camp, they were drawing undue attention — particularly from others who had sought shelter there and were wondering if they were getting special treatment.

It was not easy to tear themselves away from the children.

Kim cried several times as she described the hardships that the orphans face.

“To walk away from them was the hardest thing we've ever done,” she said. “But they're strong children. They're incredibly strong children.”

And she called the local couple now caring for the children “heroes.”

“They stayed,” she said. “They stayed.”

Contact the writer: Erin Grace

erin.grace@owh.com    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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