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Retired chief cares for South Sudan orphans amid bloodshed

Jan. 30, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Retired Chief Storekeeper (AW) Carolyn Figlioli poses with children at the Yei Children's Village in South Sudan. 'I really love these kids,' she said in a recent interview with Navy Times. 'They're a part of me, they know me. I'm their mama.' Figlioli was an ROTC instructor in Texas, left, before moving to Africa.
Retired Chief Storekeeper (AW) Carolyn Figlioli poses with children at the Yei Children's Village in South Sudan. 'I really love these kids,' she said in a recent interview with Navy Times. 'They're a part of me, they know me. I'm their mama.' Figlioli was an ROTC instructor in Texas, left, before moving to Africa. (Courtesy of Carolyn Figlioli)
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For information on how to donate to Yei Children’s Village, visit Carolyn Figlioli’s website at
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Navy SEALs and Marines flew into South Sudan late last year to help evacuate any remaining American aid workers after violence broke out Dec. 15 that spurred tens of thousands to flee. But one American missionary, a retired Navy chief, isn’t going anywhere.

Retired Chief Storekeeper (AW) Carolyn Figlioli, 52, runs the Yei Children’s Village in South Sudan, where she oversees 148 orphaned children, ages 2 months to 21 years, and a staff of 21. If she goes because of the ethnic clashes, she says, who’s going to take care of them?

“Could you really walk away and say, ‘Hey I’m running for my life, I’m saving myself. Sorry kids, you stay here and fend for yourselves’?” she told Navy Times.

The orphanage sits on a 40-acre compound that includes a primary school for 650 local kids. There’s no electricity, save what a few solar panels can generate, and they do their own cooking over charcoal. They’re largely out in the bush, Figlioli said, so they get into town by four-wheel-drive vehicle or motorcycle.

It’s a world away from Figlioli’s previous careers as a sailor and an ROTC instructor, but Figlioli said it’s as if a higher power called her to South Sudan.

“From the moment I stepped on this land, I’ve never felt any fear,” she said. “I’ve heard gunshots in town. There’s a Joseph Kony group, the [Lord’s Resistance Army], that was here when I first got here. You hear stories about them. I honestly just never felt any fear because I knew that I was where I was supposed to be.”

She knew how unstable the country was, but she went with her faith. And her Navy training. After a coup attempt led to mass slayings, she said her military background — including three years assigned to a SEAL delivery vehicle team — kicked in.

“I was really amazed at how, once the turmoil came to my little town here, all of my military training just came right into the forefront,” she said. “I was on automatic pilot, packing emergency bags, going around getting the kids in the house, lights out, lockdown.”

'My heart was leading me'

Figlioli first visited Africa during a weeklong trip to Mozambique in 2007, following a desire to “check it out, and see what it was like to go to a Third World country,” she said.

She had been working as an ROTC instructor in a San Antonio-area high school after retiring from the Navy in 1996, where she was active in her church as a youth leader. She didn’t think life in Africa was for her, though.

“I said, ‘There’s no way in the world I could ever be a missionary. You can’t pay me enough,’ ” she recalled in a Jan. 7phone interview from South Sudan.

That changed after she went back to Africa for five weeks in 2008, writing a memoir called “Follow Me” about her experience. In it, she tells the story of a garbage dump in Mozambique, where she found the body of a premature infant who’d been thrown away.

“I was holding this little baby in my hands, digging in the trash, and thinking, ‘I can’t just sit by and watch this in the world and not do anything about it,’ ” she said.

She made the move permanent in 2009, traveling from mission to mission, “wherever my heart was leading me each year.”

Last June, after she’d been living at Yei Children’s Village for three years, suddenly there were no more missionaries left to run the orphanage. The director of Iris Global, the ministry organization that oversees the orphanage, asked Figlioli if she’d take over.

“Trust me, it was the last thing I wanted to do, be the director of an orphanage,” she said. But she thought about it for a couple of weeks, and in the end, she couldn’t say no.

“I really love these kids. They’re a part of me, they know me. I’m their mama,” she said.

She committed to a year as the director, she said, but the way things are going, it looks like she’s there for good. Violence broke out in mid-December, following a coup attempt on the country’s president.

“Before all of this happened, I never felt any fear, no tension, because we had reached a peace agreement, become a nation,” she said.

Navy training

South Sudan became its own country in July 2011, ostensibly ending decades of civil war.

But political conflict continued to fester, and in July, South Sudan’s president fired his Cabinet. Figlioli knew that things were unraveling, but said she was lulled into a false sense of security as months went by without fighting.

Then came a Dec. 14 coup attempt, and all hell broke loose. There was shooting in town and American forces were evacuating citizens, but Figlioli decided to stay.

Though technically she had a desk job in the Navy, she said, she spent three years attached to SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 in Hawaii. There she learned diving and skydiving, and got her small-boat coxswain qualification.

“I’ve just always been really physical. I’ve always run, shooting, all of that stuff,” she said. “When I came here, I was totally built for this. This job, this land, and the hardness of it.”

There have been days of lockdown at the compound and others when roads were closed, but she is still managing to get into town to buy supplies. Most of their food and other goods arrive by truck from Uganda, a few hours’ drive to the south. Figlioli is concerned that the border could close, but so far, the trucks continue to arrive.

“I’m the only white person running around,” she said. “People are just kind of looking at me like, ‘You’re crazy. I can’t believe you’re still here.’ ”

Figlioli said it’s her faith in what she’s doing that keeps her grounded.

“This is where I’m supposed to be, and I don’t fear it,” she said. “If I’m going to die doing this, then I’m going to die happy.”

Near the tipping point

Friends and family back home were worried when she moved four years ago, and that fear has only increased lately.

“Oh my gosh, everybody’s like, ‘You need to come home, get out of there,’ she said. “They know me. I’m not going to leave these kids.”

Since FOX 29 San Antonio got wind of her story late last year and aired an interview with her on New Year’s Day, Figlioli has been inundated with donations to help augment her fundraising and the money she gets from Iris Global.

There have also been numerous offers to take her and her kids in, if she chooses to move them out of the country.

“I’ve really been spending a lot of time with them and talking with them and telling them, this time it’s not going to be like before,” she said. “If I have to get you out of South Sudan, if we have to go to Uganda, you’re going to go to school and you’re going to have a future.”

The younger children go to school on the compound, but the high school kids walk into town every day. If it becomes too dangerous to send them out, Figlioli said, that would be the tipping point.

“I really don’t want to uproot these kids from their country, but if things don’t change and school doesn’t start and we’re struggling, we’re leaving,” she said. “I’m not going to let this destroy everything that you’ve been doing in the last seven, eight years of improvement.”

As of Jan. 22, Figlioli and her kids were still hunkered down in Yei. Though she can hear gunshots in town on some days, they’re managing to go about their routines.

“We’re not just going to lay down and let war happen to us,” she said.

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