Purpose born of pain

On a hot summer morning in Africa 15 years ago, Ashlander Naomi Kerongo was working in her office as a high-level trade bureaucrat for the Kenyan government. Unfortunately, her building was next door to the U.S. Embassy, which the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led by Osama bin Laden, had targeted with a powerful truck bomb.

The weapon tore through and destroyed the embassy, killing 12 Americans, but devastated surrounding buildings, including Kerongo's, killing 200. Rescuers thought Kerongo was one of them. She was hauled off to the morgue with scores of other dead people and was about to be stored in a freezer, when someone felt her body's warmth and sent her to the hospital instead.

For Kerongo, then 42 and the mother of five, that's when her life of hell began.

"The terrorists wanted to blow up the U.S. Embassay, next door to where I was in charge of monitoring trade research," says Kerongo, who was 42 at the time. "They only killed 12 Americans, but they vast majority, 200 people, were locals. Four thousand, including me, were injured." Badly wounded and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Kerongo could no longer work and asked for help from the Kenyan government, but was refused. Penniless, Kerongo spiraled into poverty, she says, living in makeshift 10-by-10-foot plastic shanties in the slums of Nairobi.

Most women in the slum were mothers, sex workers and HIV-positive, and Kerongo began taking over the then-nonexistent jobs of sewage disposal and daycare for 200 children.

She dug latrines and scratched out an income stream to have the contents hauled, she says.

She learned fundraising and got General Motors executives in Nairobi donating beans, rice and maize to her community.

Seeking to get sex workers on track with job skills and increased self-image, Kerongo started a beauty college.

As the years went by, Kerongo began to speak out and go on hunger strikes in a public park, drawing attention from the international media with her views on the victims of terrorism and on the lack of help from the corrupt Kenyan government.

"My message was that terrorists only harm the innocent," she says. "No one has any idea what terrorists want. It makes no sense to injure innocent people. It's never going to be the solution to anything. It just causes pain and suffering." Kerongo approached the U.S. Embassy for help but got none. In 2008, however, an embassy worker brought a cell phone to her shanty, saying there was a call for her from New York. A shocked Kerongo listened to the United Nation's Secretary General's office invite her to a Symposium on Supporting Victims of Terrorism that September at the U.N.

She was flown to America, where she shared her experiences and vision for relief of victims.

"When I spoke at the U.N., my children were threatened," she says. "I was interviewed by the news people and what I said was not very kind to the government of Kenya. One child was murdered in 2011, my son, the eldest. I asked the U.N. to reunite me with my family. We all went to Uganda. I lost every child in separation or death. Two are in Kenya now and one in Switzerland." Kerongo displays a personal, signed letter from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon thanking her for her testimony, noting the forum was an "unprecedented initiative" and adding, "I was deeply moved by the stories I heard from you ... and I am humbled by your courage, your strength and your tireless advocacy in support of victims." So, how did Kerongo get to Ashland? It was a prime example of the wonders of networking. Her brother had a friend in California who turned her onto Ashland. Here, two years ago, she connected with many helpful residents, including a landlady of an apartment building who gave her a place to live, no charge, a lawyer who is working on her citizenship and someone who knew the social help network and got her on Food Stamps and Medicare, including PTSD help.

Her daughter Malaika, a senior at Ashland High School, is planning on college and medical school, with an eye to becoming a pediatrician. Two of her children are going to college in Kenya, seeking similar careers, she says, and an Ashland couple is paying the tuition.

Kerongo has given many talks on help for victims of terrorism to local groups — including the Jacksonville-Applegate Rotary and the Peace Choir in Ashland — and is starting a nonprofit organization for the cause.

While recognizing the limitations imposed by her PTSD, Kerongo, who has no income, says she is looking for some work within her skill range but as yet has no offers.

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