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Thousands honour Australian aid worker Irene “Mama” Gleeson in Uganda

July 27, 2013 (KAMPALA) – Some 10,000 people have attended a day-long memorial service in Uganda on Sunday for Australia’s Irene Gleeson who dedicated more than 20 years of her life to help children traumatised by war.

Irene Gleeson worked with orphaned and traumatised children in Uganda for more than 20 years (Photo: IGF)
Irene Gleeson worked with orphaned and traumatised children in Uganda for more than 20 years (Photo: IGF)
“Mama Irene” as she was affectionately known died in Sydney last Sunday from cancer, aged 68.

She is remembered for her work with orphaned children and those abducted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Uganda’s foreign minister, Henry Okello, and several MPs were among the mourners who attended the service on the grounds of the Irene Gleeson Foundation (IGF) at Kitgum, about seven hours north of the capital, Kampala

After hearing about the plight of orphans in Uganda back in 1989, Gleeson sold her beachside home and all her possessions and moved to the country’s war-torn northern region.

After arriving in Uganda from Australia in 1991, she towed her caravan 500 kilometres from Kampala to the Sudan border.

Under Kony’s notorious reign of terror in northern Uganda, whole communities were terrorised, maimed and destroyed, while more than 60,000 children were forced to fight in a brutal two-decades-long armed conflict.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is currently pursuing Kony and those in the senior ranks of the LRA for alleged crimes against humanity.

Gleeson’s organisation fed, housed and educated an estimated 6,000 orphans or destitute children while working on the frontline throughout the conflict.

During much of that time she lived alone in her caravan at Kitgum, while building several primary schools and two vocational colleges.

In 2009, Gleeson was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in recognition of her tireless work in health, education, HIV awareness and vocational training.

Gleeson, who leaves behind four children and 15 grandchildren, never knew her father and married at 16, a year after her mother’s death. She endured a devastating divorce 20 years later.

When Gleeson first arrived in Kitgum, 40 kilometres from the Sudan border, she found a community ravaged by war and struggling for survival in a harsh environment.

Her Christian-based IGF established itself in the area and now has 8,000 children in its care and 450 staff supported through Australian and US donors.

In an interview with Australia’s Fairfax Media, IGF’s executive director, John-Paul Kiffasi, said Gleeson was adamant that Ugandan children should have the same conditions as those in Australia.

“She gave away her children’s inheritance, sold her home in Sydney and came into a war zone to set up a caravan in the bush. She first gathered 50 kids under a mango tree and fed them, clothed them and educated them”, he said.

“Twenty years later we now have had more than 20,000 gone through these doors. The first 50 are now managers at our four schools, one became a doctor and four are nurses”, he added.

More than 6,000 past and current IGF students, scores of locals, dignitaries and numerous representatives from international and local non-governmental organisations were in attendance at the memorial service.

Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Bob Carr, also sent a tribute on behalf of the Australian people and government.

In a statement on its website, IGF said Gleeson would be remembered in Uganda as a hero and that the organisation was committed to continuing her work in the region.

“The team at IGF, out of the love and enormous respect we have for Irene, want to say that more than ever our desire is to see Irene’s dream continue for years to come. We want to see many more children in Kitgum receive the love and support that Irene would have wanted to give them. We want to see the families of Kitgum have a future and a hope”, the statement said.

A funeral service for Gleeson will be held on Monday in Sydney.

(ST)