Fighting Hatred with Hope

An African journal from Fenwick alumnus Brian Hickey ’12, who is thankful for many of the freedoms we take for granted back home.

Brian Hickey (right, sporting the Fenwick shield) with a new friend.

“It is much more difficult to hate a particular group of people after interacting with them,” explains Brian Hickey ’12. We learned about the inspiring work that Brian is doing in Djibouti from two of his former tennis coaches at Fenwick: Science Teacher Mr. Tom Draski and English Teacher Mr. Gerard Sullivan. “I’ve always bragged about the daring careers my ex-players go on to have, from landing planes on aircraft carriers to deep sea diving,” says Mr. Sullivan. “This is a more special type of bravery, though.”

Brian continued his tennis career at Valparaiso University in Indiana, playing there for four years and graduating in 2016. “He has taught tennis in summers to a lot of our kids in Western Springs,” Coach/Mr. Sullivan recalls. Then, “he traveled to teach school in Bethlehem (West Bank) after graduating and wanted more of that experience,” which led him to the tiny nation of Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, some 7,500 miles from Oak Park.

Located in eastern Africa on the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti is a mostly French- and Arabic-speaking country of dry shrub lands, volcanic formations and beaches. It is populated by 942,333 souls, most of whom are practicing Muslims. Lying on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, Djibouti serves as a gateway to the Suez Canal, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. Only 25 miles across the Red Sea sets the Islamic, civil war-torn Republic of Yemen, where 7 million people are facing starvation due to a Saudi Arabian blockade, instituted last month, that is holding up food, fuel and medical aid. Malnourished children are dying at an alarming rate of one every 10 minutes, according to the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP), and many Yemenian parents are fleeing in droves the air strikes and lack of food. “We are on the brink of famine,” WFP executive director David Beasley told  CBS’s “60 Minutes” in November. (See video link below.)

Caritas is the Latin term for charity (virtue), one of the three theological virtues. Brian Hickey got involved with Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of more than 160 members who are working at the grassroots in almost every country of the world. (They have a Facebook page, too.) Mr. Sullivan calls Brian “a special person: very strong and very mild.” In two separate emails this fall, his former student and player shared insights into the joys and struggles of the migrants, natives and refugees in Djibouti:

By Brian Hickey ’12

September 19, 2017

Greetings from Djibouti! After more than two weeks in the Horn of Africa I now understand why Djibouti is considered one of the hottest countries in the world. One is perpetually sweating due to the weather feeling like a sauna EVERY HOUR of EVERY DAY. Thankfully, my colleagues claim the weather will start to cool a few degrees in October [to 110 degrees Fahrenheit or so].

Brian dons a Valpo shirt (his collegiate alma mater) in Djibouti while one of his barefoot students wears Michael Jordan sweatpants that he has outgrown.

I am the only American on the campus of people in the different ministries in Djibouti. Despite this, I am fortunate to already have a close bond with those who speak English.


Sixteen hours into arriving in Djibouti, the Bishop/person in charge of all the ministries and schools in Djibouti and Somalia drove me around part of the city I will be living in for the next year. He told me the following that articulates the vision I have of what I am committed to doing this year and in the future.

Soon after the U.S. military established a base in Djibouti as a result of the 9/11 attacks, the commander of the base met with the Bishop. The Bishop explained to him that they are both fighting extremism and terrorism, just in different ways.

Through Caritas’ many facets of aid and the schools in the area catering to a multitude of nationalities and Muslim students, we fight terrorism by providing opportunities to those who do not have much or anything at all.  We give them an opportunity for real hope instead of the empty promises groups such as al-Shabab, al-Qaeda or ISIS offer. It is much more difficult to hate a particular group of people after interacting with them. Our mission is to be the light of the world to anybody we encounter in the vast darkness that envelopes this area.


Caritas is an aid and development organization that mainly works with street children in Djibouti. These, mainly 6- to 18-year-old boys often arrive in the morning very tired after not having a stable place to sleep overnight. They constantly have to be on the move from predators or police throughout the night. The boys must take a shower when they arrive as you can imagine how dirty they are from the night. After serving them breakfast, the majority of boys go into a television room and immediately fall asleep on the floor. They have activities and receive another main meal and snack throughout the day before being released into the city.

These children come from Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen. They flee from violence and extreme poverty and come to Caritas after hearing about our work from others. During certain activities throughout the day, such as drawing pictures, we see the things that the young boys have gone through such as older men preying on them. There really is no telling the exact hardships they go through, but it is often times impossible to not imagine it when interacting with them.

Despite all these challenges, we do not focus on them when the boys enter Caritas. We welcome them as friends and brothers they can trust to look out for their well-being. Although we might not understand each other all the time, I relish the relationships and embrace the opportunity to be a light for them on their difficult and painful paths.

5th Graders

Besides my time at Caritas, I am teaching five days a week at an English-speaking school on our campus to 5th graders. These kids come from all over Africa and Yemen. I have children in my class from the Congo, Swaziland, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Norway and England. Only a few of my students are Christian, and there are strict regulations against any kind of religious prayer and talk in this Muslim country. My goal is to build relationships with these students so that they can trust me and go beyond simply teaching the core subjects.


As you may know, the conflict in Yemen (only 15 miles from the coast of Djibouti) currently is suffering the worst humanitarian crisis in decades. Many aid experts have declared Yemen to be in worse shape than at the height of the civil war in Syria. Having already come into contact with refugees from Yemen, it is beyond striking to hear their stories face to face.

Yesterday, a Yemeni woman and her 1st grade son (Amar) came to the school to attempt to enroll. She explained that she has been in Djibouti for a year and has been teaching her son English on her own. The previous year, Amar was afraid that if he went to school he would die from the school being blown up by bombs as they experienced in Yemen. They are hoping that Amar will adjust back to school after being away from the bombing in Yemen for over a year now. There are too many of these types of stories.

Final Thoughts

I have already encountered some of the most difficult circumstances that human beings can face in my short time in Djibouti. I don’t think I’ll shake the image of a woman holding her severely malnourished four-year-old child who could not have been more than 10 pounds or the pictures of a man’s dead family from bombings in Yemen. However, it does not do anyone good to despair over these travesties that are all too common in our fallen world. I know I cannot eradicate all the heart-wrenching situations I come into contact with here, but I pray that I can be used in any way possible so that the light of Our Father shines through the darkness.

I am fortunate to have colleagues from all over the world dedicated to the same mission. Although we do not come from the same homeland, we have the same desire to serve the poor and vulnerable in the name of Christ. Please pray that God opens doors for His light to shine through us.

In conclusion, we were created to bring glory to God by illuminating His light in us no matter our circumstances. In this country, opening sharing the Gospel by lips is not always possible. It is by His light through us that all will know that we are followers of Jesus.

November 2, 2017

As temperatures begin to further dip in most of your neck of the woods, Djibouti remains relatively hot. Although it has only gotten a little cooler temperature wise, I feel my body has adjusted to the Horn-of-Africa heat. The local climate does provide some beautiful scenery if you overlook the trash on the ground.

Since my last update, the two main highlights were from trips to different parts of Djibouti as part of my duties with Caritas.  While I live in the main city of Djibouti (Djibouti City), the size of the country is such that there is one main road that leads to the other larger cities in Djibouti. One of these trips was to the largest refugee camp in Djibouti, which is also one of the largest Yemeni refugee camps in the world.  The other was to an impoverished village with no running water or electricity.

Markazi Refugee Camp

While media coverage can highlight striking numbers or brief images of the ongoing catastrophe in Yemen, hearing first-hand accounts of the terror gives another level of perspective of reality for refugees of the civil war. As previously mentioned, Markazi refugee camp is one of the largest Yemeni refugee camps from the war.  The camp is in the Djiboutian city of Obock, about 15 miles from the shores of Yemen. Entering the camp is extremely difficult for outsiders. Fortunately, Caritas has a connection with one of the coordinators from the UN to give us a tour of the camp. We also have Yemeni refugees in our area of Djibouti.

Again, pictures and reports of refugee camps can only give a snapshot of what it is actually like. The camp is mainly populated with tents or small metal containers to live. It is like a small village with common areas to get food and water, tent classrooms and a meeting area set up for activities for children. Unfortunately, the village does not seem sustainable for a long period of time, which is the reality for these people.

The camp has leaders from different sections that include three men and three women. Interestingly, women have leadership roles and decision-making power in the camp. This would be strictly forbidden if they were still in Yemen. In meeting with the leaders of the camp, the men openly talk about how it was a gradual adjustment to have women contributing to decisions. They had seemed to become accustomed to speaking of the horrors of experiencing constant violence, risking their lives to flee the country, and worrying about family/friends still stuck in Yemen. Some seemed resigned to the fact that they were confined to the camp for the foreseeable future and the likelihood (or desire) to return to their home country is slim.

Our time at the camp also had uplifting moments [such as] spending time flying a kite or kicking a ball with kids. It is truly amazing how little objects like this can bring great entertainment and joy for these children. They enjoyed having us visit them as well.

Tajoura Village    

Alan, a Caritas employee from Cameroon, and I took a two-hour boat trip to Tajoura, Djibouti. When we arrived in the city, a local picked us up and drove 25 minutes to a small and extremely impoverished village. The people live in straw tents and do not have running water or electricity. Alan and I were delivering school supplies and other necessities for the village. As such, were treated like royalty.

Our first meal there [was with] several people from Tajoura who came with massive amounts of food as about 20 of us sat in a small hut. We sat on a carpet and ate the food together with our hands. It was very similar to the Arab style of hospitality I experienced last year. Our first day that we visited was on a Friday (the Muslim holy day), and while Alan and I were the only Christians in the group and didn’t go to the local mosque to pray, we never felt out of place. For a couple other meals during our stay, we would walk 10 minutes to the sea, catch fish, and go back to cook and eat.

We also saw the dilapidated hospital in the village that had been built five years earlier but was not able to sustain itself. Alan and I made plans for how we could improve the quality to make it useful for the people. The village elders held a ceremony to pass out the supplies we brought, and the whole village attended. Once again, we were treated as if we were the presidents of our respective nations visiting the village.

I’ll cherish sleeping outside and viewing the magnificent stars in the sky all night. I’ll also remember the movie “Captain Phillips” popping into my mind as one of the locals mentioned that Somali fishermen sometimes stay overnight on the shores of the sea we fished for our dinner.

Final Thoughts

The image of two foreigners sitting with locals, black and white, Christian and Muslim, is etched into my mind as I witness my country continued to be divided along with the rest of the world. I witness the world turn its backs on refugees desperately seeking any kind of refuge due to a fear of the unknown. While our group had every reason to put up barriers among ourselves as the world stipulates, all barriers fell down as we sit in vulnerable positions stuffing ourselves with food.

The children enjoy a friendly game of soccer with Brian.

I wish that our leaders could be put in a room like this with their “enemies” and see the result. Jesus commands us multiple times to throw away our preconceived notions of people of certain races, nationalities or creeds. Just as He embraced the most unlikely people of His time, such as the woman at the well, we are called to welcome the stranger and see everyone as God sees us. While this does not mean putting wisdom aside, it means understanding that perfect love drives out all fear in seeking the best for all our neighbors of the world.

Soon after my immediate thoughts in hearing about possible Somali fishermen, I realized how hypocritical these thoughts were. I was just embraced by a whole village of people who had no idea who I was and was given the best of what they had to offer. They provided great hospitality to an American who has infinitely more life advantages than they do.

I pray that we, as Christians, are leaders in being the shining city on a hill that cultivates the perfect love in us to welcome the stranger and seek the vulnerable in the world.  I pray that we harness the power within us to go above the culture or politics of our times to live out the eternal mission we have been given. Please pray for the same.

Editor’s note: The refugee camp mentioned by Brian was featured in this November 19th “60 Minutes” segment on CBS television.

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