Los Alamos Psychotherapist Tom Steward, third from left, along with staff and members of Sanyuska Women at Risk in Mbiko, Uganda. Courtesy photo
By KIRSTEN LASKEY
Los Alamos Daily Post
When Los Alamos Psychotherapist Tom Steward reached out to Sanyuska Women at Risk (SAWR) in Mbiko, Uganda in 2014, it was because he wanted to help those in need. The actual results of this humanitarian desire have been so much more, he said.
Steward was introduced to SAWR Director Mary Zema through his sister-in-law, who works with an international organization that assists rescue workers.
As a result, Steward has traveled to Mbiko for the last five years and through that time he has collected many profound memories, forged friendships and even met people who he considers family.
Due to COVID, he was unable to travel to the country in 2020 but hopes to return in November of this year.
SAWR takes in women who are victims of sex trafficking or are trying to get out of sex work and teaches them a trade that they can do to make a living, he explained.
Many women become hair stylists or seamstresses, Steward said. Some of the women’s wares can be seen around Steward’s office.
He has a coat hanger decorated with colorful necklaces made from paper and piles of small bags intricately adorned with rows and rows of tiny beads.
SAWR takes about 10 women annually and the women will stay with the organization for a year, Steward said.
Steward said he usually spends a few weeks in Mbiko every year and offers his services as a counselor. He also contributes financially to the organization.
But even more than that, Steward is there to be a friend.
“They treat me really well,” he said. “They have wonderful hearts. They love me and I love them.”
He also gets to work with many of the women’s children. Steward said the younger ones use him as a jungle gym or just someone to cuddle up against.
Steward has funded field trips for SAWR, too.
He said one time he rented a small ferry and gave all the women a cruise down the Nile River, recalling how excited everyone was to be able to go on a boat.
He has stayed in contact with many of the graduates from SAWR. One woman became a landlord of an apartment complex. Another still struggles to make ends meet, but even when Steward sent her money she used that money to purchase groceries for her community and pay her neighbors’ rents.
“You just love these people,” Steward said.
Returning home can be a bit of a culture shock, he said.
“You just come back to acclimate to the surplus of America …,” Steward said, adding he hopes Los Alamos might share some of its wealth with Mbiko and SAWR.
“…I want this community to know what I’m doing … and find the joy in helping people,” he said.
Mbiko is an incredibly poor community and Steward said he knows those who are limited to one meal a day – a piece of corn on the cob. Add COVID to the mix and things have worsened.
As a result, Steward has set up a Go Fund Me account in hopes of collecting donations for SAWR. It can be accessed here.
“It would go directly to the women and children and provide sustenance for them, so they don’t have to sell their bodies,” he said. “They need some sort of funds and assistance to get back on their feet.”
Sex trafficking isn’t something that just happens on the other side of the world, Stewards said. It happens in the U.S. and even in Los Alamos.
Steward said he wrote a book about one woman’s experience being a victim of sex trafficking in Los Alamos as a young child in the 1980s. The book, “Love’s Unrelenting Course,” is due to be published soon. Steward said anyone who donates to SAWR will receive a free copy of the book.
Tom Steward during a recent trip to Uganda. Courtesy photo
Tom Steward treats women enrolled in the SAWR to a boat trip on the Nile River during a recent visit to Uganda. Courtesy photo