Apr 042012

Evanston RoundTable, January 19, 2012

He was born in war, suffered grievously during war, is even named for war. Now Guerra Freitas, who has lived in south Evanston since 1998, devotes his life to helping the people of his native Angola.

A country of 19 million people about twice the size of Texas that is located in southwestern Africa, Angola won its independence from Portugal in 1975 after 30 years of fighting that devastated the land, leaving millions dead or displaced and the country’s infrastructure shattered.

The civil war that followed independence lasted another 25 years, wreaking more deadly destruction. Today average life and infant mortality rates are among the worst in the world. Half the population does not have access to safe water and basic sanitation.

Like most of his countrymen, Mr. Freitas, who is now 39, suffered deeply. When he was five, his father, who had been fighting the Portuguese, was captured and held captive for 20 years. His mother struggled to care for Guerra and his four brothers.

At nine, he ran away to a neighboring village to attend school, so his mother would have one less mouth to feed. The school was blown up by one of the civil war factions, so he continued his schooling in another village. He finally got his high school diploma and was a schoolteacher when he was struck again by tragedy.

In 1992 his young wife and infant son were killed by gunfire running for cover during a civil war firefight in the regional capital of Kuito. Mr. Freitas, who was with them, was unhurt, but was left emotionally devastated.  Sadly, he says, the experience “was not unique. I know whole families who were gunned down.” More personal tragedy followed: seven members of his extended family died from starvation during the civil war.

He eventually remarried and had two more children, a daughter and son. In 1994 he went to work for CARE, a not-for-profit U.S.-based agency dedicated to fighting poverty worldwide. In his first job he translated Portuguese into English for the CARE staff. He did well and moved up in the organization, eventually supervising food distribution, land mine removal, refugee assistance, and water, sanitation and health care. In 1997 CARE sent him to America to testify about land mines before a Congressional committee and at other forums in Washington and Atlanta.

During a 1997 seminar on conflict resolution he attended in Sierra Leone he met Dr. Patricia Deer, a mediator with the Chicago Center on Conflict Resolution, who was one of the speakers. She challenged Mr. Guerra about his life: what did he want to achieve? He told her he wanted to get a college degree, and during the next year, she encouraged and guided him to come to Chicago, where he attended East-West University, eventually graduating head of his class.

During his years in school he lived at the Reba Place communal home in south Evanston, helping to pay his room and board by caring for an elderly resident with muscular dystrophy.

“We got to know him well,” says Julius Belser, retired pastor of Reba Church, who still lives at the home. “We admired his dedication and stick-to-it-ive-ness, and we’re in awe of his love and care for his family.”

In 1998 Mr. Freitas started SHAREcircle, a not-for-profit organization devoted to providing needed equipment, food, medical and school supplies to help the people of Angola. SHAREcircle stands for Search for Healing Aid and Relief for Education. The circle, he says, derives from knowing there is more happiness in giving than receiving.

The next year SHAREcircle sent its first container of goods, consisting of clothing and canned food. Since then the group has shipped 19 more containers – weighing more than 500 metric tons – of food, medical equipment, school supplies, bicycles, sun ovens, hygiene kits and much more. Goods are carefully selected based on what key contacts in Angola tell the group is needed. Grants and support from USAID, the Elgin-based Church of the Brethren and the Evanston Rotary Club, plus individual donors, help pay for shipments.

In 2007 and 2009 Mr. Freitas led delegations of SHAREcircle board members to Angola to ensure that donated materials were being properly distributed and utilized. “It’s a lot of work to raise the money for these trips, but we came back inspired. We got the message: what we’re doing is small but meaningful,” he says.

Last year Mr. Freitas finished his graduate degree in public policy and administration from Northwestern. While there he conceived his latest project: to design, finance and build a new university in his native region, the central highlands of Angola. This is an area of 2 million people with no school of higher education.

“The light bulb came from the community,” Mr. Freitas explains. “The elders there asked for help in starting a local university. Education is critical. In Angola, though we are making a lot of progress, sometimes students still have to read under lamp posts because there is no lighting; study outside because there is no classroom; and write in the dirt and sand because there are no paper and pencils.”

With help from Northwestern students and professors, plus Angolan church and community leaders, Mr. Freitas and his team completed a detailed 500-page plan for the university, which he submitted to Education Ministry officials in the capital of Luanda on a trip there in November.  If the project gets the green light, as expected, construction could begin in 2015 on the school’s 7,600-acre campus, and Angola Central Highlands University could open its doors in 2018.

“He is a driven man, passionate about serving his people,” says Joyce Hollingsworth, director of Programs and Planning for the nascent university.

“What stands out about Guerra is his huge heart and selflessness,” says Cassandra Mitchell, chair of the SHAREcircle Board of Directors. “He has a huge vision, and he’s determined and persistent about making a difference.”

“Our goal is to help as many people in Angola as we can,” says Mr. Freitas. “SHAREcircle’s logo shows many hands clasped together. We all have the potential to do good, and that’s what I try to tap into, a network of supporters, to help my native country.”

To illustrate his philosophy of caring, he tells the story of a man on a beach tossing stranded starfish back into the ocean. An onlooker happens by and asks: “Why are you bothering to do that? There are so many of them.” To which the man, throwing another starfish into the water, replies: “For that starfish, it matters.”

To Guerra Freitas, every person he can help matters.

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