War veteran seeks peace in Iraq, Kibera
October 31,2006

Here, shanty houses are brown-roofed dominoes packed in dirt roads at stray angles. About a fifth of the people who live in them are HIV positive. Their jobless youth clash in bloody ethnic fights.

After working in the slum of Kibera, Marine Capt. Rye Barcott was prepared to help bring peace to Iraq.

“The Marine Corps is called into places that have already fallen into chaos and destruction,” said Barcott, who left active duty — and Camp Lejeune — in August. “Our goal in Kibera is to prevent that.”

Kibera is located in Kenya and is the crowded home to a variety of ethnic groups that don’t always get along. Barcott became aware of their plight as a student at UNC — Chapel Hill.

It was on a visit to the East African slum that he founded Carolina for Kibera with a new friend, Salim Mohamed. Together they began a soccer league to promote ethnic and religious mingling. Each team must have a mix of ethnicities and kids from different villages.

It’s an initiative that recently landed Barcott on ABC’s “World News with Charles Gibson,” as their Person of the Week.

“Barcott was selected as ‘Person of the Week’ because of the positive impact he has had in Kibera and because of his service both in and out of uniform,” wrote ABC News’ Natalie Raabe in an e-mail.

“World News” has followed Barcott’s work in Kibera for several years, Raabe added.

Barcott is now a Marine reservist and a student at Harvard University, where he’s working toward master’s degrees in business and public administration. After he graduates, he plans to come home to North Carolina. He’ll continue working for peace.

But there are some who don’t want it, who have a vested interest in a depressed status quo. To counter them, Barcott said, takes diplomacy, socio-economic development, and civil-military affairs.

Or, as our troops are working toward in Iraq, capturing local hearts and minds.

“The support of the populace is the center of gravity,” he said.

The youth sports association is one outreach program of Carolina for Kibera; another is the Tabitha Medical Clinic. It began with $26 in seed money.

“We’d started the small soccer league, and an adult approached me and said, ‘I’ve got problems, too,’” Barcott remembered.

The woman, Tabitha Festo, asked him for money. Barcott didn’t like the idea of a handout (“I wanted to help them help themselves,” he said), but Festo said she had a business plan.

She planned to sell vegetables at a neighboring village, using the $26 to undercut her competition. She then planned to invest her profits in a local savings group. Barcott gladly gave her the money.

Within six months, she’d saved enough to build a community medical clinic out of her home.

Though she has since died, the Tabitha Medical Clinic today specializes in maternal health and offers primary care, too.

Barcott sees a lot of Festo’s spirit in Kibera.

“You’ll see a 12-year-old living in a mud hut with eight relatives, and he looks you in the eye and says he’s going to be a doctor,” Barcott said. “Young people have the energy and ambition to help themselves; we provide the opportunities.”

Barcott left Kibera to join the Corps in 2001, inspired by his own father and by a need to serve. His time as a Marine took him to Bosnia, the Horn of Africa, and Iraq.

It was during the mission in Fallujah that Barcott drew on his experiences in Kibera. He and other Marines had to find common ground between the Iraqi police — made up mostly of Sunnis — and the Iraq army, which were primarily Shiites and Kurds.

The Americans brought them together in a conference, eyeball to eyeball, as Barcott put it.

“The more interaction people have, the more they see they have a lot in common,” said Barcott, “and start to love each other as brothers and sisters.”

To learn more about Carolina for Kibera, or to donate, go to cfk.unc.edu.