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International AIDS Conference brings two families together in fight against disease

By Robin Hamilton,

When Noelina “Mama” Namukisa enters the living room of the Bethesda condominium, she looks rested and relaxed. It’s not an easy feat after a 14-hour flight from Uganda and a three-hour wait at customs at Dulles International Airport.

Lew Priven, a slender, bespectacled man, takes a seat and gestures to her. “Mama, please sit here,” he says.

She smiles at the man who is older than she is, and sits. Priven’s wife, Judy, petite and soft-spoken, is close behind. A few moments later, Patrick, Namukisa’s husband, joins them. Although not related, there is a level of familial intimacy among the four. Their worlds couldn’t be farther apart, but their kinship was born from the Meeting Point .

“Mama” runs the Meeting Point, a nonprofit organization in Kampala, Uganda. The multi-service facility focuses on children affected by HIV/AIDS. Most are HIV positive. All are orphans, casualties of a disease that ravaged their mother, father or grandparent. “Everyone calls her Mama. The orphans, we are their parents now. One mother, one father,” Patrick Namukisa says.

The Namukisas, both 55, have come to the United States for the week-long International AIDS Conference , to learn new ways to treat the community they serve. They are staying with the Privens. It is a trip that probably wouldn’t have been possible without the Bethesda couple’s help. Noelina received a grant from Uganda’s Inter-religious Council, which covered only the cost of the flight and conference admission. A hotel stay would be a financial burden they couldn’t absorb. So, the Privens, their friends 10,000 miles away, stepped up.

“When she told me they were coming to the conference, I automatically offered for them to stay here,” Lew Priven says.

This week, tens of thousands from across the world have come to the District to participate in the conference, pushing for solutions to the pandemic through rousing speeches, workshops and panel discussions. But there are also individual acts of love, kindness and support between attendees, as activists support each other in small but significant ways.

“I thank God for letting them meet us,” Noelina Namukisa says, smiling.

The unlikely friendship began when the Privens signed up for a three-month mission trip in 2007 and were assigned to the devoutly Catholic organization in Uganda, a part of the world they had never been to. They were retired empty-nesters living a quiet life. Lew had trained as an engineer, working for IBM and General Electric. Judy was a teacher who had spent many years with the Frederick County school system, helping ESL students.

“One of the tenants of Judaism is to ‘repair the world,’ ” Lew Priven says. “It is your part to do something. You don’t have to do it all. You just have to try, just try.”

They were greeted in Uganda by a pickup truck. And the rustic conditions and lack of lighting weren’t the most welcoming for the couple, in their late 60s.

“We were really afraid in the beginning, until we met her,” Judy Priven says.

It wasn’t exactly what Noelina Namukisa expected either. “First of all, I had a fear. We usually had younger volunteers,” she says. “I was wondering how I was going to work with these people.”

Her worry quickly turned to awe. The Privens treated their assignment like another job. At the time, the Meeting Point was struggling to meet the demands of a community crippled by HIV/AIDS. Noelina Namukisa started the facility after making home visits to people she knew were dying. She created an informal patchwork of support and found space where she could house abandoned children. The stakes were high: Uganda ranks 10th in the world in the number of HIV/AIDS cases among people 15 to 49.

The Meeting Point was originally receiving assistance from the World Food Program through the United Nations, but those resources were diverted to other countries. There was no business plan. It was running out of space. The organization was in trouble.

Within days of arriving, the Privens sprung into action. Lew Priven created a five-year plan, and his wife instituted a curriculum for the school.

The Meeting Point now has a health clinic accredited by Uganda’s Health Ministry, a garden that produces maize, sweet potatoes and cassava, and a school program that just graduated its first full class of seventh-graders.

“Our school was recently recognized as one of the best upcoming schools in the country by the Minister of Education in Uganda,” Patrick Namukisa says.

Noelina Namukisa adds: “Three months was like a full year from what we got from them. We have never had people like them again.”

Looking back, Judy Priven says, “There was never a time I felt I was in the wrong place.”

Five years later, they stay in touch, connecting through e-mail every couple of months. Although Lew Priven no longer provides technical assistance to the Meeting Point, he’s working on a Web site for it. He isn’t sure when he and his wife will go back, because they are trying to make time for their grandchildren, who live in different parts of the country.

Noelina Namukisa has her own opinion: “Oh, I wish they would come back.”

Lew Priven said he and his wife call Noelina Namukisa “Mama” as a sign of respect for a woman who has not only mothered a village but has shown them the possibilities of making the world a better place, one person at a time.

And he credits faith as the foundation for the relationship. “We have the same message,” he says. “We all have a part of God in us. Even though we are Jewish and they are Catholic, it is the same.”

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