Profile: Who was 'Mama Irene' Gleeson?

Christian missionary Irene Gleeson cared for an estimated 6000 orphaned Ugandan children over two decades in war-torn Uganda. We look back at her remarkable achievements.

Australian aid worker Irene Gleeson dedicated more than 20 years of her life to helping an estimated 6000 orphans in Uganda, many whom had been abducted by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army.

The 68-year-old died in Sydney last week after a 14-month battle with cancer.

Her tireless work in health, education, HIV awareness and vocational training was recognised when she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2009.

Her missionary work in Uganda began in 1991 when she sold her Northern Beaches home in Sydney, said goodbye to her four grown children and 13 grandchildren, and towed her caravan 500 kilometres from Kampala to the Sudanese town of Kitgum.

Irene Gleeson Tribute from Irene Gleeson Foundation on Vimeo.

There in the small, isolated community on the Sudan border, Ms Gleeson began teaching traumatised children to sing.

Many of the children she rescued were former child soldiers who had been kidnapped by Joseph Kony and his band of rebels, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

The International Criminal Court is currently pursuing Kony and senior members of the LRA for alleged crimes against humanity.

It is estimated more than 60,000 children were forced to fight in the two-decades-long armed conflict.

A trained teacher, Ms Gleeson eventually added reading and writing to her repertoire.

To thousands of Ugandan children she was known simply as "Mama Irene".

One of those children spoke at her funeral in Sydney.

"Mama Irene is a true hero...she picked me off the street when my own father said 'I don't know you'," said survivor George Lubega, known by his rapper stage name Exodus.

"I lived on the street and life is (only) worthwhile today because of her," he said in his tribute.

Pastor Phil Pringle at the C3 Church in Sydney, where the funeral for Irene Gleeson was held, said Ms Gleeson's legacy continues to live on.

"What an awesome thing to be part of the answer instead of part of the problem," he said.

During her time in Uganda, Ms Gleeson established three schools which feed, educate and provide medicine for thousands of Ugandan children.

She also helped to build an aid hospice, a vocational college, a community church and a radio station that broadcasts to more than 1 million people in the region.

Her Christian-based Irene Gleeson Foundation now supports 8000 children through 450 working staff supported by funds from Australian and American donors.

An orphan herself, Ms Gleeson never knew her father.

At the age of 15, Gleeson was confronted with her mother's death and as the eldest child she was left to raise her seven younger siblings

A year later she got married only to divorce 20 years later.

“It left me disillusioned and seeking a purpose,” she said of the divorce in an interview with UTS Tower magazine in 2010.

Not long after, she found herself moved to act on the plight of Ugandan children after sponsoring a child in Ethiopia.

Ms Gleeson told Ugandan newspaper, New Vision, in late 2012 that she was motivated by a strong desire to address the imbalances between Australian and Ugandan children.

“My children and grandchildren had whatever they wanted, but this was not the case with African (Ugandan) children. Being a born-again Christian, I chose to redress the imbalance,” Ms Gleeson told New Vision.

Irene Gleeson Foundation director John-Paul Kiffasi says the story of Ms Gleeson's life is inspirational.

"She gave away her children's inheritance, sold her home in Sydney and came into a war zone to set up a caravan in the bush. She first gathered 50 kids under a mango tree and fed them, clothed them and educated them", he told Fairfax Media.

"Twenty years later we now have had more than 20,000 gone through these doors. The first 50 are now managers at our four schools, one became a doctor and four are nurses."

But Ms Gleeson's achievements did not come without personal cost.

Ms Gleeson was the target of several rebel attacks and suffered bouts of malaria and depression.

But keeping her going through it all was the results of her work.

"My kids go home and sleep in mud huts on a dirt floor on a plastic bag. Insects come up through the dirt, bite them, and then go back down underground during the day. I can't afford to build them houses, but at least they can come here, to a full day-care school, between 7.30 and 4.30; they get their water, they get their food, they get their medicine and they get an education," Ms Gleeson told UTS magazine, Tower in 2010.

"We've got so many graduates now. One is studying medicine in Algeria; another has just got a degree in sports science – he's now employed in South Africa.

"What drives me is pulling everybody up to their full potential."

Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr sent a tribute on behalf of the Australian people and government.

"Her life charted an inspirational path from Sydney to Kitgum. Mama Irene demonstrates the difference that one dedicated and courageous human being can make in the lives of many others.

"She leaves an enduring and remarkable legacy, not only helping thousands of children who attended the schools she established, but their families and wider communities. She was committed to helping build hope and new dreams in the aftermath of conflict."

Gleeson leaves behind four children and 15 grandchildren.

WATCH: The 'Cinderella Children' documentary on Irene Gleeson's work


WATCH: Sam Ikin's video report on YouTube

Source: SBS

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