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Accompanying refugees in Kenya and Sudan

Jesuit Refugee Service/USA National Director Fr. Michael A. Evans, S.J. at Safe Haven in Kakuma Refugee Camp. (Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Tuesday, April 05, 2011

By Fr. Michael A. Evans, S.J.
National Director, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

(Washington, D.C.) April 5, 2011 — I have recently returned from a very powerful, moving visit to a number of projects that Jesuit Refugee Service/USA helps provide some of the funding for in Eastern Africa. Specifically, I visited the works in Kakuma Refugee Camp on the Kenyan border with Southern Sudan, and a number of projects in Southern Sudan as well. Let me share with you some of my experiences.

Kakuma Refugee Camp was founded in 1991 for approximately 25,000 former child soldiers from Sudan — the "lost boys." Jesuit Refugee Service Eastern Africa began its involvement in the areas of pastoral care, trauma counseling, education, and youth ministry (sports!)  

The camp is now bursting with 85,000 refugees living there, and a Kakuma II is being planned — and the JRS extended team has grown to sixteen. Along with continued pastoral care, dozens of trauma counselors have been trained over the years. However, the new work now includes a safe house for vulnerable women and children; the care of refugees with physical, mental, and emotional challenges; and outreach to those who cannot make it to the JRS Centers. Much of this work is generously funded through the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migrants (PRM).

I watched as vulnerable refugees worked in occupational therapy and learned English as they waited for longer-term solutions to their plight. I played with emotionally disturbed children as we tried to put puzzles together and correctly coordinate shapes and colors (I never was any good at that even as a child!) And I listened as a brave Ethiopian refugee told her story of overcoming long periods of physical and sexual abuse as a refugee and finding the courage to seek emotional healing.

I was delighted to see one of the Jesuit Commons Centers — a pilot project of several U.S. Jesuit Universities (with Regis—Denver at the head) which seeks to provide tertiary education to refugees through the internet and, hopefully, eventually though teleconferencing. Kakuma Camp is one of three sites in this first phase. While some technological glitches still need to be worked out, I can tell you that the excitement of these young refugees was palpable, as the possibility of further education was becoming a reality.

Truly, some miracles are being worked in the scrub desert of northern Kenya.

Our next stop was to the new country of South Sudan. Stepping out of the plane in Juba, the first thing that catches your eye is the unfurled banner that proclaims: "Welcome to the 195th Country in the World." Much to the amazement of many, the vote for independence was relatively peaceful and the new country will come into formal existence on the 9th of July 2011.  After so many years of brutal civil war, exile, and internal displacement, there is much work to be done.

The ride from Juba to Nimule, and then from Nimule to Lobone via Magwi and Pajok, was a grim reminder of the many years of war and terror — and of the current hope. The destruction of homes and whole villages was giving way to new construction; destroyed tanks, army personnel carriers and artillery were being carted away for scrap metal; and the red and white triangles with the picture of a skull and crossbones announcing the presence of land mines were gradually being cleared so people could safely return to their homes, fields, and grazing lands.

JRS has over the years made its contribution by securing PRM funding for construction of new schools and latrines; repair of damaged ones; teacher training; provision of educational materials and furniture; working with faculty, staff and parents to create viable PTAs; and a special emphasis on keeping girls in school. We visited numerous sites in all of the areas mentioned: those completed and up and running for several years; those currently under construction; and those we hope to have completed within a year’s time. It was wonderful to see children learning, sports teams competing, and school choirs singing and dancing for the "honored" visitors. We were thanked by parents who never dreamed that a permanent school structure would be in their village. Many of these parents contributed labor, stones and sand to build the school.

But there are challenges as well. We saw one site where nearly 1100 children are learning under trees and in bombed structures, with no source of clean water or sanitation. I saw classrooms where 18-year-olds (really young men and women) have returned from exile and are sharing desks with children ten years younger and three feet shorter. I saw "faculty rooms" under trees where women teachers cared for their infants in between teaching classes. And I saw six-year-olds carrying small plastic stools or crates on their heads to school because there are not enough desks for all of the newcomers and returnees.

I received two requests for help, and maybe some reader can help me make them happen.  Headmasters and teachers complained that the chalk from UNICEF was too waxy and would not write on the blackboards. So I promised some cases of quality chalk would come from Kampala or Nairobi and be distributed. Secondly, we were told of a secondary school in Lobone (not built by JRS) where the science lab and store has a roof made of iron sheeting. The problem is that Lobone is situated in the highland mountainous region between Sudan and Uganda. When it becomes cold, condensation gathers on the roof and “rains” on the science lab.  So I asked for quotes on a simple drop ceiling to solve the problem.

Let me end by telling you of a mass I concelebrated with Fr. Richard O’Dwyer, S.J. (an Irish Province Jesuit) in a thatched structure outside of Lobone, one of several of his mission outstations. There may have been 250 people in attendance, with a youth choir of 25. At the end of the nearly three (!) hour celebration, the chief catechist thanked me and JRS on behalf of the Catholic Community and asked if I would say a few words, with himself as translator.  

I said, "I cannot begin to understand the joy that you must feel upon finally achieving your independence. In my country, we fought for ours over 200 years ago, but know the value of freedom that had to be hard-fought for.” This received a huge roar of applause. Then I said, "You thank JRS for building you schools. Good. Now use them. When I visit tomorrow, I want to see the school full of the children here at mass. If a teacher doesn’t show up, I want parents to visit his or her hut and find out why. And I want you parents to promise me that you will keep your daughters in school. Because the new nation of South Sudan needs both educated men and women to be part of its future." I don’t normally get an ovation when I speak after mass, but I did that day. 

No one pretends that the transition from war to peace will be an easy one. Tribal conflicts could produce new displacement and continued unrest on the South Sudan/Congo border may as well. JRS will be there to accompany, serve, and advocate. But I wanted you to know that your past and continued support has made all that I saw and experienced possible. Thank you.

Fr. Richard O’Dwyer, S.J. celebrates Mass in Lobone, Southern Sudan. (Armando Borja — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)