|They Come Back Singing: Reflections on Safe Return and Resettlement|
(Washington, D.C.) July 28, 2011 — One of the great satisfactions for anyone involved in ministry with refugees, internally displaced people and migrants is to experience first-hand the joy that people feel when they safely return home after years of exile.
I have just completed a powerful journey to the Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo where two primary schools built by Jesuit Refugee Service Southern Africa (with generous funding from the American people through U.S. State Department funds) were inaugurated. I had the privilege to represent JRS/USA at these two celebrations. Let me share with you some stories from this trip.
I flew into Johannesburg, South Africa, to join up with representatives of their team. We flew to Ndola, Zambia, where we were met by local team members to begin the arduous trek into Congo. The project director and our host, Fr. Cyprien Nkoma, is himself a Congolese diocesan priest who joined JRS as a refugee in exile in Zambia in 1999 — and who has accompanied his people home.
The problem with much travel in Africa is not just the barely existent roads — that always is a challenge. For this trip, one of the major challenges was the remoteness of the places that we needed to go and how to manage to get there. (The old adage, "You cannot get there from here" kept coming to my mind.) As it was, the "shortcuts" we were taking meant 10 to 12 hour rides — and also meant crossing the Zambia/Congo borders numerous times. Suffice it to say that I have had my fill of dealing with immigration, customs, and border health officials that will last me a very long time, and the experiences will be the fodder for plenty of stories to come!
The two co-ed primary schools are located in the villages of Nkuntaula and Fube, Tanganyika District, in the Katanga Province of Congo. The first school will educate nearly 1000 students; the second is for 700 (with a sister school nearby for 600 already in the planning stages). In both cases, the refugees had been in exile in refugee camps in Zambia since the late 1990s, and only recently have they made their way back. In the first place, they returned to their own lands; in the second case, the DRC Government gave them new lands near the village of Fube to begin life anew.
One critical aspect of a successful return is that essential services are provided — either by the UN, local government, or in this case, JRS. Quality primary education is one of the essential services that will draw refugees from exile back home. And never in their wildest dreams would the returnees imagine that such a school would be built — a beautiful, permanent structure with enough desks, books, educational equipment, sports fields, and even housing for the teachers. I hope that some of the pictures came out well and you can see for yourself the quality of the buildings. The parents of the refugee children provided many of the local materials as well as their labor in these joint efforts. They are incredibly grateful to JRS/USA and the American people for the works completed.
And so in each village, we were welcomed with singing and dancing. I was greeted with flowers, received a chicken from the village chief, cut the ribbon with representatives of local government, and even offered libations to appease the ancestors — although because they were schools, the liquid spilled was Coca-Cola instead of the traditional palm wine! The schools were blessed by the local Catholic priest (they will be run by the local diocese) and then the serious celebrations began with sports, singing, drama, and more dancing.
The return from exile is not always easy. The starting title of this reflection refers to the excellent work by Fr. Gary Smith, S.J. by the same name (and I encourage you to read his own reflections and stories.)
The children were all born in exile and many had learned English in the camps in Zambia — so the school will need to continue work with them in both English and French. They returned from exile with what little they could carry — and many of the children are still bewildered by the new surroundings. When we stood at the beginning of the ceremonies, few except the elderly know the words to the Congolese national anthem.
As we have seen in other parts of the world, a true lasting peace can be a delicate thing to nurture — and for the elderly who had fled many times, it will take awhile for them to believe that this peace will last.
The soil is fertile, but there will be need for assistance until crops can grow and flocks replenished. Families whose children are in rags will need some transitional help. And other essential services — health, water, sanitation, security and the freedom to practice one’s faith all need to be addressed. But for now, tens of thousands of Congolese refugees have lived to see the day about which they had dreamed for years, and they celebrate and thank God.
Thank you for being part of that journey with JRS/USA.
Fr. Mike Evans, S.J.
|The school is inaugurated with a soft drink rather than the traditional wine. (Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
|The two co-ed primary schools are located in the villages of Nkuntaula and Fube, Tanganyika District, in the Katanga Province of Congo. The first school will educate nearly 1000 students; the second is for 700 — with a sister school nearby for 600 already in the planning stages. (Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
|The soil is fertile, but there will be need for assistance until crops can grow and flocks replenished. Other essential services — health, water, sanitation, security and the freedom to practice one’s faith all need to be addressed. But for now, tens of thousands of Congolese refugees have lived to see the day about which they had dreamed for years, and they celebrate and thank God. (Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
|The "shortcuts" we were taking meant 10 to 12 hour rides — and also meant crossing the Zambia/Congo borders numerous times. (Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)