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Reflection: A Return to Africa, Part One

Jesuit Refugee Service/USA National Director Fr. Mike Evans S.J. meets with a refugee and her children at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.(Jesuit Refugee Service)
Thursday, May 24, 2012

(Washington, D.C.) May 24, 2012 — I have just completed a very emotionally moving visit to Jesuit Refugee Service projects in Kenya and South Sudan. It is more than a year since I last visited some of these projects.

In some cases, projects are new; in others, the projects are either on-going or in the process of being completed and handed over to new partners. Because the experiences were so varied and so rich, I will divide these reflections into two parts: my visit to the projects in Kenya and those in South Sudan.

I will show my age by mentioning that as I arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport outside of Nairobi, and noticing that the long rains had begun in earnest, the lyrics from the 1980’s song Africa by Toto came to mind — “I bless the rains down in Africa.” The rains were late, but in breaking a long drought and famine, it gave people the possibility of survival. In their ferocity, however, resulting in massive flooding, many people have lost their own lives as well as their emaciated livestock. Flooding was everywhere one tried to travel – roads and highways had become streams – making any movement a challenge.

My purposes in coming to Kenya were many: there are new members of the JRS/Eastern Africa team who are vital partners with JRS/USA, especially dealing with projects funded by the U.S. State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM); I wanted to visit the projects in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya near the border with South Sudan, including the progress of the online tertiary education project sponsored by Jesuit Commons-Higher Education at the Margins (JC-HEM), highlighted on our website; and finally to explore what was being done with urban refugees with the help in part of JRS/USA’s Horn of Africa Appeal. Let me share some of those experiences.

I found the JRS/EA staff to be highly competent, motivated, and transparent. The new Regional Director, Fr. Deogratias Rwezaura S.J., I knew before when he was a student, and he actually was an intern in the JRS/USA office as part of his training. The Region has tremendous challenges, especially given the continuing crises in Congo, South Sudan, and Somalia – and the ever present threat of terrorist activities. Despite, or maybe because of this, I feel that this Region is a good partner for JRS/USA.

The visit to Kakuma Refugee Camp indicated some of these challenges. The heavy rains had certainly turned the usually brown scrub Turkana desert green, and filled normally dry river beds, but also damaged roads and unleashed a plague of crickets. 

But it was great to see that the work in psycho-social health continues in force, as does the training of community trauma counselors, as well as work with physically, emotionally, and mentally impaired children and adults. The Safe Haven for at-risk women and children refugees was full, and brave refugees told us some of their stories.

But other challenges were evident. The day that we arrived, 3,500 refugees from South Sudan were registered in Kakuma due to the growing unrest between Sudan and South Sudan. A camp that was at capacity a year ago (85,000) but shrinking as a result of returnees, now has closer to 95,000 and the plans for a new site are stymied. 

A freak accident before the rains set in (a blowing spark from a cooking fire) destroyed a storehouse next to the Safe House and all of its contents – 19 bicycles for staff to visit those who cannot make it to the JRS Centers, wheel chairs, and all of the occupational therapy materials (embroidery and art supplies, musical instruments, etc.) I pledged that JRS/USA would be helpful.

The Arrupe Center housing the online tertiary education program was in full swing. You could sense the excitement and pride as young refugees, men and women, from many different countries, spoke about their dreams of education being fulfilled – and I noted the banners on the walls of some of the Jesuit universities making this possible: Regis, Gonzaga, Boston College, Georgetown. I marveled at how far we have come: in 1992 when Kakuma Camp was created, we struggled even to get basic primary education provided. Now from pre-school to university levels, all of this is possible.

Back in Nairobi, I did not bless the rains so much as those who make four-wheel drive vehicles, because the paths in the slums we visited for the urban refugee program were a sea of mud. I spent a day with the social workers and listened as they told of their struggles to help an ever increasing number of desperate urban refugees. (Please see on our website, "Kenya: We are our brother’s keeper."

I listened to recipients of the projects and their stories broke my heart, including a Congolese/Burundian woman raped by marauding rebel soldiers who is now living with AIDS. I visited the one room shacks occupied by refugee families, terrified that they would be evicted in the rain because they were behind in their rent, saw children who were listless because they had not eaten that day, and pregnant wives in need of prenatal care.  

But I noted that with a small grant, the refugees could be self-sufficient – one was a master tailor back in Congo; another was an excellent woodworker and carver back in Rwanda. I thought how much has changed yet remains the same since we started the program in 1991. I pledged that JRS/USA would be helpful.

As I end this first part, let me repeat that the work of JRS in Kenya is making a tremendous impact on peoples’ lives. We could not do this without the continued generous support of friends like you. Thank you!

by Fr. Mike Evans S.J.
National Director, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

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