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Reflection: A Return to Africa, Part Two

Jesuit Refugee Service/USA National Director Fr. Mike Evans S.J. meets with students in South Sudan. (Jesuit Refugee Service)
Monday, May 28, 2012

(Washington, D.C.) May 28, 2012 — Our visit to Jesuit Refugee Service teams and projects in South Sudan was made all the more poignant and urgent as the tensions between Sudan and South Sudan heated up yet again. 

JRS/USA, in partnership with the U.S. State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) and JRS Eastern Africa has worked in the South since 2006. Literally dozens of primary and secondary schools have been built, refurbished, or repaired; headmasters and teachers have received training; school supplies have been given; PTA groups have been developed to ensure the continuation of quality education; water catchment systems have been created; quality latrines and sanitation facilities provided; and where needed, wells for pure water have been drilled. Pastoral care, animal husbandry, women’s promotion (and the extra care for girl students) have rounded these out. JRS Eastern Africa has much to be proud of in its achievements so far.

So it was with a sense of nostalgia as well as uncertainty that I travelled with JRS EA staff to view the completion of the last of the schools, to see JRS staff possibly for the last time, and to accompany JRS EA as it seeks new areas in South Sudan to begin to work. The time of crisis and care for the returnees had moved more to a time of development, so in keeping with JRS’ mission, it seemed time to move on and turn the work over to other partners. Well, that was the plan!

The day that I left for Africa, the war of words between the North and South escalated and there were renewed calls for war. While the bombing attacks happened some distance away, a sense that all out mobilization — and renewed displacement — could become a reality was in the air. The underlying theme of "I bless the rains down in Africa" also came to play as we flew into Juba and I could see that the area had sustained substantial flooding.

The road from Juba to Nimule was greatly improved and I was happy to see that the great strides being made in the removal of anti-personnel mines had gone forward. A year ago, the little red flags with the skull and crossbones and the word “danger” were everywhere. Now, with rare exceptions, those flags are gone. The villagers have returned, the fields are being tilled, and the goats and cattle are grazing. It would seem that at least that nightmarish reminder of the long civil war is over.

Meeting us in Nimule, a place I first visited in1994 as we began cross-border operations from Uganda, was Fr. Kevin White S.J., who has been providing pastoral care in Yei for the last year. Kevin was able to share not only many stories of his work, but was able to join the team in our discussions of the way forward for the partnership between JRS/USA and JRS/EA, especially in South Sudan.

The first of three primary schools we were to visit was Rei Primary just outside of Nimule, close to the Nile River. A year ago when we visited, we saw about 400 students huddled under temporary structures, no water or sanitation facilities, and the “teacher’s lounge” was under a large tree.  

The beautiful structures, which will be able to accommodate 1000 boys and girls, are about 80% finished, delays caused in part by the heavy rains. Water catchment and a well have been , as are the latrines and sanitation facilities, and already in use. The project director assured us that by the time the second term began in several weeks time, the new facilities will be open and in full use. A representative of the PTA was there to greet us and express the gratitude of all of the parents.  The desks, supplies, and other materials are in storage ready to be put in place. And the teachers were eager to move from beneath the tree! It is an area that if the peace holds will see a large amount of returning refugees.

The team then visited the work near Pajok, where a school has been repaired and completely refurbished, as well as office buildings. Unfortunately, so far efforts to dig a well have not resulted in a reliable source of clean water – an essential element to the success of this project. Fr. Richard O’Dwyer S.J. has worked tirelessly on this project, as well as a half dozen other schools, and has been responsible for these successes, as well as pastoral care, and animal husbandry.

The final school project, Masinde Primary School, near Nimule also evoked memories for me.  A year ago when we visited, we saw students in dilapidated temporary structures and under a large tree, as workers were beginning to pour the foundation. Despite being the last day of the school term, the students, teachers and administrators waited patiently for us to slog through the flooded roads to get to the site. There we were cheered by nearly 600 students for providing what I must say are beautiful, well-maintained, sturdy structures which should last for years to come. The head of the PTA asked me “to thank the people of the USA for giving us this gift.”

As we drove back to Juba through torrential rains, and the flight back to Nairobi, we learned that Sudan had launched three more air strikes against their southern neighbors. But, cooler heads may yet prevail – a report indicates that because the rains have been so heavy, a water-filled ditch has been dug between the disputed territory between the North and the South. By the time the rainy season is finally over in a couple of month’s time, diplomatic efforts may have succeeded in averting further conflict. If so, we can indeed "bless the rain down in Africa."

I do not know the future of JRS in South Sudan. I do know that since the cross-border operations began in 1994, it has been a constant see-saw between war and peace, displacement and resettlement, destruction and rebuilding. All that I do know is that JRS/EA, in partnership with JRS/USA, will be there to help refugees and internally displaced.

I thank you for your generous support over these many years that has allowed this to happen.

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

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