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On Assignment in Mwange Refugee Camp, Zambia

St. Michael's Church in Zambia’s Mwange Refugee Camp. (photo by Kenneth J. Gavin, S.J. – JRS/USA)
Thursday, August 26, 2010

By Father Kenneth J. Gavin, S.J., Director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

 

"To join Jesuit Refugee Service is to embark on a journey of faith accompanied by refugees."


I recently rediscovered the truth of these words during a visit to a JRS pastoral program in northern Zambia and would like to share my experience with you.


For any of us, ten years is a long time, but for many refugees it can be an eternity. In the late 1990s thousands of refugees, who fled a savage war in their native Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), were welcomed by Zambia, their neighbor to the east. Nearly 30,000 found refuge in rural Mwange Camp in northern Zambia, where they have lived in peace for the past decade. Like many refugees, as they were forced from their home country, the Congolese endured the loss of land, home, and livelihood. Many of their children have grown up with little or no memory of the DRC.


Although relations with their Zambian hosts have been warm, insecure refugee families look forward to the day when they can safely return home. With recent improvements in security in the province of Katanga, the Congolese have begun to return home, assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It is estimated that the population of Mwange Camp will be less than 15,000 Congolese by the end of this summer. Still, troubling questions about food availability, security, land ownership, and education for children arise for refugees as they consider returning to the DRC.


This past summer I visited Mwange Camp with a small delegation from JRS/USA. During the last year we have helped to support a thriving JRS pastoral program there, led by Fr. Cyprien Nkoma of the Diocese of Kalemie in Katanga. Nearly 80% of the Congolese in Mwange camp are Catholics and the camp parish has been the center of spiritual and material support for many refugees since JRS’ arrival in 2002. In opening a pastoral program in Mwange Camp, our hope was to address issues of isolation and deprivation that are so often part of the refugee experience, and to assist needy members of the community regardless of their political affiliation.


Mwange Camp refugees are well prepared by St. Michael’s Parish catechists to receive the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Marriage. Small Christian communities and other youth groups are fostered, and exchanges between the camp faith community and the local Zambian Catholic communities occur on a regular basis.


At the heart of St. Michael’s Parish, however, is the community’s celebration of the Sunday Eucharist with its amazing expression of vitality and faith. Our delegation was overwhelmed by the powerful way in which God’s word is proclaimed by lay leaders of the community, by the solemnity and devotion shown by the young liturgical dancers, by the energy of the choir, by the attention of the youngest children who sat next to us in the front of the church, and by the reverence of the entire worshiping community.


Nearly thirty years ago, in founding Jesuit Refugee Service, Father Pedro Arrupe. S.J., reminded us: "The spiritual as well as material need of nearly 16 million refugees throughout the world today could scarcely be greater."


Fr. Arrupe assured us that God is calling us through these vulnerable people, giving us the privilege to assist them and through them experience God’s blessings. During our visit to Mwange Camp, time and time again the deep truth of Father Arrupe’s words rang true to us as we spoke with refugee parishioners and parish leaders about the spiritual support and material outreach of the St. Michael’s Parish community.


Fr. Cyprien and JRS will be accompanying a group of refugees to Katanga Province in the DRC this fall to help them in their transition back to the Congo. We are currently working on ways to support him and the returning refugees by securing U.S. government funds for an educational program in Katanga that will assure refugee families that their children will have the opportunity to go to school when they return home.