The Work of JRS with African Refugees

KOMOGUCHI Tadayoshi (Teacher at Hiroshima Gakuin)
Social and Pastoral Bulletin issue:  No. 141 / December 15th, 2007

Holidays in Rome

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), a manifestation of the ideal of persons dedicated to serve others, was founded in 1980 by Fr. Pedro Arrupe the General Superior of the Society of Jesus, successor of its founder Ignacio de Loyola. Fr. Arrupe lived in the Jesuit House of Hiroshima before becoming the Provincial of the Jesuits in Japan. Later, he became Superior General. JRS is a Catholic inspired organization founded to serve refugees that cross frontiers, in danger of their lives, escaping from war and hunger. Its motto is “to serve,” “together with” and “advocacy work.”
The main office of JRS is located at the back of the Church Il Gessu (Rome) where there is also a Secretariat that takes care of refugees living in Rome. There, at the entrance of a small chapel there is a mosaic depicting the Child Jesus riding on an ass. Fr. Magrinya, JRS International Director, pointed smiling at the inscription carved on the mosaic: “The Child Jesus had to escape as a refugee, brought by Mary and Joseph. Do not give up. Cheer up.”

Meals are served there for refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq. There is also a small clinic attended by 2 volunteer doctors. From 4:00 PM about 400 people come to eat at a dining room there.

 Although I volunteered to serve the meals, I was refused because people only spoke Italian and it would be quite hard for me to be of any use. I felt a bit disappointed. Fr. Magrinya just arriving late at night from Genova spoke with Fr. Giovanni, the director of the Italian JRS organization, about the new refugee centers of Milan and Genoa. Thanks to such a dedicated work many people that are helped recover hope in their lives. How worthy is such a work! At the same time, without God’s gifts and human talents this will be totally impossible. Fr. Magrinya has two academic degrees and speaks several languages: Italian, English, French, German, Portuguese, Latin and Spanish. But, the most important issue is the complex situation surrounding the refugees, like the economic and political, the ethnic and geographic issues. To establish a conversation about world refugees there is a need to master all that knowledge concerning geographical and ethnic realities and to be able to address so different JRS staff and so many kinds of refugees living in the midst of many delicate conditions. There is no place for me to help. Instead, I will do my best as much as I can.

Refugee Camp in Kenya
We talked about how to reach a refugee camp. A camp is not a tourist spot. To begin with, the only way to go there is by taking one of the fixed planes of the UN or of the UNHCR. In order to board the plane one has to show his proper documentation and the purpose of the visit. And in case one takes the ordinary route, one must know how to reach Lokichokio from the nearest airport. Now, how to go to the camp from there? All taxi drivers refuse to take you. Driving along a flat road one can only see far in the horizon some small trees scattered around. There is only one straight road. Using special binoculars one can hardly see far off in the distance a car running the opposite direction. Road construction is done by lining up stones. It often happens that drivers who get off their cars to keep away road stones are shot and the cars are stolen. This, seemingly, is a common practice among bandits. To avoid it, groups of about 5 cars move together escorted by UN and police patrols. This is called a convoy. In my car there were clearly two bullet holes.

Refugee camps change according to the times. Once the emergency and critical situations, as well as famine and disease settle down the whole general system is properly maintained. That is the case for living conditions, fresh water and waste, distribution of food and ordinary rules. Public order is restored and schools and clinics function. But, unless hopeful solutions to restore their former countries of origin are provided, together with a smooth maintenance of the present camps, refugees do not know how to go back and, consequently, just remain in the camps.

JRS not only runs educational programs but, at the same time, contributes to alleviate and solve the traumas the refugees experience. Refugees return once their countries of origin acquire peace and safety so that their lives are not in danger. And unless they receive education their dreams to rebuild their nation could not be fulfilled. JRS is not only involved in Primary education, it continues its support on middle and high level education through its network system. A high level training of personnel is totally needed for rebuilding a nation. It is a reality that, very often, the opportunity to get education ends when Primary education is over. To solve that, JRS continues offering opportunities to advance to Secondary education levels.

Nevertheless, new problems arise due to the lack of educational facilities, no matter refugees feel secure back in the countries of origin. And even if such facilities exist the education given will be useless unless the curricula are adjusted to present needs. Again, JRS has the plan to build schools in countries where the refugees return using the same curriculum system. The issue, though, is the overextend of the services to refugees from the point of view of administration, with the results that direct assistance to refugee camps becomes thinner, because of the need to channel aid for the rehabilitation of the countries of origin that would require tremendous quantities of finances and personnel in the fields of hard and soft goods. Once the camps are established tribal problems and fights start to come to the surface. It helps people to escape from dangers to their lives, but they soon come to realize that they have to live together in the same camps with those that threw them out of their countries. Again, the camps hold people of different languages, believes and customs that occasion all kinds of problems outsiders could not be able to solve by fair thinking. Although UN and JRS staff will not tell in public to any outsider the truth about how fearful those camps are, the problems remain under cover. There is no way to confirm how real the conflicts could be, but the expression in their faces is sufficient to make one believe that the situation is tense.

On the other hand, the propagation of mobile phones has made it easy to find out immediately whenever conflicts arise and rush out for solutions, but this fact has also increased the burdens on the staff. Certainly, there are now more possibilities of seeking a right judgment, instead of leaving decisions to each different site. At the same time, the transfer of responsibility has become easier and cases that obstruct answers adapted to local circumstances have started to appear. ‘One-ring’ phone calls have become common and when the staff checks the incoming calls and realizes a refugee has called is forced to phone back. This practice sends the phone costs skyrocketing and puts pressure on the staff.

New fearful problems, once the situation in the camp has somehow stabilized, are the “budget cuts,” “bird flu” diseases that have been found near the horrible situation in the camps.

The Establishment of the Camps

A site near the border is needed but, it is impossible to find good places for people to settle down. Such places have been already selected by the population to live there. To tell the residents, “get out from here because we need to build a refugee camp” could not realistically be done without creating problems. Consequently, a camp cannot be built where populations already exist. A totally empty land is not available, but camps are built in similar places.

Turkana is a dry region in a severe environment with normal temperatures of 40 Centigrade degrees. The Turkana tribal people make there their living grazing cattle. Without any consultation with them the Kakuma refugee camp was built there. Kakuma expanded up to a population of 80,000 people. It has become the 4th biggest city in Kenya, population-wise, and its extension covers an area one kilometer wide and 15 kilometers long. Thus the population density is very high.

Formerly not too many people lived there, because of lack of available water and now tons of water are needed to fill the needs of 80,000 people, but there is no way to do it properly. The distribution of water is rationed from the beginning. There are two faucets and each community can use them for only one hour. 200 members constitute a community and before the time for their turn comes many water containers line up near the water faucets. It becomes impossible to fill with water all of them in just one hour. Well, there were still left empty containers since the day before unable to be filled with water.

Then, what happens to those who could not get water the day before? The only possibility is to get it from their neighbors. Life in the camps is unbearable unless people help mutually each other. Many refugees are often handicapped because of the persecution experienced in their own countries and the hardships involved in escaping. If communities are not able to accept entirely the difficult situations of each individual will not survive. It could be cruel to demand generosity when the resident members of the community were, formerly, living in tense relationship.

Women and children usually line up for water under the strong rays of the sun. Children are an important labor force. What about schooling? The highest priority in their lives is not to attend school but to get water. This is a very heavy job for women and children. Their image transporting the heavy containers of water going back home, under the blazing sun, resembles the one when they return to their countries of origin in the midst of insolvable problems.

I was allowed to climb to the water tank tower. It was a fearful experience. My hands full of sweat slipped holding the 15-mt. high iron ladder. It was not the height that made me afraid but the rusty weak iron ladder.

 Once I went up I got amazed at the view of the camp from above. It was all green and it was easy to determine the border lines separating communities and households. The land was full of green vegetation. The water was, maybe, not enough for the survival of 80,000 refugees but they brought it from some place nearby. Without thinking about having to go down the same ladder again I enjoyed the view from the tower. There were some deserted dry places and it looked to me that even there green plants were growing due to the people occupying the land.

 A Visit to Somali Refugees

The local JRS staff arranged for me to accompany the counseling service team visiting refugee families. There were no families that had left their countries without reason. When trauma develops rehabilitation in the midst of such hard situations is near impossible. On the other hand, there is no other organization in the camp that helps people to overcome their traumas. The activities of the counseling service to families fulfill a very important task in the refugee camp where the life environment is so hard.

I visited a family from Somalia. The mother had requested counseling. The husband lying in bed could not move and attend the daycare center. Five family members live in a place surrounded by a fence made of a sharp-edged type of tree. In spite of the heat, the man covered with a blanket was lying down under the hot rays of the sun. He hurt his backbone while escaping the country. He half-recovered once, but due to overwork he felt pain again and since then he could not get up from bed anymore. Now the wife does all the work by herself at home, attends the husband and takes care of the children. She has no time to plan the return home and the future of the children and spends day and night attending her husband. It is a very tiring and psychologically demanding task. She hardly can see and the uncertainty over the future of the family and the anxiety over her blindness exert such a pressure on her that she cannot sleep. She would like to go to a doctor but does find neither time nor money to pay the bills. The counselor just listens to her realizing that there is no answer available to refugees. The next family we visited was again a Somali family. The small house facing the main road was splashed with muddy water whenever it rained. The house was not built and given by the UN, but the family moved in arbitrarily. The husband is from Somalia and his family lives a few kilometers away building a community. He was infested with AIDS and sent away his husband and kids, without handing them out his food ration card. He was most probably afraid of transmitting the disease to his family or maybe, according to the counselor, he sold the right to obtain food for the family in order to have some income to cover his disease. In any event sending out his family without the ability to get food was the same as letting them die.

They have 3 children. The eldest one is a healthy 11 year-old girl, but the 2 younger ones, a girl and a boy suffer from some disease. The JRS staff thinks that they are HIV infested. But none of them have ever had an HIV check, because they are afraid of the results. Although the kids are still growing they do not have access to food. The UN does not take on the issue because it is only “a family problem.” But such an attitude does not lead to any solution. The counselor confronted with a difficult problem that requires a real answer believes that the cause is not trauma or mental distress, but cannot find a clear solution. He tries to imitate the Good Samaritan and desperately feels that he can only listen to their suffering, and no matter how close he is to the refugees he feels profound suffering because of his powerlessness. I felt a deep respect in front of them.

A few days later, when I went to the camp to say farewell to the refugees I knew, I met again there the Somali lady with sick eyes and asked her, “How are your eyes now?” Feeling relieved she replied, “Yes, it could be a matter of putting on glasses, but I don’t have any money. I thought that talking to the counselor JRS will give me money for the glasses.” I asked the JRS guide to come again to visit the family and apologized for not being able to do anything useful. “Of course” he answered with a smile. I did not do anything else but listening to the family, but he assured me that he was coming back again.

Mary

As soon as I met Mary I realized there was something wrong. She suffered from a deep wound and nothing could be done about it. It was clear that to call her by her name will provoke more suffering to her and I did not want to know her name, but the JRS staff guiding me introduced her to me as Mary. She was living in Sudan at the age of 10 when her village was attacked. They shot both parents and herself was wounded in her back. She fell on the ground with the trunk of her body burnt and both legs unable to move freely. She lost all relatives. She spent 3 years in a hospital at the border with Kenya and was sent to the Kakuma refugee camp, but life there is almost unbearable to her. She says that she has lost all hope. Although she does not have any relative alive, she was placed in the refugee community of those persons that remained alive from the former Sudanese village where she lived with her family. Everybody is kind to her.

JRS has given her a special scholarship and although she is 19 now she is in her 7th year of Primary school. Finally she could enter School. It is not clear whether she could recover her confidence and make her living. Since she likes studying Biology I encouraged her: “Maybe you can become a medical doctor, a good doctor that can understand people’s suffering.” She answered sadly, “Yes that would be wonderful.” Nevertheless, I felt her words were not convincing. She continued, “I do not know anybody in Sudan any more. When this camp shuts down there is no place for me to go. If I study a little now and become a typist, I think I would be able to survive.” Will there be, from now on, a need of typists? Certainly computer programmers will be on demand. Nevertheless, she cannot find any other concrete way of making a living.
When classes ended she returned to her home, walking on crutches. Her body and arms are very thin and she does her best walking with her crutches. A few days later I met her at the JRS office. She looked very pretty wearing not the school dress but an ethnic custom.

Nairobi Refugees

I arrived in Nairobi. I had a short visit permission and, on top of that, I thought I could not digest anything more than what I had seen, but making a last effort I decided to pay a visit to the slums of Nairobi. Sister Mercy, a JRS staff that belongs to a diocesan organization assisting to the most abandoned people guided me. We went to meet an Ethiopian female refugee with a 2-year old child. That was during the rainy season. The roads with bad drainage had become rivers of mud, there were water holes everywhere and the traffic was stagnant. There was an outbreak of malaria mosquitoes. I followed carefully the foot steps of the Sister. We entered an old building in a small street and went up to the 4th floor, climbing a narrow stair case. There was there a three tatami-size room where the mother and the little child were living. There was only a hole like a window with no glass. Naturally anything could enter there. The only furniture was a bed and a small cabinet. Of course, neither water nor toilet. The Bible and a small bottle of medicines were on top of the cabinet. She married a refugee and, 2 years ago, she gave birth. Her husband left her and run away with another woman. She went for help to the Church. Her only source of income is washing clothes, but she is not healthy and cannot do the laundry for others any more. Lately, the nights are cold and she cannot afford to buy a mosquito-net.

The medicine on top of the cabinet seems to be distributed to retard the advance of AIDS. I asked her whether her child was an HIV carrier. Luckily the child is not infected. I asked later the Sister about the possibilities of survival of the mother about 2 years from now on. She also agreed that, most probably, there were zero possibilities. How to take such a situation? Are there any good solutions? All kinds of feelings, like suffocating and powerlessness, irritation and endurance, came into my mind, bringing me into confusion. Then, I heard Sister Mercy inviting me to pray. We took the Bible and prayed quietly, confronting in despair a reality without a way out. These people living in adversity are strong. “Is this faith?” My journey drew finally down its curtain in amazement.

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