Returning to Malakal and other Refugee camps,
Letter from Sr Barbara Paleczny
Yesterday, Mike, a Maryknoll priest from upstate NY– Bimington, and I returned from Malakal. We couldn’t give our Healing from Trauma workshops because the IDP camp is now so overcrowded with over 20,000 people that there was no space to gather a group. Perhaps at a future date. Oxfam will construct some shelter and we’ll be able to use it down the line. We heard at every turn of the need for these workshops.
Meanwhile, the visit was far more than we expected with walking through the camp, visiting people in the Drs Without Borders (MSF) hospital (with four badly burned toddlers who got too close to cooking fires), going to our broken down college and walking at length through the destroyed city. The doors and windows are all broken and everything taken, including solar panels, internet, all books, furniture etc, etc. Armies lived there and obviously had some violent fights. Some of our books were sold in the market.
I couldn’t even recognize the streets in town, so overgrown to leave only a path, heaps of rusted debris etc. Cathedral (small) is okay but we heard that many, many were killed on the compound there. It rained heavily every day and I didn’t have my gum boots/Wellingtons or hat. Thought they weren’t needed. WRONG. Groan. So I slid in thick, deep mud and almost knee deep water. One day we went by public boat with at least 100 and a slow motor on the Nile to WauShilluk where there are thousands more displaced people living in bamboo and tarpaulin roofed huts. We got very burned, especially my lips. In the midst of such severe destitution, we were heartily welcomed. We met at least ten of our teachers. People told us they are losing hope. . . and “Please don’t forget us.” Their primary school has 3,000 children and 20 teachers. . . who haven’t received more than 2 months salary in 7 months.
While in Malakal, we slept in a section of the camp provided by the UN Organization for Migration . . . in air-conditioned tents with 10 beds each, very close together, bed and mosquito net (like a little tent on the bed). No chairs, lines etc. The women were fun and very intelligent, compassionate, young,mostly Kenyan Aid workers, a Tanzanian and 2 South Sudanese. But we had a not-too-distant container with real flush toilets and another container with showers and, get this, hot water!!
This experience deepened my hope that some of our young African School Sisters of Notre Dame and other communities will join us in Solidarity with South Sudan. It is more than meaningful.
The UN Peace Keepers are mainly from Bangladesh, India, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and Mali. Other workers are from all around the world. Such friendly spirit and warm welcomes! I realize that going back to Malakal and getting to know all these people was enough for this visit. Giving workshops as well might have been overload. Oh, in our house I was surprised to find a few pictures (of family and my paintings) and one little olive candle holder from the Holy Land. One night a teacher called me that the son of a chief had found his way to the camp and that there were 25 women and children and two vulnerable soldiers stuck in a town and needing protection to get to the UN camp. What should he do? The women in our tent decided to phone someone . . . and the next morning I was in a meeting with the teacher, the chief’s son, several authority people form the UN Security, the Office for Refugees, Political Affairs, Civil Affairs and the Deputy Governor. All took concern for the safety of this group seriously and discussed the political concerns in this serious situation. . . but they acted together. It was most impressive. Mike and I were really surprised that we could witness the deliberations.
Another camp we went to in Bor, Jonglei State, where we gave Healing from Trauma workshops in Sept, has 3,500. They met us at the gate, singing and dancing and lifted me up on their shoulders to wind the way back to a spot where we celebrated a wonderful, outdoor Mass, with stories, laughter and singing. Across the river Nile there is another camp for 80-90,000. And other camps in Juba, Maban etc. . . Obviously the war isn’t over. People are afraid to leave the camps. The fast approaching dry season also threatens increased movement of troops. It is all so tragic. We listen carefully to make decisions to stay in protected places. The Bishops call strongly to stop fighting, to solve political issues politically not with bullets and bombs.
On Wed I go with two Brothers to Agok Refugee Camp in Abyei region where we are teaching 75 teachers from the area. This time, I’ll stay there only two weeks because I have been invited to be one of six of the lead people in a national education project sponsored by our Solidarity with South Sudan, Yei Teachers’ College (Anglican) and Windle Trust (Specialists in giving English language courses). We need to find 3 good teachers from each of 12 areas in SS, bring them to Yei and teach them how to educate others in methods and content so that they in turn can educate 50 others to teach. SO we are going all out to provide some teachers in this emergency situation where at least a million children can’t go to school. We will also supervise their teaching the new teachers. Second, we will gather reps for parent-teacher groups and inspectors from all areas and help them to know what they need to do. We will also teach people how to teach others to teach accelerated learning programs for those who never had an opportunity to go to school. 60% of youth between 16 and 24 years of age, for example, can’t read or write. Most women never had a chance either.
Yes, this is a real challenge. But it is clear that so much in my life has prepared me to step forward with courage, to trust my skills etc and to dare to lead. A major handicap I have is lack of many local languages but people assure me that since we teach in English, others will take care of translating at the local levels.
Well, again this got longer than I intended. But there is so much to share from there severely destitute, war-torn parts of South Sudan. My experience in the camps is quite amazing, even with awe-inspiring tranquility as I walk gently and see paths, doors, meetings with people open up before me. The community I live with is very special too, from around the world, six men and two women. Lots of stories, laughter and worthwhile discussions.I gratefully receive the gift of each moment and encounter. Solidarity and compassion are visible and deeply felt. So it must be your prayer!!! Most of all we need your prayer and support in any ways you can! Send good energy/blessings for sure!!
THANK-YOU, THANK-YOU FOR CONTINUING TO DO THIS. THIS IS TRULY OUR PRESENCE HERE.
Also visit www.solidarityssudan.org to learn about our presence, our work in education of teachers, nurse and midwives, agriculture, pastoral needs, Healing from Trauma Workshops. Imagine a miracle and see it in action. That’s what we are witnessing here. Truly! I can hardly believe what I have seen happen in the six years I’ve been here. . . by all our members, through presence here, prayer and financial support. Thank-you! This is truly Thanksgiving time and I AM a Thanksgiving song!!!
As I work hard with a SS Priest Director for Pastoral Needs to prepare an Advent booklet to use throughout the country, I know Advent starts only at the end of Nov, but I pray that your fall, early winter and Advent throughout Dec are filled with HOPE, courage, a good sense of humour and gentle trust as you live your own VERY SIGNIFICANT LIVES, each of us. EVERY ONE is so supremely significant. And hearing from YOU about seems so ordinary means a lot to me, to keep a balance and perspective!
I love you so much and God loves YOU even more than I do and that’s a lot. GOD told me that!