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Kenya: Still celebrating life - Holy Week in Kakuma refugee camp
09 April 2013

Part of the activities at a vigil during the Easter Holy Week organised by the JRS Pastoral team at Kakuma Refugee Camp. (Pau Vidal, SJ/JRS)
When the refugees try to make sense of their forced displacement, their religious faith offers them some solace and consolation.
Kakuma, 09 April 2013 - Living in a refugee camp is often a daunting and excruciating experience. When the refugees try to make sense of their forced displacement, their religious faith offers them some solace and consolation. Here in Kakuma (Kenya), Christians during Holy week have had the opportunity to affirm their faith in life and love despite being in exile.

Kakuma refugee camp (Kenya) was set up in 1992 as a temporary residence to host the influx of the 'Lost Boys' of Sudan. However, twenty one years later Kakuma has become the home for more than 114,000 refugees coming from a dozen nationalities across East Africa, Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes. Somalis and South Sudanese represent the biggest groups in the camp.

Recently, both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Non-governmental Organizations (INGOs) are coming to grips with the fact that humanitarian efforts have for too long neglected - when not despised - religion and the spiritual needs of the forcibly displaced populations. As a matter of fact, refugees are not just bodies to be fed, clothed and sheltered, but they are first and foremost human beings with dignity, even if living far away from their home lands. Thus their cultural, moral and religious values are important for their integral well being, as it is often expressed by the refugees themselves. For the immense majority of forcibly displaced populations, their religious faith indeed helps them in trying to heal the traumatic experiences they might have suffered.

The holy week. During this Holy Week, the members of the five Catholic chapels located within the camp celebrated with intensity, devotion and joy this central moment of the Christian faith. The week was indeed full of activities. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday saw the Christians coming together to remember the last days of Jesus' life and his resurrection. The refugees, despite living in an inhospitable semi desert region, bearing the wounds of the past violence, even not knowing when they might finally be able to return to their homelands, still keep very alive the flame of hope and their trust in God. Here in the camp life overcomes death and the desire to celebrate in community is stronger than the sense of despair. The following words of the prophet Habakkuk seem to fit perfectly the experience of the refugees in Kakuma;

Even though the fig trees have no fruit
and no grapes grow on the vines,
even though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no corn,
even though the sheep all die
and the cattle stalls are empty

I will still be joyful and glad,
because the Lord God is my saviour.
The Sovereign Lord gives me strength.
He makes me sure-footed as a deer,
and keeps me safe on the mountains. (Habakkuk 3: 17-19)

Thanksgiving mass for the youth. One of the highlights of this Holy week was a joyful thanksgiving mass for youth organized by JRS pastoral team. The event took place on Monday after Easter Sunday. More than 300 youth from several nationalities and diverse cultural backgrounds came from the different chapels and gathered early in the morning. After organizing the logistics of the day and a brief initial prayer, the large group set up to climb a nearby hill. On the way, the sound of songs animated the marching group. On top of the hill we celebrated mass, three choirs singing in different languages - representing the diversity of origins. Later we shared some water and biscuits to call it a day. A very simple program organized by JRS that had a powerful impact.

Several of the participants commented that they were grateful for the opportunity to come together. They also valued the chance to rejoice and mark the season of Easter with an activity out of the ordinary. Some even suggested that they had increased their sense of belonging to "the family of Jesus" beyond national or ethnic lines. In short, such events help refugees recognize that their lives even if cramped by poverty and material scarcity cannot be reduced to the ration card number given to them.

Easter has come again to Kakuma and the refugees have once more decided that even if living in exile they still want to celebrate life to its fullness.

By Fr. Pau Vidal, SJ - Kakuma Pastoral Coordinator, JRS Kenya 

Located in north-western Kenya near the Sudanese border, the camp opened in 2002 and currently hosts over 100,000 refugees. In Kakuma, JRS runs a comprehensive psychosocial counselling programme, an educational scholarship programme, a JRS ‘safe haven’ for vulnerable women and children; and the Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC: HEM) programme which provides online higher education study opportunities for refugees at the camp.