Kenya: a renewed sense of belonging
19 August 2012

The author, Sr. Jacinta Mene, cradles a one-month old baby from Congo during a home visit. (JRS)
Home visits are a large part of my pastoral work and I feel it is a real privilege for me to be able to meet refugee families and encourage them, sharing their joys and sorrow.
Nairobi, 19 August 2012 – One and a half years after starting my work with urban refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, I can look back and say it has been a privilege. I feel blessed that the Lord has granted me the opportunity to share my experiences as a pastoral worker with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).

My first thoughts on starting work with JRS were linked to my observations of the strong faith of refugees in God. It was a challenge for me to understand how refugees could be so strong despite all the torture and hard moments they had undergone. But with time, l realised this faith is what keeps them moving despite their inner wounds.

Praying with refugees

In order to keep this optimism and hope going, l decided to start four prayer groups in the six parishes I serve. The aim was to encourage refugees to come together to share the word of God and help each other to face life, promoting inner reconciliation. The groups allow refugees to reach out to each other through prayers and by paying home visits to new mothers, those who are sick, or those who have recently been bereaved. The groups also contribute a small financial donation, and this kitty is used to buy essentials for those most in need.

What encourages me most is to see how the members of these prayer groups develop a feeling of responsibility towards each other and gain a renewed sense of belonging away from their home countries. Two groups recently surprised me by hosting a party paid for out of their own pockets, marking the one-year anniversary since the group started.
Support for women

A proportion of my time is spent working directly with women's groups to deal with their specific issues and problems. I have one group of 15 Somali women who I meet with every week to share life issues and undertake group counselling. These women are all single mothers whose husbands have been abducted or killed by armed groups back in Somalia.

I also meet regularly with a group of commercial sex workers. These women have the desire to change to a better life and are very open with me. They have all thanked me for bringing a ray of hope into their lives and for being one of the only people willing to listen to their plight. Before I started meeting with them, they felt completely rejected by society, both for being refugees and for their way of life. Time flies during our meetings and we discuss topics such as the behaviour change process and HIV/AIDS. Already, three of the five women have started alternative income generating activities using loans provided by JRS.

Sharing trauma

Home visits are a large part of my pastoral work and I feel it is a real privilege for me to be able to meet refugee families and encourage them, sharing their joys and sorrow. It is during these moments that refugees feel able to share stories of the hard times they have spent fleeing from their countries.

I remember Susan* from Congo who came to Kenya in 2011. She shared a very touching story with me. She explained that back in Congo she had a good life as a nurse and she and her husband lived happily with their five children. She was wealthy enough to manage her own farm and employed many workers. However war started in the area where they were living and her husband was abducted. After that, she and her five children would run to the forest to hide every time the rebels came near. This continued for three years, until the war worsened and their family (plus many others from the village) were captured and held in the forest. Untold misery occurred from that point onwards with rape and killings being regular occurrences. On one terrible day, the rebels threatened to kill all the children. When it was her family's turn, an amazing thing happened. One of the former caretakers of her farm persuaded the rebels to let the family go free. In return, he forced to Susan to give him all the family property. She willingly agreed to his terms as she was desperate for him to help them escape. Susan and her children managed to flee Congo and reach Nairobi.

After telling her life experience, Susan burst into tears. I also felt the same way, but remained strong in order to accompany and support her. Susan's life experience is actually one of many shared by refugees. Some refugees tell me that until I knocked on their door, they had not been visited by anyone since they arrived in Kenya.

I am very grateful to my Lord who has brought me this far, to JRS for the full support to carry out this mission and to the Little Sisters of Jesus for giving me the opportunity to be with the refugees.

JRS has been assisting urban refugees in Nairobi since 1991. The Urban Emergency Programme responds to the urgent unmet needs of new arrivals, asylum seekers and most vulnerable refugees through parishes of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, situated in lower income and slum areas. JRS helps refugees survive in a situation new to them through provision of food and non-food items, financial and medical assistance, pastoral and psychosocial support.

[*Not real name]

The author, Sister Jacinta Mene, is Pastoral Coordinator for JRS Kenya. Read more about World Humanitarian Day and show your support here: or on the Eastern Africa site here: