Kenya: Jesuit superior visits Kakuma refugee camp
17 December 2009

Superior General Adolfo Nicolas SJ speaks to Somali refugees during his visit to Kakuma refugee camp. (Frido Pflueger SJ/JRS)
“I am impressed to find people like you who work with dedication to heal this suffering,” said Fr. General Adolfo Nicholas, S.J.

Kakuma, 17 December 2009 — Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas SJ, visited Kakuma refugee camp in north-western Kenya on 17 December.

JRS staff welcomed Fr. General, who was accompanied by the JRS Eastern Africa Regional Director, the Jesuit Provincial of the East African Province and two of his counsellors. Kenyan Government District Officer, Eric Wanyonyi, then gave the visitors an overview of the Turkana West District where Kakuma is located.

During breakfast the visitors had a chance to meet the JRS team and learn about JRS activities in Kakuma. Fr. General showed particular interest in child abduction cases and JRS’s work with victims of domestic violence and briefly shared his experience of working with migrants.

At the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) he was welcomed by the Head of Sub Office, Dr. Mohammed Quassim, who briefed the group on the current camp situation. He stressed the fact that since the recent transfer of 13,000 Somali refugees from the overcrowded Dadaab camps in north-eastern Kenya, the situation in Kakuma should no longer be considered a situation of protracted displacement but one of emergency.

Fr. General was then taken for an overview drive through the camp. The convoy stopped in an area where newly arrived Somalis were settling down for their stay in Kakuma. Men and women were busy building houses that will replace the white plastic sheet tents erected by UNHCR upon their arrival. Fr. General followed the invitation of a Somali man to visit his tent. Inside the plastic structure, the space was shockingly bare: a mat rolled up on the ground that was still soggy after the recent rainy spell, a few books carefully kept from harm’s way in a fold of the plastic sheeting, a new mosquito net dangling from the top wooden beam and a pair of jeans hung on a nail in one of the supporting poles were the only properties visible in this newcomer’s dwelling. “I am happy to be in Kakuma where I finally feel safe,” the owner of the tent explained. He turned out to be a teacher who had been separated from his family in Somalia. “I hope I will be able to teach in one of the camp schools,” he told Fr. General.

Many other Somali refugees, who in the meantime had gathered in front of the tent, were eager to share their experiences, voice their problems and struggles while Fr. General listened intently amid the group. After visiting a newly built one room house, he thanked everyone stressing the fact that “it is important for your community to organise yourselves and present your problems.”

The camp tour continued with visits to one of the three JRS daycare centres and the JRS run protection centre “safe haven” where women and children who are facing threats to their lives in the community find safe accommodation. Children with developmental disabilities from the daycare centres welcomed Fr. General with a song before they started competing over who would shake hands with him first.

Meanwhile, over 100 incentive workers - refugees working with JRS in the various communities and JRS centres – had gathered to speak with Fr. General about their work. JRS Counsellor, Christopher Abilomit, briefly gave some insights into their work, the challenges they face and the harmful traditions and prejudices that affect the communities and to which JRS tries to respond.

“I realise there is an impressive amount of suffering in Kakuma,” Fr. General told the group in turn. “I am impressed to find people like you who work with dedication to heal this suffering,” he added. He explained that, although the material shortages are a huge problem, the bigger problems are in the hearts of the people. Fr. General concluded by thanking everyone, saying: “I encourage you to continue because what you do saves the world. A society, that cannot heal itself, has no future. You help the society know that there is healing and hope and this is the best gift you can give to others.”

After lunch at the JRS house, JRS EA Regional Director, Fr. Frido Pflueger SJ, exchanged some ideas about the relationship of JRS and the Society of Jesus with Fr. General, making it clear that JRS is a Jesuit work and, as such, a genuine part of the Society. “One thing that encourages me most is the ability of JRS to work with others whether it means other religious, lay people, or members of other faith traditions,” Fr. General said.

The day concluded with a visit to the JRS educational centre where Nicolas and the group were welcomed by the Burundian “Talking Drums,” a youth group performing traditional music and dance. Community leaders and students shared about their experiences and challenges, such as the lack of educational possibilities in Kakuma. Fr. General in turn urged them to make use of their talents. “It is one of the main roles of the community leaders to find out who can do what in the community. Start doing things and then you can cooperate much better with JRS and with others. You begin. Don’t expect everything to come from above,” he told them.

The meeting ended with a joyful dance from a Sudanese youth group, which was soon joined by Fr. General and other JRS staff. “We could feel that Fr. General came to be among the people, to listen to the joys and challenges of those he encountered,” said JRS Project Director, Hezekiah Ronald Ombiro at the end of the visit. “His visit also demonstrated that there is unity among the Society of Jesus, JRS and the people we serve,” he added.

Kakuma Refugee Camp was established in 1992 for Sudanese refugees who were fleeing civil war in Sudan. At present Kakuma Refugee Camp accommodates over 63,000 refugees of eleven different nationalities with Somalis now the majority and the others coming from Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Eritrea and the Great Lakes region.

JRS started working in Kakuma in 1994 providing mainly psycho-social and educational support. Responding to the needs of the most vulnerable, JRS focuses on counselling and mental health care, training and empowering community counsellors, alternative healers and mental health workers from among the refugees. JRS also offers educational scholarships for distance learning programmes with the University of South Africa (UNISA) and the Kenya Institute of Social Work and Community Development (KISWCD). Under the same programme, children with disabilities are sponsored to Kenyan schools where special needs teachers and facilities are available. Scholarships for primary girls and secondary boys and girls are offered to well-performing needy students.

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