By Doris Yu
August 20, 2014 — Jesuit Father Pau Vidal offered a glimpse into life at a Kenyan refugee camp during his recent visit to the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA (JRS/USA) headquarters in Washington, D.C. Fr. Vidal, originally from Barcelona, served the last two years with JRS at the Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya near the borders of South Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda.
JRS began working in the Kakuma camp in 1994, responding to refugees fleeing the civil war in Sudan. The camp hosts about 150,000 refugees today, most of whom are from Somalia and South Sudan. Refugees from varying countries and conflicts have come and gone over the 22 years of Kakuma’s operation, but many stay for a substantial period of their lives.
For residents of the camp, time can be the refugees’ worst enemy. “Life in the camp is basically about waiting. You wait to get food every two weeks because there is not enough water to plant your own vegetables, you need to wait at the water tap, you need to wait at the hospital. … That’s one of the most difficult things to handle,” said Fr. Vidal, whose next assignment will be as project director in Maban, South Sudan, JRS/Eastern Africa’s newest project in the Upper Nile State. Not only do refugees need to cope with the traumatic experiences of the countries from which they flee, but they also struggle with not knowing when their exile will end.
“The refugees are completely dependent on others for food, fuel, shelter … That’s an affront to human dignity,” said Jesuit Father Kevin White, Mission & Identity Coordinator for JRS/USA. Many resources in the camp are in short supply, but dignity is what the refugees lack most. “JRS’ efforts in education and pastoral care certainly address that, all under the umbrella of what we describe as ‘accompaniment,’” he said, referring to the core mission of the organization.
JRS provides a number of services at Kakuma, including counseling, mental health wards, safe haven houses for survivors of sexual or gender-based abuse, scholarships, the Jesuit Commons: Higher Educations at the Margins (JC:HEM) program and pastoral care, all to make the refugees’ time in the camp more worthwhile. The programs also train refugees to provide these services for each other, so that refugees may receive care from those more familiar with their own languages and cultures.
Education keeps the refugees’ stay in Kakuma from becoming time lost and gives their days structure, said Fr. Vidal. “It’s very important that we strengthen our educational presence, that we give more opportunities for people to find it meaningful, so that their time in exile is not wasted,” he said.
Additionally, the presence of JRS staff at Kakuma provides opportunity for refugees to find dignity through relationships. “Accompaniment means being .there with the refugees and trying as much as possible to build up a relationship or friendship,” said Fr. Vidal, who would regularly visit the refugees at Kakuma.
As Fr. Vidal walked to work in the camp, children who knew him would wait along his route to offer him small gifts of candy, the only luxuries they had. “The kids are the ones who keep hope alive,” said Fr. Vidal. “They’ve gone through so much, and when they feel safe enough, they start opening up — they start being kids again — and it’s beautiful to see that despite all the challenges they’ve gone through, they are able to enjoy life, to learn and to spread joy around them.”
The simple visibility of JRS staff has a large effect on the refugees, said Fr. Vidal. “The refugees are the ones who tell you, ‘We are grateful that you are here, that you don’t look at the time when you come visit our homes, that you bless our houses, that you baptize your children, that you reach out to everybody, that you walk in the camp or use your bicycle to go from the residence to the educational center.’ I think accompaniment is about that opportunity, reaching out, leaving your comfort zone, and exposing yourself.”
Read more about Fr. Vidal on his blog here and watch the video below about the JC:HEM program at Kakuma.