Camilo is a hyperactive adolescent. With the ever smiling face, he is full of joy. He is a refugee boy from South Sudan, a country full of young people who have never known what is to live in a peaceful country. One day in mid-April 2017 at the sound of gunshots together with his villagers Camilo ran towards the borders of Uganda for safety and refuge. Even at the young age of 13 he experienced all sorts of war atrocities, which are fresh in his mind.
Camilo was in Primary Class Seven at the time of his escape to Uganda. When he arrived in Uganda he was enrolled in an emergency school for refugees started by various organizations to cater for the thousands of refugee children. He was demoted to Primary Class Six so as to get used to the new Ugandan curriculum. The school is made of tarpaulin sheets for roof and floor with no furniture even for the teacher. As more and more refugees poured into the Camp, the classes are over crowed with no amenities to call as facilities. Thanks to Camilo’s natural intelligence and hard work for two years he passed his Primary Leaving Education with good results.
Examples such as this are not strange to refugee children. Girls are even pushed to greater challenges. Sandra finished her seven years of Primary Schooling going through four different schools in different Refugee Camps. Alice had to brew local alcoholic drink to fend for her education. Examples can be endless. Given to cultural bias towards girls’ education, insecurity, constant mobility and pressing domestic work girls have to manure through difficulties of all kinds to go to school.
Camilo, Sandra and Alice are perhaps the lucky ones among the 30,000+ children and youth in Palabek Refugee Settlement. They are among the 131 children and adolescents taken out of the Palabek Refugee Camp to other Don Bosco Schools such as St. Mary’s Namaliga in central Uganda and Catholic Centers such as St. Maurtiz in Gulu in northern Uganda for education with boarding facilities. Today Camilo is the best student in his secondary school year two class and a favourite student of his science teachers. Sandra and Alice are living with new found happiness.
In any Refugee Settlement Camp in Uganda, 86% of the population consists of women and children. At least 50% of the refugee population is below the age of 13. Among the population, the largest section of young people is teenage girls who are the most vulnerable. Many have gone through the trauma of war and deprivation. Not a few have gone through experiences of abuse in body and mind.
In Palabek, the Salesians of Don Bosco Missionaries live amidst the refugees sharing their life’s challenges as well as their aspirations for education. Just like many other Salesian works in various refugee camps and centers for migrants in Africa, here in Palabek Salesians run several Early Childhood Development Centers (Nursery schools/Kindergarten), Vocational Training Center for young people, feeding programme in schools, and youth centers with variety of youth services. We believe in the integral formation of youth, especially among the most vulnerable youth of today, such as Refugee Youth.
What the Salesians do for education in the Refugee Settlement is a drop in the ocean. In Palabek, with our favorable educational facilities we are able to absorb only about 1500 students in our establishments. When we take in students in our own schools within the Refugee Settlement we provide for them uniforms (it is more for clothing them with decent clothes rather than as uniform), provide scholastic materials, feed them with midday meal and where necessary provide things for personal care, including medical attention.
Due to constant mobility, lack of food and surmounting stress, several of our children have developed ulcers, poor eye sight and other chronic illness. With us, with better food many of them grow healthier and happier. Our School Sponsorship Programme with the generous donation from our friends in the USA and other Salesian Mission partners we are able to offer hope to at least 131 children. Education that they receive is not only a hope to them; it is also a hope to the broken nation of South Sudan that has seen war and conflict for several decades. Salesians strongly believe that peace and stability can be brought to this broken nation only by a new generation of youth who are better educated and emotionally and socially healed.
When the children return to the Refugee Settlement for semester holidays from their boarding Primary and Secondary Schools they interact with their relatives and to the Salesians in the Camp (many of them are orphans and semi-orphans) they express their heartfelt gratitude and renewed vigour to study even better. It is also an opportunity to give them necessary counseling and guidance as psychosocial support.
The very fact of receiving a decent education which they share with a normal young people their eyes are opened to new horizons of peace and healthy ambition to grow and help others to grow. It is also a great joy for the Salesians to see our former Vocational Trainees gainfully settled with their skills. Many hope to return to their motherland for better life.
Now during the time of Coronavirus epidemic Salesians are gathering them in small groups to distribute learning materials for group discussion and individual study. Many of them are also involved in subsistence farming in our chapels and youth centers for food security.
We appeal to friends and well-wishers for more support, so that we may reach out to more vulnerable young people.
Fr. Lazar Arasu SDB
The Director – Don Bosco Palabek