This is a guest post by Cait O’Donnell.
Cait O’Donnell currently works with immigrants and refugees at the African Family Health Organization in Philadelphia. Since her time as a Jesuit Volunteer in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (2011-2013), her professional life has been dedicated to serving and empowering refugees and migrants both in the United States and abroad, including Rwanda and South Sudan. A graduate of the Boston College School of Social Work, she has cultivated expertise in culturally sensitive psychosocial services and community-based approaches. In her free time, Cait is an enthusiast for biking, visiting new places, playing music, and making art.
Until I lived there, South Sudan was more of a concept than an actual place. I had ideas about its poverty and its people, but mostly just its poverty, if I’m being honest. We’ve all seen the images on the news at one point or another: mud huts, hungry children, dusty landscapes. It all blends into the other desolate narratives coming out of Africa, doesn’t it? According to the news, South Sudan is a violent, chaotic place, and I never in a million years thought I’d have a reason to go. So it remained framed within the confines of my TV screen for a long time.
But in the spring of 2018, I got an email from a Jesuit priest who was the Country Director for the Jesuit Refugee Service in South Sudan. A coordinator was needed for the mental health and psychosocial programs run by JRS, he said. Can you get here in six weeks? The process for deciding to agree to this is probably worth its own blog post, so I’ll spare you the details for now. In the end I went for it, and I stayed for 18 months.
The Jesuit Refugee Service was founded in 1980, so compared to its other humanitarian counterparts in the business (think Save the Children and Catholic Relief Services) it is young and scrappy. The Jesuits sure do love their punchy taglines; just as JVC has its four pillars, JRS has three of its own: Accompany, Advocate, Serve. Present in over 50 countries around the world, JRS is globally known for the strength of its education programs: providing scholarship opportunities, running schools, training teachers, and the like. Its psychosocial work has been an area of growth for JRS in recent years too, and this is the area I’d be focusing on upon joining the organization.
In South Sudan, JRS’ biggest project was in the Upper Nile state of the country, very close to the borders of Sudan and Ethiopia. The area is called Maban (“ma-BAHN”, not “MAY-ban”, as I pronounced it upon arrival, to everyone’s great amusement) and currently there are about 160,000 Sudanese refugees living in 4 massive camps there. JRS’ psychosocial work in Maban is to provide material and psychosocial assistance to vulnerable households in the community. We facilitated support groups, conducted home visits, and provided counseling for couples and for victims of sexual violence. There were also youth sports programs and trainings in conflict resolution and peer counseling.
The place that had always seemed so remote to me was now my home. It was a lot to absorb at first. I can report that the mud huts we’ve all seen on TV are very real, and there are indeed a ton of hungry children running around over there. South Sudan really is violent and chaotic. The government is still feeble with less than a decade of independence under its belt, there are a lot of guns floating around, and people are very poor. It’s not a good combination. Maban in particular is isolated in almost every way a place can be isolated: economically, geographically, culturally, and politically. I realized pretty quickly that the news reports and the pictures I’d seen over the years weren’t exaggerating the dire situation in South Sudan.
But what I also realized is that the news reports and pictures I’d seen were incomplete. The poverty, the violence, the mud huts and hungry children are all there. But so are secret handshakes and love stories and inside jokes. There are beautiful new babies born to loving parents and students who are really good at math. There are young women who refuse to get married even though everybody in the village is telling them to. There are cool hair styles and brand new shoes, there are cups of tea shared among old friends, and family gatherings on holidays. There are favorite colors, birthdays, and best friends. There is, in short, human life just like ours. Despite the tragedy playing out in the background, there are still innumerable small joys of human life unfolding, and dignity is finding its way to the sunlight through the cracks in the sidewalk.
Human dignity deserves more than a crack in the sidewalk, though. It deserves more respect and deeper attention than a news segment can give it. Some part of us, as Jesuit Volunteers, is aware of this. In our short time as JV’s we had the privilege of witnessing this humanity in some of society’s darker corners—not just South Sudan, but on the Lakota reservation, in the mountains of Peru, on the streets of Baltimore, in the neighborhoods of Oakland and El Paso and Trenton and everywhere else JV’s have been. We come to know these places, and these places are transformed for us. They become real, they are populated by lives and stories, not just statistics and headlines, and we have a responsibility to keep them that way. As JV’s, we’re commissioned to be continuous ambassadors for the favorite colors and best friendships that might not flourish in the face of poverty, discrimination, and injustice. We have to keep telling the stories, remembering the names, and relentlessly align ourselves with their best interests.
As time goes by and we get farther away from our service with JVC, this gets harder to do, doesn’t it? The faces become blurry, the details are lost, the names fade. Our motivation to fight and advocate on their behalf wanes over time. The distance slowly reasserts itself, and eventually that place is reduced to mere mud huts and hungry children beneath a TV headline again. I’ve been home from South Sudan for just three months, but I find this distancing is happening for me already.
Remember someone who you witnessed and accompanied during your time as a Jesuit Volunteer today. When South Sudan is in my prayers, it helps me to picture the faces and name the names of my colleagues at JRS and the friends I had in Maban. It’s a long list, and often it’s just a list, but the practice helps me remember them and keep South Sudan closer to me. It reminds me to keep sharing their stories and to keep working towards justice. It inspires me to write things like this. It’s a small refresher on the commitment I made to those people and that place: that accompaniment and our work in service of human dignity is never really finished.
Featured image by Cait O’Donnell.