Darfur, 10 November 2015 –"My life has blown away like wind to dust and I will never get it back. Working with refugees is like working with a cracked pot that must be handled with care," a fellow JRS worker told me on my first day on the job in Kakuma refugee camp in 2008.
This drew mixed reactions as it was my first time ever in a refugee camp. I quickly learned that a refugee camp is a place with many layers; a layer of hopelessness, a layer of survival and protection from persecution and so forth, but also a layer of hope and happiness for those able to access education and psychosocial guidance by organisations like the Jesuit Refugee Service. While in Kakuma, our team assisted many refugees to overcome trauma related problems and shattered education dreams as well as guided refugees to counsel others in their community.
Five years later, I transferred to JRS South Sudan in Yambio county, Western Equatoria state to launch services for returnees coming home after years in exile. The returnees had high expectations of JRS and the community school infrastructure was at its knees. However, Yambio did have relative peace, attracting thousands of South Sudanese returning from exile in Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Catholic Diocese of Tomburo Yambio helped us to access most of the areas. We quickly realized the needs of people were high and the situation was dire.
People had lived in refugee camps for years and were not accustomed to providing for their own needs, an entire generation had lost agricultural knowledge needed to feed their communities. Like today, schools lacked government support and were in dire conditions. Parents were offering their girls for marriage in order to acquire the dowry for their family's survival. In Yambio, my heart broke regularly realising that basic services, such as sanitation, water and roads, were non-existent.
Our team in Yambio responded with compassion and determination. We procured furniture, re-built dilapidated schools and constructed new ones; we ensured all schools were equipped with necessary materials and all teachers were trained to be efficient in the classroom. These efforts increased enrolment the schools incredibly. Even though many of these children's parents had never attended a day in school in their life, they contributed their time and resources to ensuring a brighter future for their children.
I later moved to Sudan in July 2013 to take on the role of JRS Darfur Project Director. In Darfur, our work is similar to our projects in Yambio - re-constructing and equipping schools to provide adequate learning spaces for the internally displaced community.
I'll never forget the day we had completed the construction of four classrooms and a PTA chairman said, "Today JRS has placed a permanent mark on our hearts and our children."
The communities identified with JRS because they were at the centre of designing and implementing all the projects.
For more than eight years I have journeyed with JRS – learning from people from all over the world and never failing to be inspired by the resilience of refugees. They have strengthened my spirit and opened my eyes – they have taught me that nothing is impossible.
As the world is faced with more and more conflicts, JRS should not shy away from responding to those displaced from violence. I encourage the organisation to continue to expand despite tension and exclusion of many host governments in the region. We must engage in productive dialogue to ensure services are being rendered to the less fortunate.
JRS is a source of inspiration and a ray of hope for those displaced across eastern Africa. To be present to populations trapped with the consequences of conflict is to serve all of humanity.
Hezekiah Ronald Ombiro, JRS Darfur Project Director and Acting JRS Sudan Director