By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
The Salesian Fathers of the Africa Great Lakes province, which incorporates Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, commemorated the Feast of St John Bosco this year by taking up residence in Palabek refugee camp in Uganda. Newly-ordained Salesian Father Julius Luis Makalamba spoke with Vatican News about the Salesian presence among the refugees and how their presence is making a difference.
Why the Salesians chose Palabek
Fr Makalamba explained that Salesian priest Lazar Arasu heard about the refugee camp when he was ministering in an area not far from it. He then went to the camp to “see and greet” the refugees.
“There were so many of them that he started teaching them catechism. That’s how our mission there got started.”
How the Salesians help
The first response Fr Makalamba gave to a question regarding the services that the Salesians provide shows the priorities they have chosen. “We are preparing them for the sacraments”, he said. Only when prompted did he then speak about the educational aspect of their mission. Since moving to Palabek, the Salesians have begun operating four nursery schools and hope to open a technical school in January. Here they will offer “motor mechanics, agriculture, tailoring, hairdressing, plumbing and welding”. Some teachers will be selected from the refugees themselves. Others will come from Gulu and Kampala. The Salesians are in search of funding to provide for their salaries.
“It is not actually easy work to live in that place. It is very hot and there are plenty of mosquitoes and malaria. Each month at least one of us gets malaria.”
Salesians live with the refugees
Unlike those working for other humanitarian agencies and NGOs, the Salesians have chosen to live in the camp with the refugees. Fr Makalamba explained that if they were to live elsewhere it would be difficult for them, as well as unfair to the people they serve.
“It wouldn’t be a covenant unless we were in their midst. For us, to have a great impact on their lives, we have chosen to be with them there. We cannot be far away. As priests, we have to preach also by our example of living in their midst.”
The Salesian community is composed of members from various communities. Fr Makalamba and another priest in the community have been ordained only for 6 months.
“Living with those people is a great sign for us. We discover God’s presence there. To see how they’re suffering is, of course, an example of Jesus within these poor people at this time.”
Christmas concert funds
Fr Makalamba said that it was a “good call” that came notifying them that their mission had been chosen to receive proceeds from the Vatican’s Christmas concert. Since the funds have not yet arrived, the Salesians have not decided how they will be used. However, Fr Makalamba said that one of the biggest problems in the camp is food. As of February there were 42,000 refugees housed in the camp with an average of 300 new arrivals every week. Over 1 million others are housed in other camps. Most of the refugees, Makalamba said, are under 20.
"Young people are plenty here and they are starving. When you see the people starving, it is painful. What we are doing is looking for funds especially for food."
The Palabek refugee settlement was established in April 2017. On arrival, refugees receive a “startup kit”. It contains a tarpaulin, lights, blankets, pots and other basic household items. They are encouraged to cultivate the 30x30 meter plot of land they are given. 86% of the people in the camp are women and children.
About the Salesians in Palabek
A catechist in the camp could not contain her joy when she heard the news at the beginning of 2018 that the Salesians were coming. She had not attended Mass in six years. The Salesians are providing education, primarily for children. Youth formation, vocational training and entrepreneurship are offered to young people as they learn to manage activities in the camp itself. There is also a focus on hygiene and providing clean water and toilet facilities. Most of all, the Salesians are able to provide what other humanitarian agencies and NGOs cannot provide—pastoral care. In addition to making Mass and the sacrament available, the Salesians also provide counselling. They consider this latter “the foundation which gives sense to other activities and programs”.