By Matthew Ippel SJ, American Magazine
When it looked like the novel coronavirus was going to come to South Sudan in late March, our Jesuit Refugee Service national staff was ordered to return to their families, while international staff would return to their countries of origin.
Since our programs do not entail life-saving activities—like health, food, water and sanitation—the decision to recall J.R.S. staff from our project was prudent. Their health and safety was a priority. Going home allowed my colleagues to care for themselves and their loved ones in these times of fear and uncertainty. While some of the national staff returned to other parts of the country, local staff remained with their families in Maban. And like other international staff, I would also be heading home.
But I felt I had a different responsibility. Do I stay to accompany the people? Or do I go back to the United States to wait for an unknown return date?
A burning desire arose to remain with the people I have journeyed with over the last year, although that desire was paired with an abyss of unknowns. Returning to the United States felt foreign, yet straightforward; judicious, yet unimaginable. As a Jesuit, I felt called to be physically present, to continue fulfilling our mission’s humanitarian and evangelical mandate.
Northeastern South Sudan is one of the most remote and vulnerable parts of the world. At J.R.S. Maban, we accompany 150,000 Sudanese refugees from the Blue Nile region spread across four refugee camps and more than 70,000 local South Sudanese, who are too familiar with forced displacement, having been refugees in Ethiopia some decades before. We run activities for young women and men who are developing their capacities as leaders, concerned members of their communities and reflective human beings. We offer a rehabilitation program for children with disabilities in one of the refugee camps and conduct home visits to the elderly, people with disabilities and widows. We collaborate with parishioners of St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Maban who, two years ago, had shown extraordinary courage and care for the J.R.S. mission. When hundreds of local youth were intent on rioting one morning against humanitarian agencies, they placed themselves in front of our compound to deescalate the situation.
Since mid-2013, J.R.S. has been working in Maban. Maban County is a dusty, flat stretch that borders Sudan. The dry season sees scorching temperatures and incredible amounts of dust covering every surface and sticking to dripping sweat. Dirt roads allow access to the main towns and the refugee camps but become more rugged in the rural areas. Despite the region’s fertile land, food insecurity is a recurring concern. While most humanitarian agencies are housed next to an airstrip and the United Nations compound, since its arrival in mid-2013, J.R.S. has been headquartered near the market, on a plot of land offered by the Catholic parish. While the compound looks similar to other humanitarian agencies—a mix of single and multiple occupancy rooms, tents and mud huts with office spaces and a dining space—our location in the main town separates us from the humanitarian enclave near the airstrip. Out of our 60-member team, only a third live within the compound. Others rent traditional huts around the market area, while those who are from Maban live on their plots of land with their families and livestock.
I was in Juba enjoying a few days of rest when I was notified of the impending evacuation. I had planned to return to Maban after my break, and this news caught me off guard. I wondered about all the communities and people we accompany. What would happen to the J.R.S. teacher training program and all of our mental health activities? And the thought crossed my mind: Could a small team of us remain behind to carry on some of our efforts and, most important, continue our ministry of accompaniment?
Many important questions emerged. How many humanitarian agencies are remaining? What would happen to food supply with the closure of borders? Would internal travel continue? For how long would we remain in Maban? Any decision to stay here would likely be for months considering the uncertainties of air travel and the possible outbreak of Covid-19 in densely populated refugee camps.
At this point, we were all set to leave. But I was restless. I had no idea what would be in store if I were to stay, but leaving also scared me. What if I could not return to Maban? How would I share my gratitude for the care and friendship of countless refugees and local South Sudanese who have become my friends?
As a Jesuit, I have a certain freedom, not having the same obligations toward a spouse and children like my colleagues do, which allowed me to be available and open to remaining, especially in such challenging and ever-changing circumstances. I would be remiss to say I did not think about my own family. Thankfully, however, my parents are in good health and diligently taking precautions. My sister and her family are keeping safe, too. This made it easier to consider staying.
In between phone calls with our acting project director in Maban and attempting to gather my flood of thoughts, I found some time and space for silence. For prayer.
At that moment, a memory entered my heart, from my annual retreat last August: “Yo te invito a permanecer…conmigo…con la gente que te ha acogida y que has acogido.” That is, “I invite you to remain...with me...with the people who have welcomed you and whom you have welcomed.”
Amid the concern for our team, the precariousness of what has been unfolding in our world, the pending evacuation of some humanitarians and the perennial remaining of many refugees and local South Sudanese, I experienced deep peace. It was clear. God’s invitation to me was to remain with the Sudanese refugees and the local South Sudanese. And so I chose to accept that invitation.
Even though my own desire and, dare I say, God’s desire for me to stay seemed quite clear, I was also under obedience to a Jesuit superior. I could not simply make a decision like that on my own. It needed to be approved. I wrote to my Jesuit superior, over 7,000 miles away in Chicago, requesting his permission to stay in Maban, accompanied by a Jesuit from Kenya, Francis, who also wanted to remain with the people in Maban.
After telling my superior and the J.R.S. international director about my desire to remain, they agreed that our presence would be important. Important not only for pandemic prevention efforts but to continue accompanying the people. This is the core of our J.R.S. mission.
Francis and I form a small Jesuit community, supporting each other while also representing our J.R.S. colleagues who are the backbone of our mission in Maban. While there are only two of us living in the compound now, some local colleagues and refugee volunteers have been recalled to join us in raising awareness around Covid-19 through home visits to the over 2,000 elderly and disabled persons who we regularly accompany. Furthermore, a handful of colleagues scattered across the globe support our work remotely. They provide logistical and programmatic support, maintaining open and fluid lines of communication with other humanitarian organizations and partners. It has been a source of consolation and encouragement to have care and support from J.R.S. colleagues and friends. In a unique way, we are continuing our mission together.
And so here we are, Francis and me. Adjusting. We celebrate the Eucharist, not unlike before, either under the stars or in a small cinder block room that has become our chapel. We carry the prayers and intentions of people near and far, and we have more time to talk about how we have encountered God during the week. Large parish gatherings have progressively ceased at the request of the bishop and the government. We do, however, meet in small groups for Masses, prayers and faith sharing, which is permitted by the local authorities.
Easter celebrations were rather simple, yet the faith and commitment were palpable among the few who attended. On Sundays, Francis and I travel to the parish “outstations” in the villages to celebrate Mass or a Communion service. J.R.S. educational and psychosocial activities remain suspended, although our small team continues to accompany communities in times of such uncertainty and anxiety through home visits to the most vulnerable and small discussion groups with youth to brainstorm creative ways of implementing the preventive measures. Connecting virtually with fellow Jesuits, friends and family as well as being grounded in my prayer life are sources of strength and support for me.
As of May 13, there are 203 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in South Sudan. And while uncertainty and worry have traveled faster than any virus could, the refugees and local South Sudanese remain hopeful that we will persevere through the pandemic. As one refugee friend shared the other day, “Some of that hope lies in the belief that if we pray and we deeply believe, God will protect us.” Others think Maban is too far, too remote to be affected by the pandemic. Others suggest the heat will kill any virus. Maybe it’s an unrealistic aspiration. But I don’t think so. I think the people here have lived through the worst humanity has to offer: civil wars, extreme poverty, forced displacement, deprived of adequate health and educational services. For many, their faith has enabled them not only to endure challenging times but to imagine and work toward a more hopeful future.
Life in Maban is beautiful and heart-breaking. Rumors circulate like wildfire. Increased anti-foreigner rhetoric and actions have surfaced in different parts of the country in light of the four confirmed Covid-19 cases, including rumors on social media that foreigners deliberately brought the disease into the country. The long-awaited peace is fragile and unpredictable, yet South Sudanese want peace more than anything. In the refugee camps, physical distancing is a significant challenge. Families live in close proximity with one another, with multiple individuals, including many little children, residing in the same household. Inadequate access to water, soap and sanitary facilities also complicate the adherence to certain preventive measures.
It is in this reality that my heart is broken open to the joy, awe and enduring resilience of the Sudanese refugees and local Mabanese. And, my heart breaks witnessing the dehumanizing poverty, inadequate social structures and violent behavior also present in Maban. Each day, I feel intimately close to Christ crucified and resurrected. Amid the myths and rumors, inadequate facilities and resources, and the challenges of extreme poverty and violence, Sudanese refugees and South Sudanese, nourished by their resilience, give me hope in these unprecedented times.
Surely, the doubts and unknowns grew as I discerned and conversed with my superiors about remaining in Maban. So, too, did my desire to remain faithful to my vocation. Maintaining our presence has allowed J.R.S. to continue its mission of accompaniment, service and advocacy for and with refugees and displaced persons in Maban. At the start of each week, new opportunities emerge to sensitize and engage the communities; conversations are opening doors to new ways of connecting with primary students from the parish school and teacher trainees from the refugee camps; and daily visits with vulnerable community members are marked with gratitude for our presence.
I am grateful for how the Spirit has persistently invited me to greater openness and availability for this mission with J.R.S. in South Sudan. Just as the challenges are great, so, too, are the graces. Here in Maban, the graces abound and overflow.
Matthew Ippel, S.J., is a Jesuit working with the Jesuit Refugee Service (J.R.S.) in Maban, South Sudan.