At Work and Play in a Refugee Camp (September 29, 2012)
Written by Karen Stiller
Published by The Anglican Planet on Saturday, September 29, 2012
On the day I visited a sprawling, crowded refugee camp in the Maban district of South Sudan in late May, a new mother lay on the concrete floor of the hospital there, two hours after surviving an emergency caesarean section. She is alive, and so is her baby. In a muddy camp hosting more than 90,000 refugees in the world's newest nation - with one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates - this feels like no small miracle.
Dr. Atar Ahada is the surgeon here - and a hero in South Sudan. He's known as a tireless caregiver who, like the captain of a sinking ship, refused to leave a health clinic that was being bombed during the worst days of Africa's longest civil war in history between the North and the South of Sudan.
Stories abound about Ahada and his commitment to the cause of what is now South Sudan, and to Christ. When he couldn't feed the nurses working under his care during the war, Ahada sent them home to their families and recruited male nurses from the army instead. He trained them; the army fed them. Years later, many of them are his nurses still, working alongside him now at his refugee camp providing emergency medical care to the victims of a conflict that rages on, even though the war is officially over.
"If this situation is difficult, for sure, God knows why he has brought me here," says Ahada. "I can work anywhere, but I believe God has called me here. That is why I am here."
That sentiment is repeated time and time again by the other staff and volunteers of Samaritan's Purse, the Christian international relief agency (in Canada, headquartered in Calgary) partnering with the United Nations to provide food, water and medical care to the refugees.
It is Samaritan's Purse that has brought me here to this camp and another in South Sudan, just kilometres from the border with the North where the bombing is the heaviest. The trip was the idea of Franklin Graham, president and CEO of Samaritan's Purse International. He suggested that Jeff Adams, communications director for Samaritan's Purse Canada, find a way to let Canada know what is happening here. The answer was to put together a small team of Canadian journalists. I am the designated faith reporter, travelling with a CTV photojournalist from Calgary and a CBC freelancer from Toronto.
The refugees certainly didn't ask to be here, but those who serve them did.
Peter Wright is 26 and from Belleville, Ont. He is logistics manager for Samaritan's Purse, a supply guy who figures out what to get, where to get it, when and from whom in order to keep the resources flowing smoothly in the camp. He lives in a tent in the NGO compound.
"It's the right thing to do," he says. "I applied to come here. I felt this is what God wanted me to do. I've seen a lot of faith out here that doesn't need big buildings. People are suffering and still trusting and believing."
The suffering are victims of a merciless bombing campaign by the government of Sudan - what used to be Northern Sudan before the country was formally cut in half following a January 2011 referendum favouring independence for the South.
The conflict is defined by North/South, Arabic/Black, Muslim/Christian differences with disputed oil supplies thrown in for good measure. The line that was carved across the two nations locked members of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) - who fought alongside Southern Sudan for the long disputed South Kordorfan and Blue Nile states - into what is literally the enemy territory of the North, making them a target for the government of the North.
The world applauded when the South wanted to be independent from the North and form its own country. That has happened. But independence never comes without a cost, and the people lined up outside the camp to register by the hundreds one day, the thousands on another, are paying a dear one.
Mohanchuna Hada knows this too well. He lost two sisters to the "bombardment," a word you hear again and again listening to the stories of the refugees. They refer to the bombs dropped by the Antonov airplanes that circle over their homes, schools and villages. "In one day, there were seven bombs," Hada says, as he waits to register with UNESCO, and then receives a food ration from Samaritan's Purse.
Some of the refugees have walked for ten days and more to reach what they hope will be some kind of sanctuary. An entire school's worth of children, over 400, has travelled for more than a week to reach the camp. Families line up, keeping an eye on the bedsprings, plastic containers and bags full of belongings that many have brought with them, the bare bones of a life interrupted.
What they find here, and in the other refugee camp we visit, are makeshift schools, churches and markets, a water supply on the verge of a deadly shortage, hundreds of children separated from heir parents and the ever-present potential for a disease outbreak that Samaritan's Purse staff pray will not happen.
"I think people back home need to know what is happening here, the need and the conflict," says Wright. "I love kids. It's very difficult to see kids that are so playful suffering, to see malnourished children."
The kids are playful here, like they are everywhere. They run to meet and greet and have their picture taken. And the ones who are malnourished seem - at least during my brief visit - to be receiving the care they need.
This will change.
Just two months after our trip the news reports from the refugee camps of South Sudan are alarming. Rainy season has begun. Latrines are overflowing, camps are flooding. Children are dying - nine a day according to one recent report in The New York Times.
This was a statistic that would have been easier to hear, I'm sad to say, before I came to understand - yet again - that each statistic represents a player of tether ball with a tall stick and a raggedy ball, a student sitting under a tree trying to learn on a day when the air is heavy with heat, a little boy hoisting himself up on a donkey to act goofy for a visitor to their camp, and a warm, sticky hand thrust out to shake. TAP
Karen Stiller is a freelance writer and editor, and associate editor of Faith Today magazine. www.karenstiller.com
What you can do:
Visit www.samaritanspurse.ca to find out how you can donate to the work being done by Samaritan's Purse in refugee camps in South Sudan.
Pray for the refugee community and those who serve them. The camps are full of committed Christians, pastors, and entire churches who have fled their communities for what they hope will be the safety of the camps.
Pray for the Church in South Sudan and Sudan. Visit www.sudan.anglican.org to read statements by the World Council of Churches and the All Africa Conference Churches.