Karaszewski: My experience at Bidibidi Refugee Settlement

November 27, 2018

This past August I was blessed to be part of an immersion trip with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) university program and visited the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement in Yumbe District north of Uganda, Africa.

If you watched the news a couple of years ago, you likely saw thousands of South Sudanese people walking south, fleeing war, violence and poverty. Since January 2017, CRS has worked in Bidibidi focusing particular attention on persons with special needs. Bidibidi reached full capacity and now holds a South Sudanese refugee population of 288,859 persons, approximately four times the capacity of NRG stadium here in Houston. Eighty-two percent of those refugees are women and children under 18 years old.

I want to share one of the many lessons with which I came back: the real spirituality of communion between the host community and the refugee community. Spirituality of communion has been the theme of our Archdiocesan pastoral plan for the past several years and I was able to experience it firsthand on a large scale.

I was taken around by David, a CRS worker, who decided from a very young age to work for the financially underprivileged. When he was a young man, he volunteered with his mom to distribute food and noticed he could only distribute a given ratio regardless of whether the mother had one or several children. He knew if the family was large, the children would be starving.

This memory left a mark on him, and he decided that when he grew up he wanted to do more for them. He now works for CRS as a community organizer at the refugee camp. He finds all the gifts and talents that exist in the host community and the refugee community and sits with the leaders of both sides to brainstorm ways to work together and make a stronger, more resilient community.

The work of the leaders is important, but I learned that unity happens from the bottom up. It is the Ugandans that welcome the South Sudanese refugees into their villages and mud houses. The host community had very few resources as it was, but when I asked them how and why they opened their doors to these refugees, their answer was very simple: “They are our brothers and sisters. When we were in need a few decades ago, they welcomed us and fed us; now it is our turn to help them.” 

The host community only has 14 government primary and five secondary schools for the entire settlement, but now they share it with the refugee community, and thousands of small children attend these schools. An additional secondary school is on its way to being built, so more children can receive education beyond sixth grade. Most children walk several miles daily to get to the nearest school.

CRS has not only provided clean water to 2,800 households, built 1,097 latrines, built 715 homes, but they have worked in direct partnership with refugee and host communities to promote peaceful co-existence and ensure respect to human dignity. One of their most beautiful projects is their vocational skills training in carpentry, tailoring, catering hairdressing, and motor vehicle mechanics, among others.

Just recently, the first cohort of 1,400 adults graduated from the vocational school where they spent four months learning skills taught by both the host and refugee community leaders. A tailor student shared with me that it took her two months to finish one skirt and she sells it in the market for $2. Additionally, she can only sell it in the market if she finds a ride to the nearest town, which is about one hour away. 

The refugee settlement may not have electricity, proper schools, or mattresses to sleep on, but they have a lot of love and care for each other. The host community does not have much with which to host, but it is the heart that matters.

The culmination of my understanding of spirituality of communion was when I witnessed a group of 18 people made up of teens, young adults and elders, from both communities saving money all together and placing it in a white box (their bank). Participants save according to what they earn, a person may put 50¢ or $15 in the box. People do not put everything they earn, but instead what they feel they can save.

When someone needed to borrow money, they would borrow it regardless of the amount they had put in as long as they save the minimum monthly amount. A mother shared how the ability to borrow money made a difference in her family; when one of her children was sick, she was able to borrow money allowing her to still buy food for her other kids.

Usually when one kid is sick, the siblings had to sacrifice their food as the money would go towards medicine. This specific group saved $143 from January to August 2018. There are 3,400 people participating in these Savings and Internal Lending Communities taught by CRS.

Thanks to the CRS workers, Ugandan community and South Sudanese refugees, I came back from Bidibidi refugee settlement with a beautiful understanding of what real communion is; I came back with a lot of hope and pride in our United States Bishops. CRS carries out the commitment of the U.S. bishops to assist the poor and vulnerable overseas, and if you have ever contributed to a Rice Bowl during Lent, you have already contributed to their mission. All the universities in our Archdiocese are training students to become CRS ambassadors so they can promote Catholic Social teachings on their campus. 

Gabriela Karaszewski is the director of the Archdiocesan Office of Young Adult and Campus Ministry.