, 26 June, 2020 / 11:00 PM
The leadership of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has, in an interview with ACI Africa, outlined how the personnel of the Catholic agency are keeping refugees in West Africa and the Great Lakes regions safe amid COVID-19 pandemic, which has worsened the already existing challenges.
In the June 26 interview, JRS officials acknowledge that due to COVID-19, they have had “to adapt their activities to unsteady and new contexts” in a bid to keep refugees in Chad, the Central African Republic (CAR), Eastern Cameroon, Nigeria, Burundi, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) safe.
“Since JRS teams were forced to reduce their mobility and presence in the field, JRS staff within the communities and local leaders became focal points between the organization and the people served,” the officials told ACI Africa, adding, “Thanks to this strategy, JRS could monitor the communities and intervene as required.”
The closure of education facilities and psychosocial centers due to the pandemic has left many children in the African countries exposed to child labor, armed recruitment, and other kinds of exploitation, with the risk of Sexual Gender-Based Violence towards girls and women rising, the West Africa-based JRS officials further say.
“We consider education as a basic human right. In vulnerable contexts, schools are safe spaces for children where they can develop their future, as well as be protected from abuse and exploitation,” the officials of the 40-year-old agency have said.
To facilitate refugee students’ access to education amid COVID-19 restrictions, JRS “supervised and assisted students to continue their studies through home-based lessons amidst confinement.”
JRS is also making use of radio and, in some communities, WhatsApp groups, to offer classes and psychosocial support, the officials of the Catholic agency whose mission is to accompany and advocate on behalf of refugees as well as other forcibly displaced persons told ACI Africa.
Decrying the fact that “investment in quality education and training for refugees is still not a priority,” the officials highlight the plight of the 3.7 million refugee children in the world who do not go to school and appeal, “The world should not forget either the right for children to receive education.”
Overcrowding in camps, armed conflicts, and the need to eke a living are some of the challenges that make confinement, hygiene and sanitation measures meant to prevent COVID-19 difficult to follow.
As a way forward, JRS leadership has launched “specific COVID-19 prevention activities.” The activities include awareness raising campaigns, donations for hospitals in remote areas and hygiene items distribution in neighborhoods and educational centers, JRS officials have said.
In readiness for return to school, JRS is reinforcing the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) strategy in the African countries by building new water points and latrines in educational facilities.
In Burundi, where classes did not stop during the pandemic, JRS officials say they have already installed new water sources and taught the students how to keep correct hygienic measures.
Besides hygiene and sanitation challenges, JRS officials have identified mobility restrictions, hostilities in some countries, inadequate resources, escalating hazardous climatic conditions due to climate change, and failure by host nations to prioritize refugee learning as some of the challenges JRS personnel encounter in their line of duty.
The Catholic agency that is keen on the healing, learning, and determining the future of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons is particularly concerned about the thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees in CAR, DRC and those displaced due to Boko Haram’s terrorist actions in the Lake Chad basin, which comprises Chad, Nigeria, and Northern Cameroon.
According to UNHCR, CAR has 669,900 IDPs and 610,300 refugees while DRC has 5.01 million IDPs and 916,800 Congolese refugees and asylum seekers, 58 percent of them children.
These figures, the West Africa-based JRS officials say, “are evidence of the endless and intergenerational suffering of thousands of people across and within human borders.”
Despite the challenges, JRS leadership finds the engagement of the members of communities they work with in Gbiti in Eastern Cameroon to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infection as “encouraging.” Comprising refugees and local women, they have organized several soap-making workshops and students of JRS’ sewing classes in CAR have distributed face masks.
The officials of JRS have also expressed their appreciation for teachers working with JRS and students in Chad who spearheaded COVID-19 awareness campaigns in the refugee camps in the East of the North-Central African country and in N’Djamena, the capital.
This story is based on an email interview with JRS WAF & GL, June 25, 2020. All photos are credited to JRS WAF & GL
ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa