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Salesians in Uganda Keeping Youth in Refugee Camps Productive during Pandemic

Fr. Lazar Arasu, the Director of Don Bosco Palabek Refugee Services with refugees at Palabek refugee camp in Uganda.

Refugees in Uganda have been hit by the four-month lockdown and ban on social gatherings and other public activities in the East African country worse than anyone else, members of the Religious Institute of the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) serving at Palabek refugee camp have told ACI Africa.

But worst hit among this group are young people whose situation has been aggravated by the redundancy caused by COVID-19 restrictions, according to Fr. Lazar Arasu, the Director of Don Bosco Palabek Refugee Services.

“The normal refugee setting for young people is characterized by basic needs not met, education and training in jeopardy, separation from parents and loved ones and aggravated frequent abuses…they are often in precarious situations,” says Fr. Arasu in a communique shared with ACI Africa.

He adds, “Now redundancy caused by the Lockdown causes emotional and psychological stress. They are aggravated by reduced food, inactivity due to the closure of schools, youth centers and churches and inability to move.”

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Statistics provided by Salesians who have been running the refugee camp that hosts an estimated 56,000 refugees for three years indicate that at 80 percent, a majority of the camp population are youth coming from Malakal and Torit dioceses in neighboring South Sudan.

According to Fr. Arasu, refugee Settlements are filled with teenagers “and in particular young girls.”

At Palabek Refugee Settlement Camp located in the Archdiocese of Gulu in northern Uganda, the Salesian Priest says young people find joy and solace among the Salesians and that “they find their life meaningful even living in hard conditions of a refugee camp.”

“They are deprived of decent education, leisure activities and basic needs such as food and clothing,” Fr. Arasu, a native of India who has ministered in Uganda for over two decades says.

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He adds, “Interacting with the Salesian Missionaries and taking part in the youth activities keep them occupied and even helps them in developing their talents.”

Activities of SDB members who run a wide array of projects in the East African country, including schools that were closed in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus, were heightened against the backdrop of fear that clouded the refugee camp at the start of the lockdown.

“We implemented a number of projects to cushion the youth in refugee camps the moment the government announced closure of schools and other learning centers,” Fr. Arasu says in an interview with ACI Africa on Wednesday, July 1.

“We brought hundreds of youth on board and engaged them in little bits of creative ways to keep them busy and to make money while at it,” he says, adding that the COVID-19 project has brought on board about 150 young people engaged in various money-making ventures.

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Through contacts provided in the various vocational training centers, the Salesians reached the vulnerable youths who started engaging in agricultural activities, making of masks and construction activities within and outside the schools.

Other youth started recording songs and other short video clips on the effects of the pandemic.

Still, other groups of young people in the refugee camp have been helping in the construction projects in the school managed by SDB members as well as cleaning and reaching out to the community members in their immediate neighborhood.

All these activities, the Salesian priest says, are done keeping in mind safety procedures of the epidemic.

“Through these activities young people stayed connected to the Salesians and their fellow youth, which is very important for overcoming stress and disillusionment,” Fr. Arasu who has been in East Africa for three decades says.

The native of India’s Tamil Nadu State adds, “They were made to realize their ability to contribute to the society even in the time of difficulties; even in hard times their talents such as music, technological skills and leadership abilities were put into community development.”

Additionally, the young people are able to receive a small stipend for their work to help them to meet their needs, the priest clarifies.

The dedication of the young people who show up to their respective ventures every day has earned the admiration of funding organizations that have come on board to support the project that seeks to expand to providing counselling services among the refugee dwellers.

“Seeing their initial success in various activities they are planning to do more,” the Salesian Cleric says, adding, “Youth are interested in recording more songs, enlarging their agriculture productivity, plant more trees and involve in other group activities such as group counselling, participate in peace process to overcome recent violence within the refugee settlement.”

Donor organizations funding the project include Trocaire Ireland, an Irish charity striving to overcome the challenges of poverty and injustices and Italian-based Cesvi, which works to protect the dignity of vulnerable people.

Others include Misean Cara, the international and Irish faith-based missionary movement whose members seek partnerships that support “the most marginalized and vulnerable communities in developing countries”; and Salesian Missions, the U.S.-based development arm of the Salesians of Don Bosco.