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Why a Year Out of School, Church May Mean Loss of Spiritual Formation in Uganda

Fr. Lazar Arasu, the Director of Don Bosco Palabek Refugee Services with school children at Palabek refugee camp.

A member of the Religious Institute of the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) ministering among refugees in Uganda is concerned that among the challenges that come with the COVID-19 lockdown in the East African country is that young people who will be staying away from school and church will have lost significantly in their moral, social and spiritual formation when they eventually come out of the lockdown.

In a reflection shared with ACI Africa Thursday, August 6, Fr. Lazar Arasu, the Director of Don Bosco Palabek Refugee Services, which provides home to thousands of refugees, most of them youth from neighboring South Sudan, says that problems that young people grapple with on a daily basis have been aggravated with the pandemic, leaving no one unscathed.

“Everyone, the big, the small and even the little ones have been challenged. With the closure of schools, churches and youth centers, the young people have lost one year of education and formation, which also includes loss in their moral, social and spiritual formation,” Fr. Arasu says.

According to the Salesian Priest, the effects of the protracted lockdown have already started showing in the heightened number of teenage pregnancies, which unfortunately, according to the Priest, are not recorded by the Ugandan authorities.

The Priest who works with young people at Palabek refugee camp has also observed complications related to teenage pregnancies such as induced abortions and the permanent health issues of physical and mental in nature.

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“The whole nation speaks about this situation in hissed voices and in low tones unable to take any responsibility and worse still unable to offer any concrete and immediate solutions,” Fr Arasu says.

He adds, “We come across many media reports of the situation but official statistics and analysis of the situation are not common. In Uganda the current pregnancy number during COVID-19 lockdown informally suggests to be about one million.”

“Surely a comprehensive study and report will be helpful at this period,” the Indian-born SDB Cleric says, adding that such reports will help the various stakeholders to suggest solutions to the challenges of the young people and help take appropriate measures to tackle the worrying situation.

He notes that any unthoughtful and unethical solutions taken in the hope of solving the already precarious situation will only bring a long-term problem, where “many may become unable to contain it.”

Already, youth worldwide are struggling with many challenges, key among them a lack of a properly planned system of education and employment. Even then, the gap has always been wide between those living in cities and those in rural areas and those coming from rich families and the poor, Fr. Arasu shares.

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In a country such as Uganda where 60 percent of the population represents children and youth, a great percentage of this population live lives with their dreams unfulfilled, needs unmet, potentialities undiscovered and talents undeveloped, he says.

“This is a loss to the particular society and the nation as a whole,” he further says, and adds, “Certainly the young person is pushed to a life of misery, depression and outright frustration.”

According to the Cleric whose center has been working to keep refugees engaged during the COVID-19 lockdown, there is an urgent need to look into the youth who are more vulnerable than the others, youth “who are found in remote areas of the nation, refugee settlements, and slums in urban centers.”

“They are often orphans, school dropouts and those living on their own without much support from their family members and responsible adults. These are drastic events and situations needing drastic response, rather urgently,” Fr. Arasu who has been in East Africa for three decades says.

He bemoans the situation of refugee camps and settlements in Africa which he says are overwhelmed by children. The children often form over 80 percent of the refugee population, he adds.

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In any given refugee settlement, there are thousands of children who are below the age of 13, where a significant number is adolescent girls, the Director of Don Bosco Palabek Refugee Services discloses.

“The little children are often underfed, suffer malnutrition, and the grown-up children and adolescents lack basic security and protection,” he says, adding that with COVID-19 lockdown, closure of facilities where the children went to get food, entertainment and to socialize has aggravated the sorry state of the vulnerable children.

The situation calls for well-thought-out political and civil action on the part of government authorities, Fr. Arasu says.

He suggests, for instance, that thousands of teachers who are redundant as schools remain closed be deployed “to bring change that is urgently needed.”

“National policies and actions need to be supported and complemented by moral, pastoral, and spiritual action from the faith-based organizations, especially by the traditional churches and Islamic institutions. The cultural institutions can surely be vehicles of communication and play an intermediary role,” the Salesian Cleric, a native of India’s Tamil Nadu State who has ministered in Uganda for over two decades says.

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