How Tears of Refugees Moved Missionary Cleric to Initiate Project for Vulnerable in Uganda

Fr. Lazar Arasu with children at the Don Bosco Palabek centre in Uganda's Gulu Archdiocese
Credit: Fr. Lazar Lazar/ Don Bosco Regee Services Palabek

Fr. Lazar Arasu remembers one Sunday in June 2017 when a group of refugees in Uganda’s Gulu Archdiocese surrounded him, weeping and begging him not to abandon them.

The missionary Cleric whose mission in the East African country had been in schools, heading some of them for nearly 20 years, had just celebrated Holy Eucharist with the refugees, most of them women and children who had spent a year without taking part in this Sacrament.

Fr. Arasu tells ACI Africa that it was the tears of the refugees that led him to put aside his mission in schools, and moved him to start one of the most vibrant and life-changing projects for refugees in Uganda.

“As an educator and youth animator in the Archdiocese of Gulu, I happened to make an impromptu visit to the Refugee Settlement in Palabek situated within the Archdiocese on 18th June 2017 on the feast of Corpus Christi (The Body and Blood of Christ), something providential happen to me, rather, happened to the people I met at the Refugee Settlement in Palabek,” Fr. Arasu tells ACI Africa.

The Indian-born member of the Religious Institute of the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) narrates that as he entered the settlement, he was welcomed by a former student who led him to a group of Catholics who were praying under a tree with their catechist, one Mr. Eugene.

“I willingly offered myself to celebrate Holy Mass for them,” Fr. Arasu says, and adds, “To my surprise their previous Mass was exactly one year ago on the same feast. At their request, I named their place of prayer as St. John Bosco Chapel.”

Moved by the request of the refugees, Fr. Arasu travelled the following week to pray with them at the settlement. This time, he interacted with over 300 refugees who had been eagerly waiting for the Priest for hours to celebrate the Holy Eucharist.

“Perhaps this Mass is a significant Eucharistic celebration in my Priestly ministry,” Fr. Arasu says, recalling the emotional experience that followed the Liturgy of the Holy Mass.

He specifically recalls the moving words of an elderly woman who begged him not to go away. The woman said, Fr. Arasu recalls, “Father, we don’t know your name, we don’t know what you do, we don’t know where you come from, but you came to see us, please don’t abandon us, come every week to pray with us.”

“After these heartfelt words she wept,” Fr. Arasu further recalls, adding, “Seeing her tears made several others cry. This made me decide to go to the place every week and eventually I resigned from whatever I was doing and I came to live with them.”

The move, the 52-year-old missionary Cleric shares, gave birth to educational institutions, youth centers, and several pastoral and emergency services that are transforming lives at the SDB Refugee Services, Palabek, Gulu Archdiocese in Northern Uganda, where the Cleric is currently the Director.

The project is now a large religious community of eight SDB members comprising Priests and Brothers who reach out to thousands of young people and children in the East African country.

Today, less than five years later, Palabek Refugee Services has given rise to a large Vocational Training Center, four nursery schools, 16 chapels, many youth centers with play facilities and several other emergency services that are giving refugees in Uganda a second chance in life, and overall, contributing to what makes the country the most hospitable nation to refugees in East Africa.

Palabek houses about 56,000 refugees from South Sudan who fled their country due to insecurity, lack of food, and other basic facilities.

Uganda also hosts thousands of refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) “and a small number of refugees from other countries,” according to Fr. Arasu.

In his attempt to explain why Uganda is considered the most hospitable country in the region, the missionary Cleric who has been in East Africa for over 30 years says, “Though many political explanations are given to the influx of thousands of refugees, we cannot forget the hospitality of ordinary Ugandans who have given lands to the refugees and share the little they have. A big credit goes to them.”

He adds, “Unlike many other refugee hosting countries, in Uganda, the host communities live side by side and share the little resources. This is unique in the world.”

The challenges of refugees are many, ranging from limited exposure to resources and uncertainties about when they will ever go back to their home countries, Fr. Arasu observes.

“No one knows when these refugees are returning to their homeland,” he says, and explains, “Many of them have been refugees in Uganda two or three times in their life.”

Fr. Arasu came to Africa when he was in his twenties and has served in Uganda for over two decades, a period during which he has learnt the culture of the East African country.

He first came to Africa from native country, India, in November 1990 for his pastoral work in Tanzania. He recalls the excitement following his trip to Africa, saying, “I was proud to be a missionary at the age of 21.”

He had joined the Seminary at a tender age of 13, with a burning desire to become a missionary and to serve the Church in the example of the saints of the Catholic Church he grew up admiring at an ancient mission in southern Tamil Nadu in India called Kamanayakanpatty.

The mission, which is now a leading parish in India’s Palayamkottai Diocese within the Ecclesiastical Province of Madurai, is close to 500 years old.

“The Jesuit missionaries who lived in this mission including martyr St. John de Britto, linguists Fr. Roberto Nobili and Fr. Joseph Beschi, and others continued to be great inspiration to me,” Fr. Arasu tells ACI Africa.

Making reference to his family, which is devoted to the Catholic Church, he adds, “I trace my vocation to several uncles and aunts who were Catholic Priests and Nuns, including a Bishop who inspired me to follow in their footsteps. I also wanted to be like them.”

He enrolled for a teacher training program in India after his pastoral experience before he proceeded for theology at Tangaza University College (TUC), the Nairobi-based Constituent College of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) that is jointly-owned by 22 Religious Orders.

He was ordained a Priest in May 1998 and assigned to school ministry in Uganda.

“Now my heart and mind is filled with the Church in East Africa and the young people who are the vibrant members of this great church,” he says.

In his decades of ministry among the people of God in Uganda, Fr. Arasu has especially taken a deeper interest in the country’s education system and industry requirements.

He understands that equipping young people with skills for the industry is their ticket out of poverty and the vulnerability in refugee camps.

“Offering skills training is a favorite ministry of the Salesians,” the SDB Cleric says, adding that members of the St. Don Bosco-founded Congregation have at least 103 Vocational and Technical Training Center (VTCs) in 45 countries of Africa.

The technical training ministry, Fr. Arasu shares, is even more relevant to the refugees as they are looking for opportunity to work and find meaning in their lives.

“It is good for them to learn a skill within a year and be self-reliant,” he says, and adds, “In Palabek, we have trained at least 800 young people in two years and we are happy to see them working and being self-employed. This particularly helps the young women to be self-assertive and earn a living amidst many numerous trails and abuses.”

He says that 60 percent of refugees at Palabek Refugee camp are young people, underscoring the need for the younger population to be equipped with skills that match industry needs.

He says that at Don Bosco Vocational Training Center (DB VTC), training is short and hands-on geared toward production and income generation.

Fr. Arasu expresses a desire to have as many Church organizations as possible coming forward to support the refugees’ project in Uganda.

“It is my prayer that the Catholic hierarchy and the numerous Religious Congregations present in Uganda make provision for the refugee ministry in Uganda, as the country hosts nearly 1.5 million refugees,” he says.

The SDB member goes on to explain that a majority of these refugees are Catholics from South Sudan and DRC.

His inspiration in his ministry among refugees in Uganda, he says, is the call of Pope Francis “to reach out to the migrants” as well as the special emphasis given by the Salesian society.

The Cleric underscores the need to focus attention on the needs of the refugees saying, “Despite many challenges, this ministry is urgent and meaningful. It is serving the most downtrodden, neglected and poorest of the poor.”


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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
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