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Catholic Missionary Priest Reports Agony of Refugees in Uganda as COVID-19 Bites

Fr. Lazar Arasu saying Mass at the Palabek Refugee Settlement in Uganda/ Credit: Fr. Lazar Arasu

Uganda has continued to implement stringent measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 amid a spike in infections and related deaths, a situation that has terribly impacted the wellbeing of refugees who were already struggling to survive in the East African country.

Fr. Lazar Arasu, the Director of Palabek Refugee Settlement that provides a home to thousands of refugees, most of them from neighboring South Sudan tells ACI Africa that with the lockdown in Uganda, the country’s foreign exchange earning sectors such as tourism, agriculture and food processing units are almost in the brink of collapse.

He says that every sector in the country is overwhelmed by the pandemic and that locals who relied on agriculture for survival are counting losses as most of the country’s transport services remain suspended.

“With this background in mind, it is painful to describe the state of refugees who are in precarious situations. From the time Coronavirus hit Uganda, food ration given to the refugees were gradually reduced to 40 percent, which means, today a refugee receives about 5 kilograms of maize flour, 3 kilograms of beans, half a liter of cooking oil and a few grams of salt. The supply of other non-food items was completely stopped,” Fr. Arasu says in a report shared with ACI Africa on Friday, July 9.

Reports indicate that Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Namibia, Zambia, Rwanda and Tunisia have been among the worst hit by a recent resurgence in infections in Africa.

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Uganda Medical Association also believes that more than 100 health workers have died in the country because of the COVID-19 pandemic since March last year.

Fr. Arasu refers to government reports that 1,970 people have died from COVID-19, and explains, “As many people have died in their homes and in remote villages, the actual number could be much higher.”

The Indian-born member of the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) says that hospitals in Uganda are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, making it impossible to treat other chronically ill patients suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, HIV/AIDS and those with heart ailments.

He further says that manufacturing and other entities in the country’s service sector have been closed leaving thousands of people without employment.

Fr. Arasu notes that schools in Uganda have been closed, leaving their owners with huge debts and at risk of their properties being auctioned.

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Prices of food and other essential commodities have skyrocketed, pushing more people to extreme poverty, the Missionary Priest says.

The SDB members who has been in East Africa for some three decades says that the plunge in Uganda’s economy has dealt a huge blow to refugees in the country where missionaries witness the suffering of the vulnerable group on a daily basis.

“One of the pressing problems is redundancy among young people due to the closure of schools, youth centers, church activities, and other leisure activities of young people,” Fr. Arasu says, and adds, “With curfew in force, they are also unable to move in the evening to visit friends and relatives within the settlement camp.”

To alleviate suffering among refugees, SDB members at Palabek Refugee Settlement have devised ways to keep the youth active on the farm run by the settlement and with a variety of other income generating activities.

“Though our vocational training center is closed, we have kept our agriculture activities,” The SDB Priest says, adding that about 40 young men and women work in the garden and keep clearing more land for planting food crops such as maize and beans.

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“Though the rains were late, we managed to cultivate a substantial amount of fruits and vegetables. We share the food items and agricultural produce with our students,” he says, and adds, “Refugee students also find time to clean the local health center and plant trees as their environment protection activity.”

He says that the VCTs masonry trainees, both past and present students, have been engaged in landscaping and preparing lawns within the VTC premises.

“Now our school is wonderful to see,” he says, and adds, “We are also engaged in other construction works such as chapel, fencing our land and other maintenance works.  Students get paid for their work, which is a boom during this time of great need.”

The Priest expresses gratitude to well-wishers who have continued to support Palabek Refugee Settlement, saying, “We also thank Insieme Si Puo for their generous donation of food.”

Fr. Arasu reveals plans to engage with AVSI, an Italian founded charitable organization and Women Feed Africa, another agricultural training organization in training and food production.

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The Missionary Priest says that many of the activities at center are made possible by the assistance of Jugendhilfe Weltweit, through Vereinigung Don Bosco Werk from Don Bosco Switzerland.