All posts by Comboni Missionaries Ireland

Philippines. 2019 “Year of the Youth”

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has announced that it will dedicate 2019 as the “Year of the Youth”.

The year-long celebration, which will start on the first Sunday of Advent on Dec. 2, will carry the theme “Filipino Youth in Mission: Beloved, Gifted, Empowered.” Its observance, which the bishops described as part of the “nine-year journey for New Evangelisation,” will end on Nov. 24, 2019, the Feast of Christ the King.

In 2013, the bishops’ conference launched a “nine-year journey” to 2021, the fifth centenary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines, with a different theme each year.

The first five years were dedicated to “integral faith formation” (2013), the laity (2014), the poor (2015), the Eucharist and the Family (2016), and the parish as a communion of communities (2017). The year 2018 was dedicated to the clergy and consecrated persons, while the remaining two years of the preparation will be dedicated to ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue in 2020 and Missio ad Gentes, or bringing the Gospel to all people, in 2021.

Archbishop José Palma of Cebu said: “We await with gratitude and joy March 16, 2021, the fifth centenary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines. We remember with gratitude the first Mass celebrated on the island of Limasawa, on Easter Sunday, March 31 of that year. We remember the baptism of Rajah Humabon, who was given the baptism name Carlos and his wife Harah Amihan who was baptized Juana in 1521. Our eyes look at the Santo Niño de Cebu, the oldest religious icon of the Philippines, a gift from Ferdinando Magellano to the first Filipino Catholics. 2021 will be a year of great Jubilee for the Church in the Philippines”.

Next year, activities are aimed at youth in formation, youth in communities, church and society, youth in mission, and youth ministry and youth ministers. “The Year of the Youth is a journey of encounter with Jesus, accompanied by Mary,” read a statement from the bishops’ Commission on Youth. “In this journey, we tell the story of the Filipino youth with our Risen Lord … [and] as we are blessed and gifted during this journey, we are empowered to witness to and share our faith,” it added.

The “Year of the Youth” observance comes after the Synod of Bishops on young people last October. The final document of the meeting stressed the concrete aspects of the lives of the youth, the role of schools and parishes and the need for the laity to be trained to accompany young people.

Oral Literature. How the First River Was Made

A long long time ago, when God made this earth, He chose the mighty elephant to be king of the world.

The elephant and his subjects roamed through the dark green forests, and since there were no rivers in those days, God made a pond for them to drink from. Now one day the elephant trumpeted loudly, and called for his friends the hawk and the crab. “Tomorrow – he announced – I am going hunting in the forest, and you must come with me.”

The hawk was overjoyed and flew away to get his bow and arrows, but the poor crab was a slow-moving creature and could not hold any hunting weapons. But he was determined not to be left out, so he crawled away to his home and began to think hard about the problem.

The next morning all three creatures met on the edge of the forest, and while the hawk and the elephant went off with their bows and arrows to a section of the forest where they knew they would find plenty of game, the crab dragged a long net behind him, set it up in a spot he had chosen, and waited.

Presently a wounded animal rushed away from the elephant and the hawk, straight into the crab’s net, and seizing a large piece of wood the crab quickly beat the animal on its head, so that it died at once. This happened again and again. If the elephant or the hawk killed an animal outright, then they put it beside them for themselves, but if they only wounded one, the poor creature rushed away towards the crab’s net. Once it was entangled there, the crab soon dispatched it with his heavy stick, removed and hid the arrow that had wounded it, and put the carcass on his own pile.

By the afternoon, the elephant had killed five antelope and the hawk three, and each thought he had done very well. “Let’s go and find the crab – suggested the elephant – I don’t suppose the poor thing has managed to catch anything at all.”

How amazed they were to find the crab sitting proudly beside the carcasses of ten animals, all much bigger than himself. The hawk began congratulating him but the elephant was furious that the crab had killed more animals than he had, and shouted: “Hawk! Kill that wretched crab. I, your king, order you to do so. Cut off his head at once!”

“Oh, sir! Oh, king! – Begged the crab -. Please do not kill me. I will give you all this meat and never come near you again if only you will let me live.”

At last the elephant consented, and seizing the crab’s kill he bellowed: “Go! Go! And never let me see you again.”

The crab sidled clumsily away, and hiding himself in the thick undergrowth, once again gave himself up to deep thought, wondering how he could revenge himself on the elephant. Presently he made his way to the elephant’s home and crept up to the elephant’s wife.

“Good woman, – he croaked, – I have a message for you from our noble king, your husband. He says that the place where he has been hunting all day is very cold. You must make him some good soup with plenty of peppers in it to warm him up. Now don’t forget! Plenty of peppers,” he repeated, and he hurried away as fast as he could.

The elephant’s wife did as, she was told, and flavoured the soup very strongly with peppers. No sooner had she finished cooking it than the elephant and the hawk came home from their hunting trip. They were both extremely hungry and began to eat the soup straight away.

Meanwhile the cunning crab made his way to the pond and began to fill it up with earth. He worked so hard that at last there was no water left at all, and feeling very satisfied with his evening’s work, the crab dug a little hole in the middle of the place where the pond had been and I hid himself there. He had not long to wait. The hawk and the elephant finished up all the peppery soup and very naturally felt extremely thirsty. “Let’s go to the pond now, – suggested the elephant to his friend -. I’m so thirsty, I could drink it quite dry.”

Of course, when they reached the pond it was quite dry and the two animals were angry and perplexed. “What an extraordinary thing -, said the elephant – . You must help me dig until we get down to the water again.”

So the two animals dug and dug, getting thirstier and more irritable every moment. Suddenly the elephant reached the hole where the crab was hidden, and as soon as he saw the crab he knew that it was he who had filled up the pond with earth. “Ah ha! –  He bellowed in a furious voice – . “It’s no good begging for mercy this time.” He seized the poor crab, cut off his head and threw him back into the mud.

Immediately the water started bubbling and gurgling up from below and soon the pond was nearly full again. The elephant and the hawk were delighted. They drank their fill and washed themselves, trumpeting and squawking with delight. They decided to leave the crab’s body in the pond, as that seemed to be the cause of the water flowing again, and as they stood at the edge watching the water still rising rapidly, the elephant commanded: “Dig an opening at the lower end of the pond, so that the water can run away. It’s beginning to overflow.”

The hawk did as he was told, and sure enough, the water began to trickle out of the pond so that very soon a little stream was flowing. It got wider and wider and deeper and deeper until it became a big river, still flowing downhill.

Now the crab was not really dead, and soon realised that he could escape from the pond by way of the river. But the poor thing had no eyes since his head had been cut off, so he went to the mud-fish to see if he could do anything for him. “I will do anything that I can – replied the kindly fish -, but I cannot give you any eyes. If you go to my friend the prawn, I think he could help you.”

Sure enough, the prawn could. He took some eyes and fastened them on to the crab’s shoulders, since he had no head on which to put them. The crab was delighted to be able to see again, hurrying down the river he left the pond, the elephant and the hawk far behind him. So now you know how the first river started, and the crab has no head. (Folktale from Ekoi people – Cameroon)

Peru. “Mission is timeless”

“The little miracles and signs that have reached me through these people who are now part of me.” Neuza Francisco, a Portuguese Comboni lay missionary working in Peru tell us her experience among poor people on the outskirt of Lima.

Many lives are already part of me, and many are the smiles that belong to me, the hugs I do not avoid and renew my strength. With the intention of just dropping in, I spend hours to no end conversing on the doorsteps. For me, mission is timeless.

The doors of our house are open, doors that open to receive the greatest joys of passers-by and welcome the sufferings of those who seek refuge from us. They ask of you the only thing you have to give, yourself.

When night falls, that is when I like to revisit my day and, even though often I fall into tears, they are tears of contemplation of the marvels God is working in me and, through me, it’s impossible to ignore it, and not thank God for it all. Many a times I see, countless times, the little miracles and signs that have reached me through these people who are now part of me.

Mission is hard, and you would lie if you said otherwise. Mission is arid, here, where the landscape is covered with the roofs of what is left of homes close to be disintegrated by the strong wind.

In August, part of a year’s work falls apart, when nature blows so strongly that it is impossible to resist. Without fear, they roll up their sleeves, without giving up, and even though what they have is little, nothing is stronger than the will to move onward. I am not lying, mission is hard. At time it becomes cruel, it hurts. You see the suffering in the eyes of these brothers of mine and the helplessness in the face of what they have to bear with.

Many are the times when I simply listen, give a hand, my shoulder. Many are the times when we smile together, as we share this love of God so concrete and free. Many are the hugs, the hands shaken. Many are the moments of silence and mutual commitment, in the simplicity of sitting on the ground and be one with them.

Yes, mission is hard. It is in this hardship that I met the deepest meaning of my presence on Peruvian land. It was in this arid land that I placed my dreams and my hopes. In this little corner of the world that I pray daily for the integrity and the rights of people similar to me, created by God. It is a constant state of being fragile and be integrated in the simplicity and humility of those who have nothing. Without expecting anything in return.

Mission is hard, but this is the mission I always dreamed of, this constant discovery of who I am and of what I am doing here. It is to know that I am nothing and often see how miracles just happen, naturally. It is trust that makes us flesh of the same flesh. A little at the time everything falls into place, a little at the time everything happens simply, not in human but in heavenly times.

Brazil. “Justiça nos Trilhos” receives the 2018 Human Rights and Business Award

Justiça nos Trilhos  (Justice on the Rails)  has just received in Geneva, the new Human Rights and Business Award. Justiça nos Trilhos is an organisation – supported also by the Comboni Missionaries – working closely with local communities in remote parts of Brazil – including indigenous peoples, peasants, and Afro-descendants – to address human rights and environmental abuses by mining and steel companies, in particular the multinational Vale.

Mining and steel companies have polluted the rivers on which these people depend for drinking water and their livelihoods, polluted the air causing respiratory and eyesight problems, contaminated the soil with industrial waste, displaced communities, and decimated the cultures and lives of indigenous peoples.

The board members of the Human Rights and Business Award Foundation – Christopher Avery, Regan Ralph and Valeria Scorza – said in a joint statement: “We launched this annual award to recognize ‘outstanding work by human rights defenders addressing the human rights impacts of business.  Justice on the Rails epitomises such a group, working rigorously and conscientiously over many years in challenging circumstances – always in close collaboration with the local communities whose fundamental rights they seek to protect.”

The human rights defenders of Justice on the Rails, and the local communities they work with, have been subjected to surveillance and retaliatory lawsuits by Vale.

Danilo Chammas, a lawyer at Justice on the Rails, has commented: “We work to reinforce the principle of human rights, which is at its core the principle of democracy.  But I think we still have a long way to go.  There is still a lot to do to provide real opportunities for access to justice to those whose rights are violated by these companies.”

Alexandra Montgomery, the member of the foundation’s Advisory Network who nominated Justiça nos Trilhos for the award, commented: “The day-to-day operations of Vale’s projects in Carajas have harmed more than 100 communities….Justiça nos Trilhos’ work is done in a very solid and organized fashion, accessing legal mechanisms, researching, and closely strategizing and measuring their actions.  They work with university centres and professionals who research and analyse the data.  The claims that they make are not spontaneous, they are grounded in the experiences of the communities.”

The Human Rights and Business Award Foundation is an independent non-profit foundation. 

Dr. Denis Mukwege. A Nobel Peace Prize for Africa

Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege and Yazidi human rights activist and survivor of sexual slavery by Islamic State in Iraq, Nadia Murad, have won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for their work and commitment to fighting sexual violence in conflicts around the world.

The award, which will be presented at a ceremony in Oslo on December 10, was not a surprise since Denis Mukwege has always been on the list of favourites. In addition, he had already received twenty prestigious awards for his commitment to the protection of women’s rights, especially those women who were ‘victims of rape and war crimes’.

The news of the award made pre-electoral tensions cool down among the Congolese political class. Both the executive and the opposition have expressed their satisfaction. “I am proud to be Congolese”, said the country’s top opposition leader, Felix Tshisekedi, in a Twitter post, “Good deeds for others always ends up being rewarded”. Another opposition figure, Vital Kamerhe, said, “It is the right reward for a noble struggle in favour of women”. Interior Minister Henry Mova showed appreciation and expressed gratitude for the doctor’s work: “Congratulations and thank you very much, dear friend. Perseverance is rewarding”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres congratulated Dr. Denis Mukwege, and said in his remarks: “Dr. Denis Mukwege has been a fearless champion for the rights of women caught up in armed conflicts who have suffered rape, exploitation and other horrific abuses. Despite regular threats to his life, he made the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a haven from mistreatment”.

Denis Mukwege was born in 1955 in South Kivu province of Democratic Republic of  Congo to Protestant parents. In 1983, Mukwege graduated from the University of Burundi in medical science. Then he worked as a paediatrician in the rural Lemera Hospital; later Mukwege received a scholarship from a Swedish Pentecostal Association and he pursued further study in Angers, France, to specialise in gynaecology. In 1989, despite having a well-paid job in France, he did not hesitate to return to Lemera where he established an obstetrics and gynaecology service.

After the hospital in Lemera was destroyed during the civil war that erupted in the country in late 1996 and many of its patients and health personnel were killed, Mukwege took refuge in Nairobi (Kenya) until 1999, when he was able to return to Bukavu where, with the help of the Community of Pentecostal Churches of Central Africa (CEPAC), he founded the Panzi Hospital, where he served as director and chief surgeon. The hospital currently has 350 beds, of which 200 are for victims of sexual violence. Since its opening, more than 40,000 women and girls in the region who were victims of mutilation and genital lacerations have been treated.

Inizio modulo

Rape used as a weapon of war is one of the most despicable practices that women in eastern DRC have suffered since the war of 1996. Denis Mukwege has denounced in different international forums that “Kivu pays the consequences of an economic war” and that “the region where I live is one of the richest on the planet (…) where the body of woman has become a real battlefield”.

Women, used as ‘military strategy’, have been the first victims of the war of 1996. Since then, more than 500,000 women have been raped or mutilated by the Armed Forces and by the numerous rebel groups that still continue to spread terror in the region. The reason for such barbarism, says Dr. Mukwege, is the “complete and profound destruction of society, of all values and of all that is sacred” through the founding symbol of a people, women.

The Nobel Peace Prize 2018 did not just provide women with medical cures. He has stated that “I identify every raped woman with my wife; every raped mother with my mother; and every raped child with my children”.

Dr. Mukwege is deeply committed to fighting this scourge on different fronts; he travels around the world to mobilise the international community in order to condemn this crime and to participate in the search for a solution to this sacrilege against human life. When he received the Sakharov Prize in 2014, he declared at the European Parliament’s gallery that “in a world where values are inverted, where violence becomes common and takes increasingly abominable forms, rejecting violence makes you a dissident”.
Mukwege, who is known for sending strong and loud messages, has denounced all those forces involved in a tragedy that will leave indelible marks in the life of a good part of the Congolese people. The executioners of women are recruited from the armies of neighbouring countries, including Rwanda, the Congolese Armed Forces and rebel groups operating in the region. Mukwege’s clear and resounding accusations have cost him several assassination attempts. The doctor lives inside the Panzi hospital compound under the protection of the UN forces.

Kinshasa’s establishment is irritated by the gynaecologist’s frequent criticisms. Nevertheless he continues to fight against the lack of justice for abused women, against the increase of poverty, against the inability to guarantee the security of the Congolese citizens and their properties, and especially, against the regression of democracy since the 2011 elections.

His clear denunciation and his work make him one of the most esteemed personalities in the country along with Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, archbishop of Kinshasa. So it is not a surprise to see that Congolese civil society and a large part of the country’s politicians would have liked to have seen one of them standing as a candidate for the country’s presidency in the next general election on December 23, 2018. (Jean Claude Kobo)

South Africa. The art of changing

The Imbali Visual Literacy project, an NGO started thirty years ago to find creative work for the talented children of the more disadvantaged black families. We visit the place.

The morning sunlight streams through the windows of the old building and lights up the table around which seven black boys and girls are sitting. The speaker is one of them, who occasionally stops to answer questions or hear suggestions. This is a classroom but it is located in an old repair shop for buses and trams known by all as the Bus Factory, an example of how the years have transformed Johannesburg.

Today, the huge shed in Newtown is the seat of some civic offices for development and various cultural organisations. One of them is the Imbali Visual Literacy project, an NGO started thirty years ago to find creative work for the talented children of the more disadvantaged black families; it moved to this location in 2002. «We wanted to belong to the Newtown Cultural District as it seemed the right place to be », explains Justine Watterson, 40, the South African who directs the project.

It is the artistic and historical importance of the area that is the main reason why the authorities plan to re-launch it. Its emblem, 500 busts sculpted in wood, represents the various African peoples, and, since 2001, has dotted the quarter. They are the work of the Mozambican Americo Guambe who recently restored them, creating some anew to replace those stolen or damaged over the years. It is evident that much remains to be done if we leave the sculptures behind us and enter the Museum Africa, the historical heart of the Cultural District.

The main hall is practically empty. On an iron frame hangs an enormous poster of a young Nelson Mandela: the poster was part of a display of four years ago but now abandoned. “Some years ago – Justine Watterson also admits – there was an office for the purpose of improving Newtown, including such aspects as public health, cleaning and security; then the cash from the Town Hall dried up.” Recently, a festival sponsored locally tried to reverse the tendency. “They asked us – Watterson tells us – to bring our work out into the streets” and students present and past created decorations in the square and on the steps of the Museum.

Sello Mdlane is one of the youths involved: in the hall displaying school activities where some of his companions operate a large loom while others add the finishing touches to handbags, clothes and other small objects, he stays close to one of windows, concentrating preparing the sketch of a stamp for printing cloth. He is 29 and comes from a township west of Johannesburg and continues to collaborate with Imbali where he finished the courses. On his work apron he has printed a motto:  “I have never seen a colour I didn’t like. It seems I have to do the best I can with what I get,” he explains.

For Sello Mdlane, as for others of his age, the new project for development is an opportunity. But there are also many difficulties. “I am now contacting bigger clients but there is a lot of paperwork and some of us clash with the bureaucrats.” This is surely not the only obstacle to be overcome in this land in which youth unemployment is extremely high: Two thirds of the 4.3 million unemployed for more than a year, according to the latest statistics, are under 34. Plans for the renewal of cities may well be pointless if they do not receive the investment they so urgently need. (Davide Maggiore)


Oral Literature: Why the Monkey Still Has a Tail

Once upon a time the monkey and the rabbit made a contract. The monkey was to kill all the butterflies and the rabbit was to kill all the snakes.

One day the rabbit was taking a nap when the monkey passed that way. The monkey thought that he would play a trick on the rabbit so he pulled the rabbit’s ears, pretending that he thought they were butterflies. The rabbit awoke very angry at the monkey and he plotted how he might revenge himself on the monkey.  The rabbit and the armadillo are very good friends. The armadillo is very, very strong, you know, so it was he whom the rabbit asked to help him.

One day the rabbit caught the monkey napping. He had watched and waited a long, long time to catch the monkey napping, but at last he succeeded. Even the monkey sometimes takes a nap. The rabbit called the armadillo at once and together they rolled a big stone upon the monkey’s tail. The monkey pulled so hard to get his tail out from under the stone that it broke off. The cat, which at that time had no tail of her own, spied the tail and ran away with it. The monkey was very angry at the rabbit. “O, we thought it was just a snake lying there,” said the rabbit. “When you pulled my ears, you know, you thought they were butterflies.”

That did not help the monkey to feel any better. How was he to live without his tail! How could he climb without it! He simply had to have it back so he at once set out to find the cat. At last he found the cat and said to her: “O, kind cat, please give me back my tail.”  “I will give it to you,” – replied the cat – , “if you will get me some milk.” “Where shall I get the milk?” asked the monkey. “Go ask the cow for some”, replied the cat.

The monkey went to the cow and said: “O, kind cow, please give me some milk that I may give the milk to the cat so that the cat will give back my tail to me.” “I will give you the milk,” – replied the cow -, “if you will get me some grass.”

“Where shall I get the grass?” asked the monkey. “Go ask the farmer”, responded the cow. The monkey went to the farmer and said: “O, kind farmer, please give me some grass that I may give the grass to the cow so that the cow will give me some milk so that I may give the milk to the cat so that the cat will give back my tail to me.”

The farmer said: “I will give you some grass if you will give me some rain.”Where shall I get the rain?”, asked the monkey. “Go ask the clouds”, responded the farmer. The monkey went to the clouds and said: “O, kind clouds, please send me down some rain that I may give the rain to the farmer so that the farmer will give me some grass so that I may give the grass to the cow so that the cow will give me some milk so that I may give the milk to the cat so that the cat will give me back my tail.” “I will give you some rain,” – replied the clouds – “if you will get me some fog.” “Where shall I get the fog?” asked the monkey. “Go ask the rivers,” replied the clouds.

The monkey went to the river and said: “O, kind river, please give me a fog that I may give the fog to the clouds so that the clouds will give some rain so that I may give the rain to the farmer so that the farmer will give me some grass so that I may give the grass to the cow so that the cow will give me some milk so that I may give the milk to the cat so that the cat will give me back my tail.”

“I will give you a fog” – replied the river -, “if you will find a new spring to feed me.”Where shall I find a spring?” asked the monkey. “Go search for one among the rocks upon the hillside,” replied the river.

Then the monkey climbed up the steep hill and searched and searched among the rocks until at last he found a little spring to feed the river. He brought the spring to the river and the river gave him a fog. He took the fog to the clouds and the clouds gave him rain. He took the rain to the farmer and the farmer gave him grass. He took the grass to the cow and the cow gave him milk. He took the milk to the cat and the cat gave him back his tail. The monkey was so glad to have his tail again that he danced and danced with glee. Ever since that time the monkey has been very careful to guard his tail. He still has one and he is still happy because of it. (Brazilian folktale)

Father Tom Uzhunnalil: “I have witnessed the power of prayer”


Father Tom Uzhunnalil, the priest who was kidnapped in 2016 and held captive for 18 months by terrorists in Yemen, said that his ability to persevere “was thanks to the prayers of everyone” who interceded for him. He tells us his experience.

“Prayer is the best thing that God has given us and can obtain everything. Surrendered to the Lord’s will, during my captivity I prayed to the Lord that they would release me soon, but I also asked him to give me the grace to complete the mission that he had planned for me,” Uzhunnalil said.

A Salesian missionary, Uzhunnalil first garnered the world’s attention when he was kidnapped on March 4, 2016, during an attack on a Missionaries of Charity home in Aden, Yemen, that left 16 people dead, including four Sisters.

His international profile grew when rumours spread that he was to be crucified on Good Friday, which were later discredited. After that, numerous photos and videos were released depicting Uzhunnalil, thin and with an overgrown beard, pleading for help and for his release, saying that his health was deteriorating and he was in need of hospitalisation. The government of Oman and the Holy See had worked for the priest’s release. He was freed Sept. 12, 2017.
Father Tom recalled the experience he went through in Yemen. “The churches in Yemen had been attacked and vandalized, but in the days prior to my kidnapping the situation had stabilized somewhat,” he said.

However, on the morning of March 4, 2016, when he was praying in the chapel of the Missionaries of Charity, he heard gunshots outside. He saw jihadists killing four of the sisters.
“I prayed for God’s mercy on the sisters who had died and also for those who had killed them,” he said. “They then told me to come outside and asked me if I were a Muslim. I told them no, that I was a Christian. And they put me in the back seat of the car.”
“A little later they opened the door again and threw in something metallic wrapped in some cloth. I knew that it was the tabernacle that the sisters had in the chapel,” he explained.
While Uzhunnalil said his captors did not physically harm him, he did suffer psychological torture.
“They took everything away from me, although they gave me a little water and food,” he recalled.

During that time, they changed his location five or six times, and he said that he never knew the exact location where he was being held. In the 18 months he was held captive, Uzhunnalil relied upon prayer for perseverance.
“It was thanks to the prayers of everyone who prayed for me that I was able to endure what I was going through. It wasn’t because of my personal fortitude but because of the prayers of my brothers and sisters in the faith,” he said.

The religious also relied on personal prayer during his captivity. “Every day, I prayed the Angelus; three or four Rosaries; an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be for the sisters who died; the Chaplet of Divine Mercy; I meditated on the Way of the Cross; and I celebrated Holy Mass spiritually – I didn’t have any bread or wine but I said the prayers from memory,” he said.
“I prayed for my captors and I thanked God for the seed of goodness they could have in their hearts. Thanks be to God, I don’t hold any rancour or hatred for them,” he added.
“God knew everything that was happening, because they should have killed me in the beginning, but they didn’t. They kept me alive even though I said I was a Christian. Here I am now, free, to bear witness that God is alive, that he has heard our prayers and has answered us. I have witnessed the power of prayer,” he said. After his release on September 12, 2017, he met with Pope Francis, a moment that was “tremendously emotional.”

“During the meeting with Pope Francis, I cried and I thanked him for the prayers he had prayed for me that he had asked to be prayed for me.” Father Tom encouraged all Christians who are suffering persecution today to be steadfast in prayer and in faith in God.
The priest currently lives in Bangalore, India, since Yemen is still at war. However, he assures that he is ready to go back to the country “if that’s God’s will.”

Dr. Evan Atar Adaha. “Doing anything extraordinary”

Last month, Dr. Evan Atar Adaha, surgeon and medical director at a hospital in Bunj, South Sudan,  received the U.N. Refugee Agency’s Nansen Refugee Award, in recognition of his more than 20 years of providing medical care for displaced people and refugees.  

He carries out up to 10 operations a day, spending hours on his feet, as well as helping nurses prepare patients and checking up on everyone, from patients with bullet wounds or malaria sufferers to new-born babies.

He is often the first in theatre, pushing the heavy metal operating table into place. He can be spotted in the neonatal ward, cooing to a new-born.  “We are here to save lives, not to sit,” says Dr. Atar, who is known by his middle name. “There is no lazing around in theatre. We are all equal. We are all a team.”

Dr. Atar, 52, is the senior and only surgeon at Maban Referral Hospital, a 120-bed and two-theatre facility in Bunj, in the south-eastern corner of South Sudan’s Upper Nile State.

The hospital, more than 600 kilometres from the capital, Juba, is the only functioning surgical facility in Upper Nile and includes a neonatal section and a 20-bed tuberculosis ward. Open 24 hours a day, it serves a population of more than 200,000. Dr. Atar is so well known that many just refer to it as “Dr. Atar’s Hospital”, and patients travel for days so they can be under his care.

When South Sudan gained independence in 2011, it had about 120 doctors and 100 nurses for a population of 12 million. Since civil war erupted in December 2013, displacing more than 4 million people, health care has deteriorated.

In the past, medical facilities have been looted and occupied, and staff intimidated, detained, abducted and killed. Ambulances have been shot at and stolen. Since 2013, 103 humanitarian workers have been killed.

The situation in Maban County is volatile and there have been regular periods of violence in recent years. After the offices and compounds of international organizations, including UNHCR, were attacked in July this year, Dr. Atar continued to work at his hospital even when members of his medical team were forced to leave.

Dr. Atar shrugs off the danger. “We treat everyone here, regardless of who they are,” he says, adding with a smile that all sides in the conflict seem to understand that they, too, benefit from good health care.

Originally from Torit, in southern South Sudan, Dr. Atar, received a scholarship to study medicine in Khartoum and later practised in Egypt. In 1997, he moved to Kurmuk, in Sudan’s Blue Nile State, at the heart of a major conflict where for 12 years, often during bombing raids, he ran a basic hospital treating wounded civilians as well as fighters from both sides.  “When I arrived, the hospital was a big toilet and the only thing left behind was an operating table,” he recalled.

“We used normal thread for suturing and bush sticks for blood drainage.” His most precious possession, Dr. Atar says, is an amputation set and a small sterilization kit given to him by a French doctor.

In 2011, under intense Sudanese bombing, he and his entire team joined tens of thousands of Sudanese fleeing across the border to Maban County in South Sudan. Dr. Atar packed up the hospital in four cars and a tractor. “It took us a month,” he said of the trek. “There was no road. It was the rainy season. The rivers were overflowing.” In that time,  Maban’s main town, Bunj, was a small place with a handful of shops. The hospital was once a primary health-care centre with no operating room. To perform his first operation, Dr. Atar made an operating theatre with a raised table using stacked doors.

Today, besides a host community of 53,000 people, the area around Bunj is home to 142,000 refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions, living in four camps.  Health care facilities in the camps are linked with Bunj Hospital. On average, the surgical team of four doctors operates on an average of 58 cases per week.

He acknowledges that his choice of work has been hard on his wife and four children. He sees them only three times a year. The family lives in Nairobi and Dr. Atar tries to keep in contact by WhatsApp and email several times a week. “Now I can do physics and chemistry homework with my oldest,” he says. “When I was in Kurmuk I wrote letters that took a month to arrive.”

Dr. Atar does not believe he is doing anything extraordinary. He lives in a weather-beaten canvas tent and keeps a treadle sewing machine on his porch which he uses to make surgical linen. He says he gets his energy from drinking milk. He relaxes on Sunday by going to church or taking a nap outdoors lying on the bare springs of a rusty bed.

A Christian, Dr. Atar, who is fluent in the region’s main language, Arabic, prays with patients before they are put under anaesthetic and, according to their religion, recites the Bible or the Koran. “I am most happy when I realize that the work that I have done has saved somebody from suffering or has saved his life,” he said. “But healing is not the medicine alone. You have to assure the patient. The moment you relate to a patient, they will open their heart to you… When a patient dies in my hands I am so sad.” Dr. Atar says it is unlikely he will retire. The hospital is what gives him hope and meaning to his life. “The more good services you give, the more people come,” he says with a chuckle.

The UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award is presented every year to an individual or organization who has dedicated their time going above and beyond the call of duty to help people forcibly displaced from their homes. The Award is named after Fridtjof Nansen, courageous Norwegian explorer and humanitarian who served as the first High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations. (Donatella Lorch)

Pope Francis. Sharing the Wisdom of Time.

Pope Francis in a new book is calling for an alliance between the young and elderly:  “Young people need the dreams of the elders so they can hope in a future. Older people and young people move forward together, and they need each other”.

In his Preface, Pope Francis writes: “Only the testimony of the elders will help young people look above the horizon to see the stars. Just learning that it was worth fighting for something will help young people face the future with hope”.

Sharing the Wisdom of Time * is a collection of stories about elders from around the world. From over 30 countries, elders share their wisdom carved from lifetimes of experience. The stories are spread over five thematic chapters: work, struggle, love, death and hope, and each chapter begins with the Pope reflecting on each theme.  People’s stories are interspersed with the Pope’s own reflections on an individual’s story.

Bernard Njagi Mugwtwa, basket weaver from Kenya

Do you want to hear an interesting story? Once upon a time there was a bat.  He was so wise.  He attended an animal meeting on earth, and he got some teeth. He later attended an animal meeting in the skies, and he got some feathers. When he died, he was taken to the skies, but the animals there said they did not know him because he had teeth. He was brought back to earth, but the animals there said they did not know him because he had feathers. In the end, he was buried on top of the mountains, because he did not belong anywhere. You might lose everything as you try to belong. I am blind, but the eyes of my soul see the beauty around me. As l weave my baskets, l smile. Unlike the bat, I am happy where I belong and have accepted myself just as I am.

Pope Francis responds

I think about the mystery of everyone’s identity. We are who we are, and everyone has their own story. Some people do not accept their identity. They want to change it. They want to be someone or something else. But wisdom means bearing your own identity, accepting yourself through and through, being proud of yourself no matter what. Elders with many years behind them have lived into their own identities over a long time. They have to reckon with their lives and how they have lived. Elders carry this wisdom in their dreams: it is their history, their very own story.

Bernard is blind but he sees us clearly! How can that be? It is because he can see himself and behold the beauty all around himself. For him this means making beautiful baskets. I have met several older blind people. I realised that many of them are able to see better than those with physical sight. Sometimes it is not easy to accept yourself the way you are, but those who live long can come to peace with themselves and with their story, even if it takes many years. Some people, like Bernard, look at their story with pride. We all should do that.

Christine Nampande, gardener from Uganda

After my husband died in 1989, his relatives attempted to evict me from our family house and land. I decided to rent land for cultivation. I had to travel four miles from home to that land every day with a child on my back.  But I thank God that I reported the case and the judge was true and fair. Both properties were returned to me, and it’s where I am now.  I have tried my best to look for money to put up a strong house because the one my late husband left behind is not strong and might fall at any time. However, I thank God because I went 10 years without sleeping on a mattress and a bed, and now I have them and sleep well.  If it wasn’t for the love people showed me after the death of my husband, I don’t think I’d be alive now. My children are unable to support me, but it’s the support of others that has made me survive. Before, I had lost hope, but now it has been restored due to the love of others.

Pope Francis responds

Christine’s words make us pause and think: before, I lost hope. And now find it again thanks to the love of others. She lost her husband and had to face so many difficulties and injustices. But taking the next step toward what is important is how you get back on your feet.  I once heard a motto that I liked: “A man must never look at another from above, except to help him lift himself up.”

Christine met people who helped her lift herself up.  “Get up” is a word that launches new beginnings.  It is the command that God speaks to Abram: “Arise!” God says to him, “Look at the sky! Get up and see! Try counting the stars!” There are people who fall and stay down because they cannot find someone to help them stand up. Once you have experienced what Christine did, you learn the wisdom of getting help. You experience the solidarity that allows your heart to dream. Now Christine is helping others rise up. Her children are unable to help her now, but with her dreams for them they can envision a brighter future.

Pope Francis concludes the preface: “I entrust this book to the young do the dreams of their elders will bring them to a better future. To walk toward the future, the past is needed; deep roots are needed to help live the present and its challenge> Memory is needed, courage is needed, a healthy vision of the future is needed”.

(*Pope Francis & Friends, Sharing The Wisdom Of the Time, Messenger Publications, Ireland, 175 pp, 2018.)