My pastoral experience in Dzaleka refugee camp, Malawi

Justice & Peace

Being encouraged by Fr. Andrews Obeng, SVD from Ghana province, my then novice master, to consider the JPIC dimension of our Congregation, and having all the opportunities given by the Congo province regarding this dimension, I chose to have my pastoral experience at Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi. A passion for justice, a desire for peace and non-violence and a concern for the integrity of all creation moved my person to go forward in my choice despite the discouragement and the difficulty that working in a refugee camp can present.

On October 12th 2018, I arrived in Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi, a country located in central Africa. The camp is located in the Dowa district, at around 50 km from the capital city Lilongwe. I was going there with the expectation to see people living in tents. Surprisingly, this was not the case; rather they were living in small mud houses. The following day upon my arrival in the camp, we went straight in the field for the “cleaning drive operation”; an initiative taken by Fr. Jun Perez, SVD, the pastoral care worker, to clean the surroundings of the camp with the collaboration of the refugees and the Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) project office which is a department of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). This was the beginning of a new life.

My first assignment in the camp was to assist the pastoral care worker in his endeavors. I assisted him in the celebration of the holy Eucharist and the celebration of other sacraments such as baptism, confirmation and holy matrimony. I also assisted him in translating from French and Lingala (language from D.R. Congo) into English the stories of the refugees who come to the pastoral care office for counselling. In fact, most of the refugees come from French speaking countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and a handful from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, Angola, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Eritrea. I really appreciate the openness of Fr. Jun, SVD in matters of counselling. He used to consider my point of view in counselling and directing the needy refugees to other implementing partners of the UNHCR which are operating in the camp together with JRS.

Part of the initiatives I took at the camp was to bring together the youth of the catholic community who were not organized. I helped them to have their own committee and to have proper planning for meetings where they can discuss their personal and community issues and find means of resolving the different problems they encounter. Those were mainly the continuous violence, the ethnic conflicts that apply the ‘lex taliones’, that is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, rather than seeking justice in the proper room of the law. We tried to find solutions in the light of the Gospel. I thank God because they were really doing well before I left the camp.

Other vulnerable group that I was concerned with, is the children especially those from Saint Ignatius Catholic Christian Community (there are three catholic communities at the camp). One can easily see these children left alone to their own fate without guidance nor direction and without any particular activity. I therefore tried to gather them with some movies and cartoons showing stories of the Holy Bible and anything that can entertain them in the same spirit. With the help of the leaders of Kizito-Anuarite and Xavery groups, we oriented some of the children to these groups and created a new group for those who were not willing to be partakers in the above-mentioned groups. I learnt a lot from these children as they don’t consider their tribe but they do things together innocently.

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Left: Fr. Jun, SVD. Right: Marcellin, SVD at the Refugges camp in Malawi.

Most of my time at the camp was consecrated to house visiting where I discovered the poverty they are experiencing. It was an opportunity to meet the elderly and the sick people and to bring hope to those who are despaired. This was the most touching moment for me as I saw an elderly woman shedding tears because she saw me unexpectedly in her house. They really need people to consider them.

The integration of creation impels us to put our hands to the ground, to clean the rubbish, to keep the environment sound and reduce the risk of some sicknesses. We did this for some month and bring change to the environment in the camp. I also had to play the role of pastoral care worker when Fr. Jun went to the Philippines for his home vacation. It was a critical moment since I had to take decisions on sensitive issues to avoid conflict. It was during the same period of time that I happened to do the celebration of the Word in two different languages that I was not prepared for, namely Kinyarwanda (from Rwanda) and Swahili (from D.R. Congo).

In all, there were other difficulties concerning the security of the refugees and of the workers, the dusty weather and the mixture of culture present at the camp. But the grace of God helped me to have a wonderful experience. For when I look at the feedback I got from the people about the changes my presence brought to them, the joy I experienced and the life we shared together, I can only appreciate.

By: Yawo K.K.D. Marcellin, SVD