It took a month for Ganun Butros Wadko and his family to walk from their village in the Blue Nile region of Sudan to what became their home in a sprawling refugee camp in Maban, South Sudan. Despite the harsh environment for their trek, no one got left behind.
“We left home with nothing. When the bombing started, we fled with just our clothes. There was no time to take the animals or think about tomorrow. I had five cows and two pigs, and I don’t know what happened to them, because we had to leave or we would have died,”
“We didn’t know where to go, but along with others from our village we found our way. Just walking. No bikes. Carrying our children. We would stop and rest every few days, always making sure everyone was present. If something bad happens, you can’t go on without supporting each other. If someone went missing, we’d go look for them.”
That concern that no one be left behind continued after Wadko arrived in Maban, where United Nations officials–with the hospitality of local residents–helped the flood of newcomers from the Blue Nile to establish what eventually became four camps sheltering more than 145,000 people.
It wasn’t the first time Wadko had become a refugee. As a child in the 1980s, his family had taken him to a camp in Ethiopia when the long Sudanese civil war turned brutal. After 21 years there, during which time he married and began a family, Wadko returned to the Blue Nile in 2006. He worked as a primary school teacher, but after only five years at home the Khartoum government started bombing the area, and Wadko again went into exile.
His concern that no one be left behind soon attracted the attention of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), which hired him to coordinate home visits as part of its psycho-social work in the Doro Refugee Camp. He and a team of volunteers make weekly visits to the homes of people they identify as particularly vulnerable, including widows, people living with disabilities, survivors of sexual violence, and those struggling with mental illness.
“We visit every week, and if we find someone with a part of their body that’s not functioning well, we’ll sometimes try massage to help the blood circulate better. We work with parents helping them better care for their children with disabilities. We help women-headed households cope with stress, and keep an eye out for people suffering from depression, offering them counselling. We can also offer some material support, as people may need soap or solar lamps or a little cash to meet their daily needs.”
According to Father Tony O’Riordan, SJ, the JRS Project Director in Maban, the home visits are at the core of their support for refugees.
“Often we can’t do anything to solve their problems, but the refugees appreciate that someone listens to them. And when we listen, we can often provide some support to help them cope with their daily challenges,” O’Riordan said.
The priest says Wadko is an essential part of that process. “Our team is from the community we serve, and Ganun is one of them. He’s a refugee. He knows the language. He lives in the community. In his visits he assesses people’s needs, let’s them know there’s someone who cares, and looks for practical ways to help.
“He’s changing people’s lives every day, especially the most vulnerable. People in South Sudan have been largely forgotten by the world, those in a refugee camp even more so. They’ve been left behind. But when Ganun comes, people feel they aren’t forgotten any longer, and from that emerges strength to cope with life. His work is quiet, but it’s heroic.”
The Jesuit Refugee Service, with support from Misean Cara and the Irish Jesuit Missions, provide education and psychosocial support services to both refugees and the host community.