Former Caritas staffer to work with refugees in Sudan

Helping to set up a school system in Sudan will be a first task for Caritas’ Elaine Jepsen who will next year go to work with refugees in Africa’s biggest country.
Elaine has spent the past four years working on schools’ resources for Caritas.

The director of JRS in Australia, David Holdcroft SJ, who was in Wellington last month to talk to Elaine about this latest project, said JRS was already working in the south of the country.

Education prized

The venture in El Fasher is much wider than just providing a classroom. The refugees are highly focused on education for their children and when they find a place where they can settle in relative safety, this becomes a priority.

Once the logistics of the programme are in place, Elaine’s expertise will come to the fore in collaborating with the communities to establish a rigorous education system.

‘There’ll be teachers there, many of them will have fairly low standards of literacy so her task will be to eoncourage them above all,’ Fr Holdcroft said.

‘In some places JRS actually helps to pay them and to train them to get some standardisation across the classes.’

There was no school system in other areas of the Sudan Fr Holdcroft had visited where examinations were done on the Ugandan system. This meant transporting thousands of students across the border, accommodating them there and paying their exam fees.

One of the challenges for Elaine will be in working with students who have missed significant chunks of their schooling.

‘In a year five class, you’ve got nine-year-olds, which are the proper age for that class, right through to 17-year-olds and older,’ Fr Holdcroft said.

‘You get learning difficulties – people are embarassed about [the gaps in] their learning.’

An incentive might be to provide soap for them and ensure all students get a good midday meal. This is done in some other of JRS’ works in Africa.

Relationships vital to the JRS vision

JRS is moving into the north of the country because of the proximity to the capital, Khartoum, which makes it easier to get supplies into the camp. There are also fewer non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in this region so the need is there.

The JRS mission is to accompany, to serve and to plead the cause of forcibly displaced people and so its operation is built on relationships.

‘To accompany means to listen to people and to keep listening because we are not refugees,’ Fr Holdcroft said. ‘We work with them [and] we stand to learn from them not only about their own situation but about ourselves which, I suppose, is the pay off. It can be a profoundly enriching experience.’

The first thing people lose in a refugee situation, he said, is agency, or the capacity to make decisions affecting their own lives.

‘And so the first thing is to respect that capacity even if there are all sorts of limits over which neither the refugee or JRS has control. The most difficult thing is to accompany someone in that powerlessness [when] we can’t really do much about the situation.’

Often the best relationships are formed when the refugees know that the JRS worker has done their best and shown that they are prepared to walk with them. ‘So you develop that relationship of trust out of which you can do a lot.’

The second part of the mission is to serve, which is a practical role.

The third part of the JRS mission entails helping to create space in which refugees’ voices can be heard – ‘not necessarily speaking on behalf but it’s allowing people to speak for themselves, allowing their story to speak in a manner that can be heard.’

A lifetime goal

For Elaine the opportunity to work with refugees in their own country is a dream come true. Since she was a child partaking in rice days at school in Wanganui, she developed an empathy for people in such predicaments and the refugee experience.

Later as a teacher of refugee children she realised that the hope of all parents for education for their children does not stop because they live amid conflict.

She was drawn to JRS because the agency was highly regarded for its authentic relationship-building and solid work with refugees.

‘They also have a strong mandate to education in refugee situations. The work of JRS is highly regarded in many countries. It will be a privilege to work for an agency that does excellent education work with refugees.’

Elaine is also keen to work with people who are in religious conflict.

‘In a world that fractures so much over religious differences, I am keen to work in a small way for inter-religious trust.’

While being based in El Fasher, North Darfur, Elaine will be working for JRS East AFrica.

‘JRS have long established programmes across East Africa and it will be good to be part of such an experienced and committed team.’

We hope to bring Wel-com readers news of Elaine’s work in Sudan from time to time.