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Andre Melo

Angolan Andre Melo used to work with JRS in Zambia. Today he is studying at the University of Utah, USA, on a Fulbright grant. He shares his story.
One evening in August 2009, my Professor of Microeconomics asked me what I had done in Angola before going to study in the US. “Probably you just worked in the city,” he said, assuming perhaps that I came from a well-to-do urban family. When he learned that my first job was with JRS, he understood that I had been in touch with the grassroots of community.

Actually, not only was I in touch with the grassroots, I was part of them. My father, a renowned professional auto mechanic from an influential family, initially managed a workshop and winepress in the capital of Angola’s easternmost province, today called Luena.

When war broke out, his wealth proved useless. His best survival option was to lead the family to Zambia. I was barely a week old when we set off in late November 1977. Two of my brothers died on the journey, two others and a sister died in Zambia, some years later. As for my eldest brother, who was away when we left Angola, we never saw him again. Now we are only three brothers and one sister. Growing up in Meheba refugee settlement, I considered my childhood “normal” because I was too young to remember anything else. Then I became aware of heated family debates about leaving the camp, which usually ended without consensus. It was a very hard life for those who had known a better way in Angola. This gave me part of the answer I sought when my father suddenly left Zambia without telling anyone.

Despite the hardships, some people benefited. I had the opportunity to go to a public school. However, in seventh grade, when I was turning 14, I had to pay exam fees in addition to other expenses. Luckily, I was selected for sponsorship by a Japanese NGO and supported through Meheba High School. In the early nineties, a team of three – a Jesuit priest, a Jesuit brother and a lay volunteer – arrived in Meheba. One of the first initiatives of this JRS team was a youth group, which I joined; we did drama and wrote articles for a bulletin named Voices for Peace. In 1997, after completing high school, I started doing community social service with a stipend from JRS. My work involved nutritional health education for undernourished families and assessment of eligibility for social assistance of vulnerable refugees. A year later, I signed my first job contract with JRS as community development officer.

In 2001, I was admitted to the University of Zambia to follow the Bachelor of Arts with Education programme and graduated in July 2007, not least thanks to a grant from JRS. At first, I did the course part-time, so I could continue working with JRS, where I also served as policy field assistant until 2002. The following year, on the recommendation of JRS, I was research assistant in a sociological project in the camp, which earned me a visit to the Universität Siegen in Germany as Visiting Research Fellow.

Throughout this time, accompaniment by JRS staff went beyond employment and grant relations. I kept seeking advice from Michael Gallagher SJ, even after he left Zambia, especially when I was making the difficult choice between staying in Zambia and returning to Angola, which I finally did in 2007. This and the inspiration I drew from Fr Michael’s expertise contributed greatly to my decision to study Public Policy.

What is more, my work experience with JRS helped me shape my perceptions of life, teaching me how to set feasible goals. I realised the importance of education early on, in the sense of learning as knowledge acquisition. Within the uncertainty of the availability of financial resources, I have found the strength to do the best I can, with whatever means I have, and see how I may plausibly obtain what else I need to meet my goals. This, and the support I have received, has enabled me to visualise and grasp opportunities in life and make future plans with confidence.