Dispatches is a fortnightly e-mail bulletin of the JRS International Office. It features refugee news briefings, press releases, featured articles and project updates from our people in the field.


  Democratic Republic of Congo: unexploded ordnances in schools, students at risks

 
A student from Bweremana Institute, outside Goma, goes towards the school toilets. According to JRS, they contain unexploded grenades and other ammunitions used in war (Danilo Giannese/JRS)

 
Additional stories about the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo:  

Goma, 27 March 2013 – Unexploded grenades, bullets and other unused munitions were found last month in sewage drains used by some schools in the North Kivu capital. For students in the area, school is not a place of protection, but a threat to their lives.

Almost five months after the Goma crisis, when rebels from the March 23 Movement (M23) took control of the city for 12 days, the Jesuit Refugee Service expresses concern for the safety of the civilian population, in particular children.

According to JRS staff in Goma, the toilets of Bweremana Institute, a few kilometres from the city, are full of military munitions and grenades which could explode at any minute. The ordnances are the sign of military and rebel presence in Goma before and during the conflict between the Congolese army and the M23 in November last year. Unfortunately, the schools still have not been cleared of explosive materials, even though more than 1,000 primary and secondary students have returned for classes.

Schools need to be urgently cleared. "By definition schools should be a place of protection, but here students attending classes are putting their lives at risk every day. Their safety and integrity should be guaranteed urgently", said Danilo Giannese, JRS Great Lakes Africa Advocacy and Communications Officer.

For children to attend school in a climate of safety and protection, JRS will close the toilets and build 18 new facilities, 12 for the secondary school and six for the primary school.

"Since the toilets have not yet been cleared of military ordnances, we have decided to intervene as soon as possible to protect the children. The risk they will fall victim to an explosive accident while at school is currently very high. Our responsibility calls us to take any possible action to safeguard them and to re-establish school as a place of protection and peace for children".

Background. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), following the November clashes and as of January 2013, the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) has destroyed 1,757 unexploded and abandoned ordnances and more than 11,000 small arms ammunition.

Since April 2012, at least 360,000 people have been forced to flee their home villages in North Kivu due to M23 rebels. Of this group, 150,000 have been forcibly displaced following the clashes between M23 and government forces which on 20 November last year culminated in the fall of Goma to the rebels.

After 12 days of occupation, the rebels agreed to withdraw 20 kilometres from the city centre. Since then peace negotiations between government and rebel leaders, which meanwhile split into two factions, have been on-going.


Thailand: post-fire relief efforts underway in Mae Surin refugee camp

 
Approximately 2,300 Burmese refugees were displaced or injured by the fire that blazed through Mae Surin refugee camp in northern Thailand last Friday, (Catholic Organisation for Emergency Relief and Refugees)

 
Hundreds of people have lost all their belongings in the fire, and with temperatures in Mae Hong Son falling below 16 degrees Celsius at night, winter clothing is needed.  

Bangkok, 26 March 2013 – A fire that swept through Mae Surin refugee camp in northern Thailand on Friday has been met with swift relief by NGOs and community-based organisations. According to JRS staff, 37 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers lost their lives and several thousands have been made homeless.

"There has been a good coordinated response led by the refugee community to care for the survivors who have lost their homes", said JRS Thailand Director, Pauline Aaron.

The fire, reportedly sparked by a household cooking accident mid-afternoon on 22 March, quickly spread to two sections of the camp, incinerating two primary schools, up to 400 houses, a clinic, two nursery schools, the Baptist Church, and two food supply storerooms. Only 20 of the bamboo-thatch huts were left standing.

"The commitment and solidarity of the community brought them together to distribute food and set up temporary shelters, all while mourning the tragic loss of life", said JRS Asia Pacific Director, Bambang Sipayung SJ.

Approximately 2,300 people – more than 65 percent of the camp population – have been affected, according to reports from staff working for the Jesuit Refugee Service and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

"Before we left the camp [after distributing food and other material assistance] one person with almost 100 percent body surface burns was referred to a hospital in Chiang Mai. But moments later, he passed away", said Mr Rollie Verzosa, a JRS Education Coordinator in Mae Hong Son.

Bringing relief to survivors. Temporary housing sites for survivors have been identified in public spaces, such as the football field, a nursery school, and open areas close to the nearby river and at the entrance of Mae Surin camp.

"The construction of temporary housing is in progress. Other refugees will stay with friends and relatives", said Mr Verzosa.

The UNHCR has donated 800 plastic sheets and two to three blankets and mats per family.

"Our teams are returning to the camp this morning with plastic sheets, blankets, bed mats and other items to provide temporary emergency shelter before their homes can be rebuilt", explained UNHCR Thailand Representative, Mireille Girard in a statement issued on 23 March.

Two days ago, JRS staff distributed more than two hundred bottles of water, fifty boxes of noodles, used clothing, kitchen wares and toothpaste. 

Donations from the Thai government, Red Cross and other organisations have met most of the urgent needs of the community, according to NGOs. In addition, the Thai Ministry of Public Health is working with the International Rescue Committee to provide medical treatment.

"The main issue now is to ensure survivors receive winter clothing", said Mr Verzosa.

Hundreds of people have lost all their belongings in the fire, and with temperatures in Mae Hong Son falling below 16 degrees Celsius at night, winter clothing is needed. The Karenni community, NGOs and UNHCR are conducting ongoing needs assessments of the refugee population, including those of education for children in the camp.

The Burmese refugees have been in Mae Surin camp in northern Mae Hong Son province since 1992, after fleeing conflict in Karenni (Kayah) state.

Dana MacLean, JRS Asia Pacific Communications Officer


Pope Francis: protect humanity, the poorest, the weakest, the stranger

 
Pope Francis extends a hand to the crowd as he greets followers in Saint Peter's Square (Peter Balleis/JRS).

 
Extending a hand to those of other traditions, Pope Francis reminded the crowd that the vocation of being a protector … is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone.  

Rome, 19 March 2013 – In his inauguration homily, Pope Francis called on those in positions of responsibility and all men and women of goodwill to be protectors of creation and humanity, and not allow "hatred, envy and pride" to taint their lives.

"When the Pope denounces the failure of some leaders to live up to their responsibilities, giving way to forces of destruction and hatred, this evokes a concept so dear to JRS, advocacy dealing with the root causes of injustice and displacement. His message has so much spiritual depth; it says a lot of our mission of accompaniment, service and advocacy", said JRS International Director, Peter Balleis SJ.

In the 15-minute homily, the new pope emphasized the role of Joseph as a protector, who carried out that role, discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an "unfailing presence and utter fidelity".

Accepting the responsibility of the power conferred on him as the new Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis said we should "never forget that real power is service", and that he himself when exercising power, "must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross."

When humans fail to live up to their responsibilities, destruction of the lives of others prevails and hearts are hardened. But even in so much darkness, the pontiff continued, "we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others."

"To protect Jesus with Mary, to protect the whole of creation, to protect each person, especially the poorest, to protect ourselves: this is a service that the Bishop of Rome is called to carry out, yet one to which all of us are called, so that the star of hope will shine brightly. Let us protect with love all that God has given us!"

"St Joseph was the guardian – 'the protector' – of the Holy Family when they were exiled to Egypt as refugees. Characterised by tenderness and love, this guardianship is central to our mission of accompaniment and service", added Fr Balleis.

Protection of all men and women comes from serving others with tenderness and love. Rather than of weakness, tenderness is a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for compassion, for genuine openness and concern for others, for love.

"We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!"

Extending a hand to those of other traditions, Pope Francis reminded the crowd that the "vocation of being a 'protector' … is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone".

This means, he said citing the book of Genesis and pointing to the example set by St Francis of Assisi, respecting the environment and showing loving concern for every person, especially children, the elderly and those in need.


Syria: two years of conflict threaten children's education and well-being

 
As the country's infrastructure collapses, JRS finds alternatives by opening mobile schools in tents, Aleppo, Syria (JRS)

 
Additional stories about the work of JRS in Syria:

 

International community needs to ensure emergency support reaches the families and children

Beirut, Rome, Washington DC, 15 March 2013 – As the conflict in Syria enters its third year, the protection and well-being of Syrian children continue to be gravely compromised. Despite the best efforts of local and international organisations, the almost total collapse of critical infrastructure is hindering the delivery of key services. The present situation is exacerbated by the lack of sufficient funding for humanitarian assistance. The Jesuit Refugee Service urges the international community to ensure emergency support reaches the families and children most in need.

The education of nearly all Syrian children, comprising nearly half of the population, has been interrupted in some way by the conflict. In addition to suffering from the trauma of war and the shortages of food and basic services, the well-being of young people is further threatened by a lack of access to education. The resulting risks to the well-being of young Syrians have been clearly detailed in the latest UNICEF report.

"The disruption of education has a negative impact on the well-being of children, affecting their self-esteem, social interaction skills and ability to express themselves. The combination of educational and psychosocial support is crucial to helping children cope with loss and trauma", said JRS Middle East and North Africa Director, Nawras Sammour SJ.

As the level of destruction increases, Syrians are forced to flee to other cities and countries. More and more schools and other public buildings are needed as shelters. In the northern city of Aleppo, for instance, only six percent of children are enrolled in the handful of available schools.

The educational and psychosocial support provided to children in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo in the JRS Syria centres and school-shelters clearly illustrate both the benefits of education and the difficulties of providing it during a crisis. In Aleppo, JRS is directly responsible for four school-shelters in which up to 200 displaced families live. Unable to use the buildings for classrooms, JRS has set up tents in school yards, where children attend classes taught by volunteer teachers.

In many cases such emergency services have been the only education Syrian children have received in nearly two years; in places where regular schools continue to function, supplemental support provided by JRS also serves as an important psychosocial cushion for those traumatised by the conflict. 

"The support we provide for children is not only important from an educational perspective, but also because we provide a safe-haven for a few hours a day, taking pressure off parents trying to cope with the realities of conflict. The centres offer routine and stability in the midst of chaos, a place where children can feel safe. In this kind of environment they are able to learn and express themselves better", added Fr Sammour.

For further information contact
  • Zerene Haddad, JRS Middle East and North Africa Communications Officer; tel.: +961 712 73136; middleeast.communications@jrs.net; www.jrsmena.org
  • Mitzi Schroeder, JRS USA Policy Director; tel.: +1 202 629 5941; mschroeder@jesuit.org; www.jrsusa.org
  • James Stapleton, JRS International Communications Coordinator, tel.: +39 346 234 3841; james.stapleton@jrs.net; www.jrs.net
Notes to the editor

JRS has been present in the Middle East since 2008. With projects in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, JRS regionally serves the needs of diverse refugee and asylum seeker communities who come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Iran and Syria.

As the region becomes engulfed by the humanitarian crisis arising from Syria's conflict, JRS is responding with emergency relief in the form of blankets, mattresses, winter shoes and clothes, food baskets and hot meals, basic medicine, shelter and educational and psychosocial support. In addition, JRS also provides transport, school-kits, light meals for the children and school materials to some public schools that are struggling to cope under the circumstances.

Across the region, more than 50,000 families have received support from JRS in 2012. Emergency assistance is being conducted in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, whilst normal projects to existing refugee communities continue in Turkey and Jordan.

JRS worldwide

JRS works in more than 50 countries around the world. The organisation employs over 1,200 staff: lay, Jesuits and other religious to meet the education, health, social and other needs of approximately 700,000 refugees and IDPs, more than half of whom are women. Its services are provided to refugees regardless of race, ethnic origin or religious beliefs.


Rwanda: after 17 years along Congolese refugees, JRS withdraws from the country

 
In the refugee camp Kiziba, western Rwanda, which currently houses approximately 19,000 Congolese refugees (Danilo Giannese / JRS)

 
When we met the first refugees following their flight from Congo, we could see the fear and distress in their eyes. They had lost everything they owned. After so many years living in the camps, they still don't have any certainties about the future. They would like to go home, but they can't because the war still hasn't ended.  

Bujumbura, 15 March 2013 – In late January the Jesuit Refugee Service has closed its project in Rwanda after 17 years of accompaniment of the nearly 40,000 refugees from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, bringing an end some of the oldest JRS projects in world.

Since 1996, JRS worked in two of three camps present in the country, Kiziba and Gihembe in western and northern Rwanda where teams worked closely with the refugee populations offering formal and informal education services, as well as pastoral, recreational and emergency activities.

The difficult decision to close projects in Rwanda was made to concentrate energy and resources on the thousands of significant needs of the hundreds of thousands of individuals in humanitarian emergencies throughout the Great Lakes region. Before JRS left the camps its crucial formal education work was handed over to another international NGO, ADRA, specialised in education.

Protracted refugee crisis. Refugees in Kiziba and Gihembe camps fled conflict in the eastern province of North Kivu in 1996. Ever since, they have lived in the camps, unable to return home due to on-going insecurity in the region. Thousands of children were born in the camps over the years. Of the more than 38,000 refugees who live in the camps, more than half are under 17 years of age.

"When we met the first refugees following their flight from Congo, we could see the fear and distress in their eyes. They had lost everything they owned. After so many years living in the camps, they still don't have any certainties about the future. They would like to go home, but they can't because the war still hasn't ended", said Mateo Aguirre SJ, JRS Great Lakes Africa Director who opened the projects in Rwanda in 1995.

Activities. The JRS projects, some of which were undertaken in cooperation with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) have benefited some 20,000 refugees per year, including all the children attending school in the two camps.

In 2012, for example, more than 10,000 children attended the nursery, primary and secondary schools. Over the years JRS has trained and chosen teachers to manage its schools, engaged in restoration and construction of crucial buildings, as well as the distribution of school materials and uniforms. The high pass rate in examinations taken by primary and secondary students in the camps is a testimony to the quality of teaching provided in the schools.

To assist young people in finding a job JRS organised various vocational training courses for electricians, chefs and IT workers. Teams also organised a range of sports and cultural activities, such as basketball and volleyball tournaments, film screenings and theatre performances.

JRS accompaniment takes place through the close contact staff have with refugees in delivering emergency food and material assistance to individuals in extremely vulnerable circumstances, such as older people, persons with disabilities and medical illnesses, orphans and widows. The pastoral programme offered refugees the opportunity to take part in religious services, also providing young refugees with an opportunity to receive Holy Communion and Confirmation.

Danilo Giannese, JRS Great Lakes Africa Advocacy and Communications Officer


Central African Republic: projects suspended and staff evacuated

 
Children attend a JRS education course in Markounda in March 2012. JRS staff evacuated and projects were suspended in Central African Republic on 25 March 2013 due to deteriorating security and rising violence (Peter Balleis/JRS).

 
Numerous cases of human rights abuses have been reported, the local population have lost all their belongings, the rebels have systematically pillaged offices, companies, churches. The dioceses of Bangassou and Alindao and Kagabandoro in southern and central CAR have seen everything they possessed fall into the hands of rebels.  

Yaoundé, 27 March 2013 – JRS staff were forced to evacuate the Central African Republic (CAR) and suspend projects for the second time in three months due to worsening conflict between government forces and the Séleka rebel coalition.

In late December JRS suspended its projects for one month due to deteriorating security. The projects were reopened in late January, only to be closed again last week. Escorted by French military, the last cohort of evacuated JRS staff finally left the country on a UN flight late Monday night arriving in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé early Tuesday morning.

In the midst of the crisis, JRS West Africa Director, Ernesto Lorda, urged insurgents to ensure the protection of the civilian population, and to make it possible for humanitarian organisations to restart the delivery of humanitarian assistance, including education programmes for children.

Some 5,000 Séleka fighters swept into the capital on Sunday after a lightning offensive in which they fought their way from the far north to the presidential palace in four days after the collapse of the power-sharing deal, the Libreville Accord.

According to Alertnet, looters and gunmen roamed the streets of the capital, Bangui on Tuesday, as regional peacekeepers and rebels struggled to restore order two days after a coup has left the country instilled chaos. In recent months significant numbers of people came to Bangui after fleeing insecurity, and shortages of necessities have caused prices to skyrocket in the past few weeks.

The latest evacuation followed what appears to be the last breakdown in peace after the president fled the country during the weekend. The evacuation of JRS on Monday from Bangui, followed the withdrawal of staff from the northwestern surrounding Markounda. All JRS staff in the area are now safe in Chad. 

According to Lorda, all other NGO and UN agency staff, including the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), have been evacuated.

Insecurity and humanitarian crisis. Since the peace agreement last December, more than 1.1 million people living in rebel-controlled territories are said to be living in dire circumstances. 

"Numerous needs assessments have demonstrated the urgent need for food, healthcare and sanitation services in rebel controlled areas. Moreover, some 166,000 children in these areas do not have access to education services. Despite the signing of a peace agreement this year, insecurity has continued, access to humanitarian organisations has been difficult, and the populations in areas affected by fighting have suffered terribly", said Mr Lorda.

"Numerous cases of human rights abuses have been reported, the local population have lost all their belongings, the rebels have systematically pillaged offices, companies, churches. The dioceses of Bangassou and Alindao and Kagabandoro in southern and central CAR have seen everything they possessed fall into the hands of rebels", added Mr Lorda.

According to the UN refugee agency, clashes since December fighting has seriously restricted humanitarian access to some 5,300 refugees and over 175,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). An estimated 29,000 civilians have fled to neighbouring Congo. Chad has also received some 5,000 refugees since the beginning of the crisis. People have continued to cross into southern Chad in the wake of insecurity.

JRS has worked in CAR since 2008. Last year, teams worked in three locations – Bria, Markounda, Ouadda – providing formal and vocational education, pastoral and psychosocial to nearly 50,000 refugees and internal displaced persons.


  JRS DISPATCHES is sent from the International Office of the Jesuit Refugee Service, 00193 Roma Prati, Italy. Tel: +39 06 69 868 468; fax: +39 06 69 868 461; email: dispatches.editor@jrs.net; JRS online: http://www.jrs.net; Publisher: Peter Balleis SJ; Editor: James Stapleton; Translation: Carles Casals (Spanish), Edith Castel (French), and Simonetta Russo (Italian).

Dispatches No. 336
Editor: James Stapleton