|“I feel tired at the end of the day, but I always have strength. I get my energy from the Lord. It could not be otherwise. I try my best, but it is the grace of the Lord that gets me through the day.”|
Mae Hong Son, 8 February, 2011 -- Sr Evelyn de Alba, FI never thought she would be living in Thailand, working in refugee camps
“I am amazed at how the Lord has helped me and provided for me,” Sr Evelyn said. “He has put me in the right place at the right time.”
Growing up in the Philippines, she went to college as a working student in order to meet a requirement to become a nun.
Her plan to enter the convent changed when she fell in love. She went to see the nun of the Congregation of the Daughters of Jesus, with whom she has been in contact regularly, and told her that she could serve God even if she did not enter the convent.
The nun smiled at her and said: “That is true, Evelyn. And maybe you can even do more outside the convent. But the only difference is that when you become a nun Jesus becomes the Centre of your life and everything you do is for love of Him”.
“On hearing those words I felt as though the empty space deep within me was filled and it became clear to me that this what I really want,” Sr Evelyn said.
So, she finished college, worked as a teacher for three years and entered the order of the Hijas de Jesus or Daughters of Jesus.
Sr Evelyn now works in Mae Hong Son, where JRS’ primary objective is providing education in two refugee camps on the Thai/Burma border. While she educates people in her own way, Sr Evelyn embodies the JRS mission of accompaniment. And while this term can sometimes seem broad, Sr Evelyn has made her work of accompanying refugees both specific and individualised.
She came to Mae Hong Son in 2005, taking the place of Sr Lina. It was Sr Lina who started the Family Friendship Groups in one section of the camp, allowing people to come share concerns and ideas. When she left, Sr Evelyn continued and introduced the Family Friendship Group to the Section Leaders of the different sections in camp one. The section leaders of all the 20 sections welcomed Sr Evelyn. She started holding regular meetings in the different sections of the camp – with a population exceeding 18,000 – for people to discuss life in the camp and concerns about their community and their future. Many times some of the section leaders also attended and shared their own concerns.
“At first it just started with concerns,” she said. “No work. No money. They can’t leave the camp. But now we are focusing on what they actually do have, and what they can do with it.”
She referred those who attended the Friendship Group meetings – many who were never formally educated in Burma – to the JRS sponsored Vocational Training Non-Formal Education (VT-NFE), reminding them that education is not only for children.
When Sr Evelyn took over four years ago, she expanded the friendship groups to all sides of the camp and continues the work of visiting individual homes. People with individual concerns - abuse, alcoholism, depression - asked Sr Evelyn to help them find resources in the camp. While she says she can’t always offer assistance personally, she can try to find an organisation who can.
“If I can’t help, I can always listen. I can be present and I can pray for them,” she said.
The Congregation of the Daughters of Jesus is one of the few congregations of nuns working directly with refugees in Thailand. It isn’t surprising, though, that her congregation teamed up with the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), because their Foundress, Saint Candida Maria de Jesus, wrote their Constitutions based on the Jesuit Constitutions.
“We both go where there is a greater need,” she said.
And it was that greater need that pulled her away from doing campus ministry work in the Philippines to doing refugee work in Northern Thailand. It was in 2003, while visiting the JRS International office in Rome where she saw posters of JRS work around the world and knew that was her next calling. She considered it as God answering her prayer when she was chosen to be sent to Mae Hong Son.
Still, while she considers the work to be rewarding, it is also difficult. It takes an hour on rough terrain just to get to the first camp, and almost three hours to get to the second. She walks up and down hills of rock and mud, during the rainy season, to get to homes, meetings and trainings.
“I feel happy,” she said. “I feel tired at the end of the day, but I always have strength. I get my energy from the Lord. It could not be otherwise. I try my best, but it is the grace of the Lord that gets me through the day.”
By Molly Mullen, communications intern, JRS