Outreach Based on Need not Creed

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By Rocco Puopolo s.x., Executive Director

Bishop George Biguzzi of the Diocese of Makeni, Sierra Leone, was recently invited to Washington to make a presentation on migration in West Africa to the United States Catholics Conference of Bishops (USCCB) Migration and Refugees Services Department. As one of the West African bishop delegates to the African Synod in October, one of the issues Bishop George brings to the Synod is that of migration and refugees, a justice issue largely absent from the preparatory documentation for this event. Bishop George has been the bishop of Makeni, one of three dioceses in Sierra Leone, since 1987. Bishop George is also the president of the local Bishops Conference, which includes the Gambia.

He witnessed the 11 years of civil unrest that tore Sierra Leone apart from 1991 to 2002.  He played a central role in mediating the end of this conflict, freeing sisters and priests held hostage and reaching out to young former combatants from all sides bringing about reconciliation, reintegration and vocational training.  He visited refugees in Guinea and Ghana, encouraging them and monitoring their care. Today he coordinates the post-war reconstruction and development effort that welcomes refugees home and is bringing hope and new life to his diocese and the country as a whole.

The present day migration of peoples is a multi-pronged challenge for Africa. The factors that cause people to move are many: military conflicts create insecurity and drive people from their lands, economic hardship and the lack of employment drive people to other places in search of work, and the changing climate is creating “climate refugees”. Migration leads to a number of challenges.  First, there is the brain drain – often persons who have benefited from education and job training migrate to Europe or the US for better jobs.  Bishop George views the US immigration green card lottery as weighted against the poor and uneducated.   It is selective and encourages those who had been prepared to contribute to the development of Sierra Leone civil society to move to greener (or maybe safer) pastures.   Those left in Sierra are unable to make up the difference that could bring true progress to this young country.   By way of example, he stated that only 80 medical doctors remain in Sierra Leone with a total population of 5.5 million people.

And then there is the challenge facing those migrants who can only make it as far as neighboring African countries.  All too often, these poorer men and women find themselves victims of suspicion, even hostility, by those in their new country.  If something goes wrong in the host country, the newly arrived migrants are blamed.   In Guinea, refugees and migrants from Sierra Leone were held in suspect for years during and following the war: Were they insurgents from Sierra Leone, lying low in refugee camps until the moment to strike? In the meantime, they were offered no jobs, lived in subhuman conditions in camps and had very few rights.

Even the return of refugees can be problematic.  The returnees are blamed for not being present immediately after the conflict to help lift society from the ashes.    Furthermore, others may have taken the land or housing these refugees left behind, and there is usually little judicial support to sort out what belongs to whom.  Returning home does not mean that things will return to normal.

Bishop George hopes that the Synod will set a framework that affirms the many initiatives contributing to reconciliation, justice and peace that have recently taken place in dioceses throughout Africa.  In the Makeni Diocese he has set up a legal affairs office which works in conjunction with the an institution of higher learning that targets leadership training on all levels.   Recently, workshops on good governance were offered for local chiefs, town officials and parliamentarians not only in Makeni but throughout the country.   Themes rooted in Catholic Social Teaching were shared with these men and women to guide a renewed look at how government, at local and national levels, needs to among other things support the dignity of all, gain a better knowledge of citizens’ rights and responsibilities, and work towards the common good.

Another creative initiative is the outreach to the police and the bikers association by the Institute and the office of legal affairs. The Bikers Association was formed as a credit union/support group for former young combatants that used monies from their demobilization packets to purchase motorbikes that they use as taxis.  The association assists them with micro-credit as well as court cases.  On one hand, the bikers often do not know the traffic laws and that leads to conflicts with the police.  On the other, many of the police do not know the actual laws, but harass the bikers out of ignorance.  The Church’s initiative offers seminars to both the bikers’ association members and the police to help then both not only understand the laws but respect one another.  These services, and more, are offered to the people of Sierra Leone not based on creed, but on need.

The Synod is always a Kairos moment in the church, an opportunity to witness the power of that Gospel phrase from Matt 5:13-14, “You are the salt of the earth…  You are the light of the world.” The bishop looks forward to hearing and sharing many stories of hope and service by those committed to reconciliation, justice and peace.

Originally published in the Sept-Oct edition of Around Africa

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