Category Archives: refugees

Spanish seminary takes in 60 refugees from Ukraine

Bishop Eusebio Ignacio Hernández Sola of Tarazona welcomes a group of Ukrainian refugees to the diocesan seminary, March 13, 2022. | Diocese of Tarazona

The seminary of the Diocese of Tarazona welcomed Sunday 60 refugees from Ukraine who arrived accompanied by dozens of volunteers who had helped them make the trip from the Polish-Ukrainian border.

The group was received March 13 by Bishop Eusebio Ignacio Hernández Sola of Tarazona; the mayor, Luis José Arrechea; the rector of the seminary, Father José Luis Sofín; the families of the volunteers; and a large group of citizens.

According to a statement from the Diocese of Tarazona, the group of refugees consists of women, children, adolescents, and three men.

They will be housed in rooms adapted for them and will have two living rooms to gather in, a game room, and a dining room. In addition, they will have outdoor recreation areas.

“Every effort has been made in the shortest possible time to welcome these people and make them feel at home. It’s necessary to work together and in collaboration to pull in the same direction and help as much as we can,” Bishop Hernández said.

He also stressed that “the ties of fraternity and the good will of these volunteers who went and came back from Poland in almost record time, in a totally altruistic way and showing boundless generosity, to help these people in need who are fleeing from the war.”

“Now our part is to give them warmth and affection because let’s not forget that they have left everything in Ukraine,” he said.

Bishop Hernández said that when the war began he wondered “what we in the Diocese of Tarazona could do and so I offered the diocesan facilities and, in particular the seminary, and the initiative of the volunteers was providential.”

The group of refugees arrived in Spain thanks to the initiative of several volunteers from Tarazona who organized a collection of food, clothing, and medical supplies with the idea of taking them to the Polish-Ukrainian border and returning with refugees.

A convoy of three trucks and nine vans left Tarazona March 9. Three days later, after distributing the aid, the convoy returned to Spain with 60 people who were picked up at a refugee camp in Warsaw.

Upon their arrival, the volunteers and also the refugees thanked everyone for their gestures of solidarity and requested more help because “many things are still needed, medicines, food and money.”

Albania: Afghan women start eatery to help refugees feel at home

AfghanRestaurant Inside Albanian Pizzeri
For Afghans, the small space has become a conduit to another world, where they gather over familiar flavour to discuss the news from back home [Ruchi Kumar/Al Jazeera]

Shengjin city, Albania – The smell of freshly baked bread wafts from the kitchen of a small pizzeria in Shengjin city – a small coastal town in Albania. The bread, however, is not part of the usual offerings on the menu of Bella Vita Pizzeria, but in fact, a version of the Afghan naan, a quintessential traditional bread from Afghanistan that embodies much of the war-torn nation’s food culture.

The naan is only one of the five new dishes that are now being prepared in the kitchen of this Albanian pizzeria that has agreed to share its space with a makeshift Afghan restaurant started by two Afghan refugee women – Hasiba Atakpal, a renowned journalist, and Negina Khalil, the first female prosecutor in the remote province of Ghor in Afghanistan.

“We have lobia (red bean curry), qabili pulaw (Afghan meat and rice delicacy), bolanis (stuffed fried bread), banjan borani (eggplant in tomato sauce),” said Khalil, who was a prominent member of Afghanistan’s legal fraternity, investigating cases of children recruited by Afghan armed groups such as Taliban, ISIL (ISIS) affiliates. “And just like in Afghanistan, every meal is served with the naan,” she added.

The familiar aromas of bread and spices invite the roughly 1,200 Afghan refugees in Shengjin to indulge in a nostalgia-evoking culinary experience, more than 5,500km (3,400 miles) away from the homes they left escaping persecution after Taliban seized the country in August last year. In all, nearly 3,000 Afghans have found refuge in Albania, most of them rescued by international aid agencies.

While it was Khalil’s work prosecuting armed groups and criminals that put her at extreme risk, Atakpal’s bold, front-line reporting as a correspondent for the TOLOnews – Afghanistan’s biggest news channel – earned her threats from Taliban fighters who disapproved of her work.

Both women were forced to leave Kabul, but continue to dedicate their energies to serving their Afghan compatriots.

Atakpal and Khalil’s restaurant, called Ghezaye Afghani (which means Afghan cuisines in Dari, one of the Afghan languages), does not have a business address – it exists within the local pizzeria that offered their space to the two enterprising women.

“We started this restaurant three months ago when we saw how much Afghans who escaped to Albania missed the food from home. Everyone here [at the refugee centre] is dealing with trauma, and we wanted to do something to bring smiles to their faces,” explained Atakpal.

The two women, who first met at the refugee processing centre in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, approached the local restaurant outside the Rafelo resort in Shengjin where they were being housed. All Afghans have been accommodated at designated refugee centres.

Thousands of Afghans were brought to Qatar after they were airlifted out of Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power in August, and as the US-led foreign troops prepared to exit the country after 20 years of war.

“We shared our problem with them; about how the Afghan community missed the local food. We explained the idea we had about starting an Afghan kitchen, and they readily gave us permission to use their restaurant space to cook and serve, at no cost,” Atakpal said.

With a place secured, the two women, who are now good friends, sought out finding produce to prepare affordable authentic meals, and at times had to substitute them with the closest available ingredients. “It is not that hard to find ingredients.

“But our focus has been to prepare food that isn’t expensive so the people can afford them because nearly all our customers are refugees here, like us,” Khalil added.

They also hired another Afghan woman to prepare the dishes, since both women had limited cooking experience. “Back home, I was always so busy, I hardly spent time in the kitchen. But now my family find it very interesting that now I spend at least three days a week in the kitchen,” Atakpal quipped.

The restaurant has also gained a significant following among the local residents in Shengjin – home to about 8,000 people.

“It is so joyful when Albanian people come to us asking for our qabili pulaw and lobia. I feel this space helps us build a relationship with the Albanians who have been so nice to Afghans and welcomed us with open arms,” Atakpal said, adding that she hoped their little restaurant-within-a-restaurant leaves a positive legacy of Afghans who passed through Albania in their time of crisis.

They have applied for asylum in the United States and Canada, but it could take as long as a year to be accepted.

For Afghans, the small space has become a conduit to another world, where they gather over familiar flavours to discuss the news from back home.

“We get customers, Afghans from all walks of life, from across tribes and provinces, sharing a common loss and sorrow. It helps bring the community together,” Atakpal said. “It has been such a positive space, that sometimes when the restaurant is close, people come seeking us to ask when we will open,” she added.

Despite its popularity, the four-month-old business has not yet made much profit. In fact, there are days when they barely meet costs. But the women insist that the idea of this venture was never to make profits, rather to help Afghans in exile cope with the trauma they face. “Our best profit is that our people come and enjoy their time here and have their food.

For instance, many Afghan kids are used to eating only Afghan food, and when they visit us, the happiness on their face while devouring one of our delicacies, is everything for me,” Atakpal said.

But, there is another group of Afghan children that Atakpal hopes to serve through the restaurant – a group of 45 young girls, who are child labourers, enrolled in a small private school that Atakpal founded last year, in Kabul.

“We had to shut the school when the Taliban took over, but restarted four months ago. However, we have been forced underground and all activities are now held discreetly,” Atakpal said, speaking passionately about wanting to keep the school afloat even as the future of girls’ education remains uncertain in Afghanistan. She has managed to partly fund the school with the extra income she earns by working as a freelance journalist and editor.

Despite international pressure, higher education and public universities for Afghan women have remained closed since the Taliban takeover last year. While the Taliban recently announced that schools and universities for Afghan girls would resume in March, many educationists remain sceptical.

Meanwhile, underground schools like Atakpal’s have cropped up across the country, operating despite pressure from local Taliban fighters.

“We have students from grade five to 10, and cover all subjects in that syllabus. All teachers are currently working as volunteers, and many are my university friends. However, there are expenses for schools supplies, and also we compensate the students for their time since they are losing working hours when they attend the school,” Atakpal explained.

“Currently, the restaurant doesn’t make any profits to help support the school, and I am working another job as a journalist to pay for the costs to fund the school,” she said, adding that she hoped she can expand her business to eventually support the school in Afghanistan.

Neither Atakpal nor Khalil knows what their future hold, as they wait for asylum confirmation.

“We lost everything, and are back to how things were 20 years ago, where women don’t have rights, access to education, there is no justice system, there hardly any Afghan journalists left, and people are miserable,” Atakpal said.

Khalil’s mother was assassinated by the Taliban in 2020, while she and her brother were attacked during a visit to her mum’s grave. Atakpal’s family members are still based in Kabul.

“But even now if things change, even a little bit, we will both go back in a heartbeat. If not, we will continue to work for Afghanistan no matter which part of the world we are in. We will continue our fight and hope to bring change,” Atakpal said.

Meanwhile, both women hope that their restaurant will continue even long after they are gone, kept alive by Afghans who might choose to stay.

“If nothing else, we will request the owner to continue to keep some of the Afghan delicacies on the menu, as a token to our shared experiences,” Atakpal said.

Accidental ministry opens world of refugees to Australian Dominican

Dominican Sr. Diana Santleben (left) and project coordinator Farida Baremgayabo, a former refugee from Burundi, make plans for Zara's House Refugee Women and Children's Centre in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. (Tracey Edstein)
Dominican Sr. Diana Santleben (left) and project coordinator Farida Baremgayabo, a former refugee from Burundi, make plans for Zara’s House Refugee Women and Children’s Centre in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. (Tracey Edstein)

Newcastle, Australia — Australian Diana Santleben, of the Dominican Sisters of Eastern Australia and the Solomon Islands, has a clear memory of an incident she witnessed more than six decades ago.

“Barbara was a new girl at our school. She was Polish and she came to us with big bows in her hair and a funny dress with long pants underneath. She looked so different and I can still see a mob of kids chasing her across the playground. It was the mob mentality that fuelled the Holocaust, riots in America, apartheid – ‘You’re different from me and you don’t belong.’

“I was with Barbara in secondary school at Santa Sabina College, Strathfield. She became part of my mob and we’ve been friends ever since. I learned that Barbara was her parents’ seventh child and the only survivor. Her father suffered badly in a concentration camp. She was born after the war, their most precious treasure — and look how we treated her.

“I suppose that set a seed for me.”

Today Santleben, 74, is founder of Zara’s House Refugee Women and Children’s Centre in Newcastle. Despite challenges, she has lost none of the determination and vitality that have propelled her in her Dominican life of learning and activism.

Santleben entered the Dominicans after working as an assistant primary teacher. “At Santa Sabina I had seen community in action, the friendship of the sisters and the wonderful education on offer. I wanted all that.”

She loved teaching and served in several congregational schools. In 1980, she was offered a year’s sabbatical at the National Pastoral Institute in Melbourne. “A whole year to do whatever I liked.”

A change of direction saw Santleben work with young teachers in Brisbane, then return to Sydney to parish ministry.

She completed a master’s thesis in early childhood religious education and then, typically, embarked on an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to convince Australia’s bishops to change the system.

While working with deaf children in Sydney in 2000, she received a call from the parish secretary: “There are 12 Africans on the doorstep saying they have nowhere to live.”

She said, “Boil the kettle, make some Vegemite sandwiches and I’ll be down.”

Santleben recalls, “I went to the presbytery [priest’s home and parish office] via the real estate agent where I asked if they had a five-bedroom house to rent — today! Mum and Dad and 10 kids were Sudanese refugees and had been brought to Tasmania from Egypt by the immigration authorities in July. Imagine how cold they were! The parents had saved to bring the whole family to Sydney.

“A number of our sisters were working with refugees coming out of Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, and I became a friend of that family — the first Africans I’d ever met.”

This accidental ministry involved, among other things, volunteers sourcing and storing furniture, then delivering when needed.

In 2005, Santleben moved to Newcastle to care for senior sisters and establish a permaculture garden. “I came to Newcastle to live peacefully and quietly; you leave your boats behind.”

God had other plans.

Santleben soon wondered what happens to refugees in the Hunter region. She learned that Josephite Sr. Betty Brown was the go-to person. “I rang her and said, ‘I’m a Dominican — I’ve got a trailer — can you use me?’ “

Brown and Santleben became friends, sharing a commitment to offering care and advocacy to refugee families. Brown had been ministering to refugees in Newcastle but without a base. Together, they established Penola House in a defunct police station. Penola was the South Australian town where St. Mary of the Cross MacKillop founded the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart in 1866.

The Dominican and the Josephite worked together from 2008 until 2012, when a successful Indigenous land claim made it impossible to remain in Penola House.

Brown has retired but Santleben remains actively involved. She has learned hard lessons about the not-always-fruitful interaction of government agency and not-for-profit organization, congregation and diocese, bishops and lay groups. She saw a new way forward that would hopefully marshal the goodwill of Novocastrians (natives of Newcastle) who wished to support the refugees in their midst.

With a group of generous supporters, Santleben established Zara’s House Refugee Women and Children’s Centre in 2016. Here she offers a mother language literacy program, leading hopefully to English literacy for women and children; early childhood education; classes to assist refugees preparing for the citizenship test; classes in small business development, microfinance facilitation and financial counseling.

Volunteer Monica Byrnes says, “I had long wanted to help refugee women with their English, so I came here. I do what I can to help them converse. We’ve had great times talking about the clothing they’re wearing and had funny fashion parades and we all enjoy a laugh.”

Why Zara’s House?

The center has served two Zaras — an Afghan woman and a little girl — so the name captures the scope of the work. Also, Christians, Jews and Muslims are the children of the book who look on Abraham and Zara (Sarah) as their parents in faith.

Recently, Santleben decided to step back from being projects coordinator. (“Dominicans are itinerants. … We don’t have to be the people who do it all,” she says.)

She needs to concentrate on the greatest work of Zara’s House: advocacy. “The refugee network here is strong, and refugees mostly look after each other, but we’re struggling to save the lives of people who become asylum seekers. The system’s cruelty is breathtaking.”

She shares what she regards as Zara’s House’s greatest success story.

Nurse-midwife Helena, who asked that she not be identified fully, came from Liberia with four daughters when she was about 50 to gain a master’s in public health at the University of Newcastle, Santleben recounts.

“We met the family at a local church — Helena was just another international student. When she was preparing to return to Liberia, she received a letter saying her grandmother had died. Her grandmother was the chief zoe [female cleric and tribal leader] who oversees female genital mutilation. Most of our women here have had that done to them. There’s no medical reason, it’s tradition. It removes any enjoyment of sex, and makes the woman compliant with her husband.

“The letter indicated that Helena would succeed her grandmother. ‘You’re the best person to do this — a nurse and a midwife. … You’ll raise the standard and fewer girls will die.’

“We didn’t hesitate in trying to get a protection visa for the mother and daughters. God’s grace led to a lawyer taking on what she knew to be a very difficult case with little likelihood of success. We interviewed every Liberian man we could find and asked, ‘If you had a wife or a female relative who didn’t want her daughters mutilated, would you insist?’ Every one said yes. Then we asked every Liberian woman we could find — ‘Would you want this done to your daughters?’ All of them said no.”

A psychological profile showed that Helena had profound post-traumatic stress disorder because she had seen female genital mutilation performed many times. She had only escaped undergoing it herself because she’d been relinquished by her father — “another story,” Santleben concludes.

Previously, the government had refused protection to keep her from having to return home because it claimed that the ECOWAS passport common to several West African countries meant that women could safely return to another country. Lawyers at the University of Newcastle demonstrated that this was not so, because women would eventually be required to return to their own country.

Santleben recalls, “The government had no excuse not to give Helena a protection visa and her application was accepted on the first round — an unprecedented outcome. We’re so proud of this!”

Helena and her daughters have been able to stay in Newcastle and remain connected to Zara’s House.

The new projects coordinator, Farida Baremgayabo, has in the past been supported by Santleben and is more than ready to pay it forward. Her enthusiasm and her work ethic echo Santleben’s and she has raised her seven children (four born in Newcastle) to respond to the needs of those around them.

Baremgayabo, a nurse, was living with her husband, Salim, in Burundi, East Africa. As their family grew, the couple became increasingly concerned about the political situation. The elected president had been killed and the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi tribes showed no signs of abating.

The family left Burundi for the Democratic Republic of Congo, then Tanzania, then South Africa, but did not find the peace they sought. The idea of leaving Africa entirely was appealing, so they applied to go to Australia as refugees. The process was long — “a little bit stressful,” Baremgayabo says — and meanwhile she became pregnant with her fourth child.

When the green light to travel to Australia was given, it involved leaving workplaces, extended family, a home and most of their possessions, all in a matter of days.

On arrival in Newcastle, Baremgayabo was told by her case manager that “Sister Diana and Sister Betty will look after you.” They did — even to taking her home from the hospital after the birth of her fourth child. Baremgayabo says, “The sisters became grandmothers to little Aaliyah!”

Baremgayabo is a gift to Newcastle. “I wanted every day to do something for the community.” One day, she drove past Zara’s House to see Santleben laying a path, alone. She said to her son, who was with her, that they needed to help the sister. On another occasion when Baremgayabo was keen to become involved with a project, one of the children said, “Mum, we know you like to help the community — we will look after our siblings.”

The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2021 has led to the arrival of Afghan families, joining those who came some years ago. Zuhal, a young woman from Afghanistan, relays, with Santleben’s encouragement, that her brother, Faisal, had been an interpreter with the Australian military and was offered the opportunity to come here with his family. “Faisal brought Mum and his three sisters to Newcastle and now we are all married and have our own families.

“I’m very happy here because here is safety, and Afghanistan is now very dangerous. … So many people have died.”

Volunteer Fiona Firth, a midwife who has helped pregnant refugees, has been assisting Zuhal with her English while Zuhal’s little sons, C.J. and Sabhan, are cared for in the children’s room. Firth says, “The women like being with other women. It’s about citizenship preparation but also about being social.”

Santleben recognizes a strong thread of racism in Australia’s history, including the recent “exploitation of irrational fears around desperate people legally escaping tyranny in boats.”

“However, I believe the tide is turning when I reflect on the daily calls from strangers asking to become volunteers, offering donations and asking what can they do to welcome refugees to Newcastle.”

Did that little girl with the big bows in her hair and a funny dress understand the impact she might have in the end?

Objects of affection: The things that refugees hold close 

Haven, a 10-year-old girl from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, says her scooter is like her best friend [Abdul Saboor/Al Jazeera]

Nord, France – Grande Synthe, a makeshift refugee camp close to Dunkirk and Calais, sits on an old railway line.

About 250 people live here and try to fight the bitter winter cold temperatures, which can drop to as low as -5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit), by huddling in tents and small wooden shelters, or lighting fires.

Two months have passed since 27 people died in a refugee boat tragedy between France and the United Kingdom that shocked activists and spurred a diplomatic spat between the neighbours over how to stem crossings.

But the perilousness of the journey has failed to deter asylum seekers in northern France who hope to reach England.

Of the victims identified by French police, 16 were Iraqi Kurds, some of whom had been living at Grande Synthe, commonly known as the camp for Kurdish refugees in northern France.

Most refugees here are Kurdish, and there are women and lone children among them.

“Grande Synthe is run by Kurdish smugglers,” Claire Millot, the general secretary of the local charity Salam, told Al Jazeera. “In Calais, there are still people who have no smugglers, who try their luck alone.

“In Calais, life is much harder. Police evict people and take their tents every two days, but it’s a bit more comfortable, there are toilets, showers, and water points. In Grande Synthe, there is none of those things, but evictions are rarer, about two or three times a month.”

As they queue for water, food, and clothes donated by local NGOs, people find ways to keep their spirits up. Often, this is with storytelling – recounting memories from their homeland and praying to make it safely to England. These personal stories are embodied by the important objects they carried with them: a small girl loves her scooter, a young man keeps his football close, another wears a necklace of his country’s flag.

Al Jazeera spoke to refugees in Grande Synthe about their treasured objects:

‘This scooter is like my best friend’

Haven, 10, from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq

“I have no friends here, so this scooter is like my best friend. It means so much to me. I just got it two days ago from a local charity, a volunteer gave it to me, and I haven’t let go of it since. I used to have a bicycle similar to this in Rania, but I had to let it go when we left to make the journey. I kept thinking about it on our long way here, I felt so sad without it. I left everything in Kurdistan. Here I’m very poor, the scooter is the only thing I have. It makes me so happy to have it.

“I had to say goodbye to so many friends in Kurdistan. I used to take lots of boxing classes with many of them as well. I was a champion there, I’m very strong. I miss them all a lot, but I still talk to them using my mum’s phone. My friends ask me if I’m in France and how I’m doing, I tell them I’m happy, I’m going to England.”

Hide, 30, from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq

“This is a picture of me as an ambulance driver in Rania, Iraqi Kurdistan. This picture is very important to me. It makes me happy because it reminds me how I helped many people as an ambulance driver. People used to call me for help and I was there. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I was very busy especially. My salary was very low, but I never regretted any of it. I was happy because I was helping people. I did this job for eight years, and I hope I can do it again someday, maybe in England, but I don’t know if I’ll be given the opportunity.”

‘I was a professional football player’

Dyo, 25, from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq:

“I was a professional football player back in Kurdistan, I played for 15 years, even for the national team. I was a goalkeeper. My phone’s wallpaper is an image of Zidane, my favourite player. In 2006, when France lost in the World Cup final against Italy, I was so sad I didn’t eat for an entire day.

“Before coming here, I was in Germany for one year, but then they wanted to send me back to Bulgaria, the first country I arrived in [because of the Dublin regulation], so I left to Italy, and stayed there for two years, mostly in the northern city of Bolzano.

“I come from Soran in Iraqi Kurdistan, I left because all my friends left as well for Europe. I plan on going back now because my mother is very sick, and I really miss her and the rest of my family.

“I regret leaving Kurdistan now. When I was in Bulgaria, I regretted it especially because they put me in prison and gave me one small can of fish and a piece of bread in 24 hours. If I went back halfway, I’d feel ashamed. What would my friends think about me? If I spoke to my friends from back home now, trying to go to Europe, I would tell them ‘don’t go’. For some people, it works out, but for me, life was better over there.”

‘Since I left Afghanistan, I’ve had this necklace with me’

Senzai, 29, from Afghanistan:

“Eight months ago, I walked from Afghanistan to Austria, passing through Iran, Turkey, Greece and more. It was only after Croatia that I came by car, and also from Austria to France. I had no money to move another way. I left with a friend from Afghanistan, but we separated in Tehran. I’ve been in Grande Synthe for one month and I’ve already tried to cross two times. I can’t really explain why I want to go to England, I have some friends there, I’ve heard good things about it.

“Since I left Afghanistan, I’ve had this necklace with me, of the Afghan flag. In Hungary, when the police stopped us and stripped us of everything, I had to hide it. This necklace [is] so important to me because in Afghanistan we’ve given so many lives because of it, and now the Taliban don’t accept it. This flag is all of my heart. It’s made me very upset that the Taliban has taken over and removed it everywhere.”

‘A phone smuggler took my phone away’

Nowaz, 28, from Afghanistan:

“I am from the Logar province in Afghanistan, I was a farmer from a very young age. I’ve been in Grande Synthe for one week. I left Afghanistan five months ago. It was very dangerous for me, and I was scared of the Taliban. I think England is a good country, and I want to spend the rest of my life there. I like the law there, and I think people have a good sense of humanity.

“The phone was the most important thing for me to have, I could contact friends and family in Afghanistan, and find out information in Europe. But I was in Austria a week ago, and a smuggler pushed me and took my phone away, without reason. Now that I’m in Grande Synthe, without a phone, the few friends I have are the most important thing to me.”

Good Shepherd sisters in Mozambique minister to refugees fleeing crisis

Good Shepherd Sr. Eva Ribeiro, in white blouse, and project manager Pirai Oriente, in red T-shirt with white trim, work with displaced families from Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique. (Courtesy of Eva Ribeiro)
Good Shepherd Sr. Eva Ribeiro, in white blouse, and project manager Pirai Oriente, in red T-shirt with white trim, work with displaced families from Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique. (Courtesy of Eva Ribeiro)

Mozambique seems to be a part of the world many know little about. I certainly knew very little about the East African nation until I traveled there in 2008 as the executive director of the Hilton Fund for Sisters. Traveling from place to place, I witnessed much suffering, particularly in rural areas: lack of water, food, education and health care. At that time the country, including the sisters, were still recovering from the impact of independence from Portugal in 1975 when the government nationalized all the schools and health care centers. Sisters had lost everything and, as often happens without experienced government employees taking over the administration, the institutions began to decline sharply in quality and services.

Consequently, when they can no longer manage, such governments return the educational and health care centers to the sisters, having done little or nothing to build them up. This means the sisters must start over from scratch. Governments rarely offer financial assistance for rehabilitation. Rural areas suffer the most, as they are basically abandoned by governments that focus on city development. This seems to be one reason Cabo Delgado has become the epicenter of the national crisis involving an extremist power struggle.

Day by day, as I listened to the paltry news coverage of the tragedy going from bad to worse, I wondered if any sisters could help us understand what is happening and how they are responding to the crisis there. I eventually found the enlightening story of four Good Shepherd Sisters who are living and serving in the thick of it.

They began by describing the Cabo Delgado region in northeastern Mozambique, where insurgents are causing monumental damage and chaos. Radicalized Islamic groups have been fostering unrest and terrorism along the East African Coast of the Indian Ocean for many years. Conditions worsened in 2017, Cabo Delgado was terrorized and attacked by jihadist gangs. Cyclone Kenneth struck in 2019, exacerbating the instability of Cabo Delgado caused by al-Shabaab, Islamist militants with ties to al-Qaeda. The local people, already frustrated and angry at the government’s unwillingness to listen, began joining al-Shabaab and adding energy to the confusion and terror. 

According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, motivation might also have been fueled by the memory of Cabo Delgado as the birthplace of Mozambique’s liberation from Portuguese colonialism. The people grew weary of government corruption; police colluding with illicit gems, wildlife and drugs; human rights abuses; and ancestral land grabs for foreign interests. Radicalized groups have occupied strategic areas of the north, where gas and oil fields have been recently discovered. 

Already, nearly 800,000 people, particularly women and children, have left the Cabo Delgado area — some for neighboring countries; those who choose to stay in Mozambique, went to  Nampula, the country’s third largest city just to the south.

Four Good Shepherd sisters came to Mozambique in 1997 and to Nampula province in 2002 at the invitation of the local bishop. Later, to allow young sisters to study in local universities, they established a house in Nampula town, where some moved to continue their education. The sisters belong to the Angola/Mozambique Good Shepherd unit, citizens of two of the six Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa. Upon arrival in the Nampula region, they settled in Namaponda, a small, rural town that grew as families moved from remote areas.

The sisters began searching for the best way to address the needs of families marginalized by lack of employment and education. They eventually set up an adult literacy program, an informal day school and nutrition program for the children in the neighborhood of Serra da Mesa on the periphery of Nampula. The primary Good Shepherd focus is always on women and children, particularly those marginalized, in poor health, abject poverty and vulnerable to trafficking.

Since 2020, the sisters have been engaged in limited ministry there because of COVID-19, but at the end of 2020 they joined efforts assisting refugees in camps on the outskirts of Nampula town. They began by distributing water, food and medicine. Many family members were traumatized from witnessing parents, siblings and relatives raped, tortured or killed and disappeared. 

The sisters, who were not trained, referred people to international NGOs and government ministries. As the crisis grew, the U.N. named it a “Children’s Crisis” because so many children in the camps had no idea where their parents or family members were.

After months of struggling, and overwhelmed as the numbers of refugees and displaced people increased daily, the sisters organized a team of lay mission partners to work with them. With funds from the Good Shepherd International Foundation in Rome, they purchased medicine, water and food, as well as local materials to build temporary shelters and replace roofs on houses. They also set about monitoring the most vulnerable, settled families — those who have been in the camps for many months. They organized home visits and education in hygiene, health and agriculture, giving the residents seeds and gardening implements to improve their diets and nutrition. Fifty-three percent of the people suffer from malnutrition, compared with the national average of 43%, and the illiteracy rate of those arriving is about 67%. This rate confirms that most are from rural areas, where educational opportunities are still minimal, as I witnessed in 2008.

The sisters lament that, even with aid coming into the area, there is not enough drinking water, food or sanitary facilities. Without access to medicines, diseases spread quickly, including cholera and COVID-19. HIV/AIDS is a persistent problem, its management made difficult because of food insecurity. Antiviral medicines do not work without proper nutrition. I remember the rising incidence of HIV in that 2008 visit, and now these same problems are plaguing the people again. As people are forced to move about, the disease will only flourish.

Sisters are also concerned about trafficking, which finds fertile ground in the camps. People struggle to survive and listen to false promises of jobs to provide income for their families. The sisters are working hard to find ways to keep this pandemic under control by staying in contact with families who are vulnerable. There seems to be no end in sight for this terrible situation. How does the country get others to help as hope lags?

Violence towards refugees at Libyan detention centres forces MSF to pull out

Refugees and migrants at a detention centre in Zawiyah, 45 kilometres west of the Libyan capital Tripoli. Interceptions of small boats crossing the Mediterranean have increased in recent months.
Refugees and migrants at a detention centre in Zawiyah, west of Tripoli. Interceptions of small boats crossing the Mediterranean have increased in recent months. Photograph: Taha Jawashi/AFP via Getty

Increasing violence towards refugees and migrants held in Libyan detention centres has forced Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to suspend its operations at two facilities, the medical charity said.

MSF said its teams witnessed guards beating detainees, including those seeking treatment from MSF doctors, during a visit to the Mabani detention centre in Tripoli last week.

It also said its doctors treated 19 patients suffering from fractures, bruises, cuts and blunt trauma from beatings reported to the organisation, which has also suspended operations at Abu Salim detention centre.

“This is not an easy decision to make, as it means we won’t be present in detention centres where we know people are suffering on a daily basis,” said MSF head of mission in Libya, Beatrice Lau.

“However, the persistent pattern of violent incidents and serious harm to refugees and migrants, as well as the risk to the safety of our staff, has reached a level that we are no longer able to accept. Until the violence stops, and conditions improve, MSF can no longer provide humanitarian and medical care in these facilities,” she said.

Detention centres in Libya have been the repeated focus of allegations of abuse and violence by human rights organisations and charities.

The UN has condemned the EU-backed system of using the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean and return them to detention centres in Libya, which it deems unsafe.

On Sunday, Associated Press reported allegations that minors were being sexually assaulted by guards at a centre run by Libya’s EU-backed department for combating illegal immigration.

Vincent Cochetel, the UN’s envoy for migrant crossings in the Mediterranean, tweeted: “End arbitrary detention in Libya starting now, with all women and children & do not claim it is not possible.”

MSF said it had received reports of detainees being injured by automatic fire at the Abu Salim centre on 13 June, but was not given access for a week afterwards. In April, it reported that one migrant was killed and two were injured when shots were fired into cells after rising tensions between detainees and guards.

MSF said violence had coincided with the detention centres becoming increasingly crowded because of an increase in interceptions at sea. So far this year 14,000 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya, exceeding the total number in 2020.

In March the UN said it was concerned by conditions in the centres, with thousands of people “detained in dire conditions with limited access to basic services and overcrowding”. It said Mabani and Abu Salim, alongside Triq al-Sika, were the most crowded.

Refugees use farm training to survive food shortages during the pandemic

Rose Geno, 30, tills her land in preparation for the next planting season, which began in March. With the skills and support she received from Sr. Lucy Akera and Salesian missionaries, she hopes to increase her harvest. Geno started farming to mitigate fo
Rose Geno, 30, tills her land in preparation for the next planting season, which began in March. With the skills and support she received from Sr. Lucy Akera and Salesian missionaries, she hopes to increase her harvest. Geno started farming to mitigate food shortages at the Palabek refugee camp in northern Uganda, amid the pandemic. (GSR photo/Doreen Ajiambo)

Palabek Refugee Camp, Uganda — It is just after midday and the sun is high up in the sky above this dusty, sprawling settlement of 55,574 people in northern Uganda. Rose Geno with her three children sit inside their grass-roofed mud hut to escape the scorching heat as she prepares a meal of corn and beans.

The 30-year-old South Sudanese refugee said her school-age kids now eat smaller meals more often after she managed to harvest enough crops during the previous season (June-November). She is among thousands of refugees who have received seeds and farming support from the Salesian missionaries and a nun to help mitigate food shortages amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My life became unbearable when the pandemic hit us,” she said. A lack of funding from international bodies reduced food rations at the camp. “We slept hungry many times because the ratio was cut by 40% at first and it was later reduced to 20%,” she said.

Geno fled from Pajok, a town in South Sudan located 10 miles from the border with Uganda, in April 2017 after fighting intensified between government forces of President Salva Kiir, and forces loyal to the former vice president, Riek Machar. She escaped with her children after her husband was killed by soldiers, walking for three days in the bush before reaching Palabek.

She says the coronavirus and the resulting ration cuts and food shortages threatened their lives more than the civil war in her young country in which more than 380,000 people have been killed and nearly four million people displaced.

“We nearly died from hunger during the peak of the pandemic but thanks to the priests and a nun who came to our rescue in our time of need,” she said.

Sr. Lucy Akera of the Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Gulu said they had to act quickly to save the lives of refugees. “We distributed the little food we had in our store to refugees and we quickly realized we had to look for a long-lasting solution to hunger, which was farming,” she said.

Over 1.4 million refugees in more than 14 refugee camps across Uganda bore the brunt of the pandemic after the East African country registered its first case of COVID-19 a year ago.

Catholic groups moved swiftly to provide food, clothing and counseling to thousands of refugees. Salesian Fr. Lazar Arasu, director of Don Bosco Palabek, said his congregation gave packets of food including corns, flour, beans, rice and cooking oil to the refugees and also distributed blankets, dozens of pairs of shoes and clothes.

“When the pandemic hit the world, it came to us as a shock.We were not prepared at all. Everything was closed down and refugees were left for dead,” said Arasu, who is among the five Salesian missionaries living and working in the Palabek refugee camp. “We were forced to share our little food and other essential goods with the refugees to keep them alive amid the pandemic.”

However, Akera had a different way of tackling food shortages in the camp. With the help of the Salesian missionaries, she began providing training, tools and seeds for refugees to plant and harvest crops to support their families in the midst of the pandemic.

She and the Salesian missionaries distributed fertilizers and several hundred kilos (thousands of pounds) of beans, maize, soya beans, simsim or sesame, groundnuts and many assorted vegetable seeds such as collard greens. They also distributed tons of cassava cuttings.

“The only way we could tackle hunger during the pandemic was through farming. So we had to train and support refugees with seeds and fertilizers to plant and harvest enough crops to feed their family,” said Akera, the only nun working at the Palabek camp. She lives in a small mud hut built of sticks, mud and metal scrap. “I also did farming and I planted groundnuts, soya beans and maize. I have enough food which I share some with my neighbors who are refugees.”

Akera, who grew up in a farming family, has been able to transfer her agricultural skills to the refugees. The 58-year-old nun, who comes from Gulu town, 60 miles away from Palabek, said her calling to serve led her to work in the camp despite the hardships, though she sometimes feels lonely.

“I feel happy being in the camp though I’m lonely. No sister wants to come and live in this hardship area,” said Akera, whose congregation is in Gulu. “I was born and raised in a rural area so living in the camp for me is a normal thing.”

The East African country of more than 44 million is celebrated around the world for providing refugees with the land for shelter and agricultural use. Arasu said his congregation has been renting land from the local Ugandans for refugees who don’t have enough land for farming to help them grow enough crops to feed their families.

“I rented some farms from the hosting community. The money I used was provided by the Don Bosco missions and since children were home, they helped their parents in farming,” he said. “God was also faithful; it rained a lot and since the land was virgin land, it produced really well.”

Akera came to the camp in 2018 after the Salesian missionaries requested the Archdiocese of Gulu to ask sisters to come and help serve the people in the camp. Before the pandemic, she tried to provide hope and solidarity to refugees while helping to distribute aid. But she now has a new ministry amid the pandemic: sensitizing refugees on the importance of farming.

“My new ministry is to ensure refugees support themselves through farming because COVID-19 has taught us the biggest lesson of not relying completely on food aid distributions,” she said. “We want to keep on training them on how to plant crops and ensure they have enough harvest.” She began training refugees on farming in May 2020 after the pandemic reduced food rations for refugees. 

Every morning, Akera visits various villages within the camp to train and emphasize to refugees the importance of farming. She recently demonstrated to a group of farmers how to plan their farms from the beginning of the season up to harvest without encountering any problems.

The training involves land preparation, seed selection, planting, weed management, soil fertility management, harvesting, postharvest handling and storage, she said.

Fire at Bangladesh Rohingya camp leaves thousands without shelter

A Rohingya man reacts after a fire burned houses of the Nayapara refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh [Mohammed Arakani/Reuters]
A Rohingya man reacts after a fire burned houses of the Nayapara refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh [Mohammed Arakani/Reuters]

A fire has swept through the Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, destroying homes belonging to thousands of people, according to the United Nations.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said more than 550 shelters – home to at least 3,500 people – were either totally or partially destroyed in the blaze on Thursday, as well as 150 shops and a facility belonging to a non-profit organisation.

Photographs and video provided to Reuters news agency by a Rohingya refugee in Nayapara Camp showed families, including children, sifting through charred corrugated iron sheets to see if they could salvage anything from their smouldering homes.

But little remained of the camp, which had stood for decades, aside from concrete poles and the husks of a few trees.

“E-block is completely burned down,” said the refugee, Mohammed Arakani. “There is nothing left. There was nothing saved. Everything is burned down.”

“Everyone is crying,” he added. “They lost all their belongings. They lost everything … all their goods.”

The UNHCR said it was providing shelter, materials, winter clothes, hot meals, and medical care for the refugees displaced by the calamity at the camp in Cox’s Bazar district, a sliver of land bordering Myanmar in southeastern Bangladesh.

“Security experts are liaising with the authorities to investigate on the cause of fire,” the agency said, adding that no casualties were reported.

Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said the fire service spent two hours putting out the blaze but was hampered by the explosion of gas cylinders inside homes.

He said there had been no decision on whether shelters would be rebuilt or refugees moved elsewhere.

The Bangladesh government has moved several thousand Rohingya to a remote island in recent weeks, despite protests from human rights groups who say some of the relocations were forced, allegations denied by authorities.

More than a million Rohingya live in the mainland camps in southern Bangladesh, the vast majority having fled Myanmar in 2017 in a military-led crackdown the UN said was executed with genocidal intent – charges Myanmar denies.

The fire destroyed part of a camp inhabited by Rohingya who fled Myanmar after an earlier military campaign, according to refugees.

In a statement, Save the Children NGO said the fire was “another devastating blow for the Rohingya people who have endured unspeakable hardship for years”.

“Today’s devastating fire will have robbed many families of what little shelter and dignity left to them. It stands as another ghastly reminder that children stuck in the camps in Cox’s Bazar face a bleak future with little freedom of movement, inadequate access to education, poverty, serious protection risks and abuse including child marriage,” Save the Children’s country director in Bangladesh Onno van Manen said.

The NGO said the international community must find a “lasting and durable solution to the plight of the Rohingyas”.

“In addition, the international community must fully fund the humanitarian response for the Rohingya crisis, which is woefully under-funded. Without adequate funding, essential lifesaving services for the Rohingya will suffer,” it said.

Eyewitness: Refugees in Calais face bleak winter

Food distribution in Dunkirk. Image Neli Ban.
Food distribution in Dunkirk. Image Neli Ban.

Poorly pitched tents shake in the wind as the rain beats down on the only place that refugees in northern France can call home. Following extensive evictions of the small areas where it is possible to assemble a makeshift camp, families and individuals in Calais and Dunkirk who are from Sudan, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Syria and Eritrea suffer as winter takes hold.

There are still more than 400 people living rough in this part of France. Following the destruction of ‘the Jungle’ in 2017, conditions for vulnerable people hoping for a safe life are worse than ever.

Autumn has seen a further deterioration of circumstances that affect living conditions. As reported by aid organisation Calais Food Collective ( see: ) in September this year, the local politicians in the seaside city made it illegal to provide food in certain areas. Alongside these new regulations, the French riot police, the CRS, have been monitoring, questioning and disrupting their volunteers during food distributions in the new, permitted locations.

Neli Ban, a volunteer with another organisation, appreciates the growing problems that winter is causing. “A flimsy tent they sleep in must feel like it’s about to fly off, and they have nowhere to dry their soaked clothes and shoes.” Evictions of the basic camps took place last week. Tents and sleeping bags were taken or ruined, pots and pans were confiscated. Removing the ability to be able to cook is a multifaceted problem. Not only has your daily social activity been taken away, but you must now walk several kilometres in order to stand in a queue to receive a meal, and you have to do this three times a day.

As conditions in France worsen, so do the chances of being able to reach the UK. On 28th October, reports of a family from Kurdistan drowning in the sea shook the migrant community on both sides of the Channel. People from aid organisations together with refugees paid tribute to the adults and children whose lives were lost in the search for safety.

Another cause for concern are the decisions being made in the UK parliament. Family reunification is at risk after the Brexit transition period ends, as the Dubs Amendment has been repeatedly voted down, even after this tragic news. “If there are safe routes,” said Lord Alf Dubs, former child refugee, “then people will take them. If there are not, people will risk their lives.”

The penalty of a failed attempt weighs heavily on those in Calais. Fear of the water has to be weighed against the hope of joining family and having a new life. It takes many months and many risks for people to get even as far as France, the route from Greece through the Balkans will have included scaling mountains and facing the notorious Croatian border authority whose brutal and illegal actions are well documented ( see: ). Another winter on the road, the elements and the police to contend with, is no way for Europe to treat vulnerable people from war-torn countries.

Baby, six months, dies hours after being saved from Mediterranean

Baby Joseph was rescued from the Mediterranean but tragically died hours later [Sergi Camara/AP]

A six-month-old baby died hours after he was plucked from the Mediterranean, Spanish refugee rescue charity Proactiva Open Arms said on Thursday.

The baby boy from Guinea, Joseph, was among 111 survivors taken in by Open Arms on Wednesday after it sent rescue units to a rubber dinghy that was sinking off the Libyan coast.

In video footage of the rescue operation, Joseph’s mother can be seen sliding across a boat as it moves on the waves, shouting: “Where is my baby? I lose my baby. Find my baby, find my baby!”

In the operation, five bodies were recovered.

Joseph’s death brought the total death toll from the shipwreck to six.

Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, tweeted: “Every life matters. It could have been our [baby].”

Joseph and his mother, plus a pregnant woman, were evacuated by the Italian coast guard and taken to Lampedusa island, an Open Arms spokeswoman said.

Three more survivors in urgent need of medical care – a three-month-old baby girl, her mother and a 25-year-old man with serious heart trouble – were airlifted to Malta.

They were taken there because Malta offered the nearest hospital, the Italian coast guard said in a separate statement, noting that Maltese authorities helped with the transfer.

The Open Arms, currently the only active charity rescue vessel in the central Mediterranean, has 257 refugees on board, after three separate operations between Tuesday and Wednesday.

Five bodies are also still on the ship, Open Arms said on Twitter.

“The Med is a cemetery with no gravestones,” the organisation said.

For months, small boats carrying refugees and migrants have been departing from Libya and Tunisia, usually trying to reach Italy.

According to Italian interior ministry data, the country has registered almost 31,000 refugee arrivals in 2020 so far, compared with almost 10,000 over the same period last year.

So far this year, at least 796 people have died while trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean, according to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).