Peace and schools are returning to southern Sudan. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in January 2005 is holding. Landmines have been removed from key highways, and mine-removal work progresses on farmland. Along the border with Uganda, the Eastern Equatoria district used to be a corridor of conflict between the Sudanese and Ugandan civil wars. Now 1,000 refugees are returning to this corner of southern Sudan each month, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Forty thousand refugees and internally displaced persons returned in the past year, with another 27,000 expected in 2009.
Challenges remain. Returning refugee children need permanent school buildings, trained and paid teachers, textbooks and school supplies, and girls need the chance to go to school. In the town of Lobone, only 10 percent of teachers have any sort of professional teacher training, and 95 percent of teachers lack books and the most basic school supplies.
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and JRS/East Africa are accompanying and schooling these refugees on their journey home. The director of JRS/USA, Kenneth J. Gavin, S.J., describes the situation this way:
It is amazing to see brand new primary schools appear in Sudanese communities where previously poorly constructed schools of mud and thatch were unusable during the long rainy seasons. For me, these schools are nothing less than gifts of hope to young children and their families, who suffered so deeply throughout the war years.
Similar refugee education programs are underway in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the Katanga Province, the D.R.C. government has delegated responsibilities for primary education to the local Catholic diocese. Returning refugees, who call themselves the New Hope Project, have created a new town and, in coalition with the local church and J.R.S., are constructing schools to help build the peace in the country.
In the developed world, debates rage about the nature of Catholic education. Is Catholic education marked by the display of crucifixes in the classrooms, distinctive policies about which speakers are permitted to appear and the presence of theology faculty members with an ecclesiastical mandatum?
In impoverished and war-torn areas of the world, the Catholic contribution to education means something different. In places like southern Sudan and the Congo, where people have suffered devastating atrocities, the church builds peace and hope, restoring war-torn communities one schoolhouse at a time. These returning refugees dare to imagine and build a future where war ends and education begins.
As a new school year unfolds, Catholic educators wrestle with plans to better integrate concerns for justice, peace and global solidarity across our curricula. Yet too often we fail to tell stories of how our own church around the world is serving as a powerful force for justice, peace and global solidarity with the world’s most vulnerable people.
Efforts are underway to help change that. Materials made available through a campaign of C.R.S. and the U.S. Con-ference of Catholic Bishops (http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/globalpoverty), include inspiring stories of responses to pressing global challenges. C.R.S. (at CRSCollege.org) offers additional compelling stories and resources concerning church work for peace and justice. The Global Solidarity Network brings C.R.S. staff into interaction with students. The JRS/USA Web site (http://www.jrsusa.org) covers refugee stories and news of J.R.S. activities around the world, along with monthly reflections called “Praying With Refugees” and a new education module. The Catholic Peacebuilding Network likewise highlights church peacebuilding efforts (http://cpn.nd.edu/).
When discussing Catholic identity in education, we should include reflections on how well our institutions serve the poor and vulnerable. Are we accompanying and serving the poor as they seek to educate themselves? In solidarity, we are all enriched as we work to build God’s kingdom.