Violent political conflicts in South Sudan have driven more than one million people over the border into Uganda. The politically manipulated tribal animosities that caused them to flee South Sudan have traveled with them to refugee settlements, where refugees are living together with people from other ethnic groups who have inflicted serious, even deadly, harm to members of their families.

Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), an international Catholic organization that accompanies, serves, and advocates on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, reached out to the School of Theology and Ministry to partner on a project to develop a faith-based reconciliation training program.

A team from BC, working in close collaboration with JRS, spent months designing a five-day workshop to build capacity for reconciliation and peace-building among refugees. In August, School of Theology and Ministry Associate Professor Ernesto Valiente, Professor of Theology Stephen Pope, and STM doctoral candidate Rev. Matthias Wamala traveled to Adjumani, a town in the northern region of Uganda, to conduct the workshop for 55 young people (ages 18–30), who were identified by JRS and community leaders as having the potential to become agents of change in their settlements.

In Adjumani, the BC team worked with JRS representatives Diana Rueda, a reconciliation and social cohesion assistant for JRS International, and Claudine Nana Tchuingwa, a peace and reconciliation coordinator for JRS Uganda (Adjumani), on the workshops.

Our focus is to accompany refugees in their journey to rebuild their life projects.
Diana Rueda, reconciliation and social cohesion assistant, JRS International

The workshop is a component of JRS’s global strategy for reconciliation that includes making faith-based reconciliation and social cohesion integral priorities and strengthening the capacities of the JRS teams, refugees, and host communities to resolve conflict, to address drivers of discrimination and violence, and to strive together for individual and communal transformation.

“Our focus is to accompany refugees in their journey to rebuild their life projects,” said Rueda. “They have their own capacities to do so, we are just a guide for them to unlock, rediscover, or strengthen those capacities.

"BC is part of our learning community that offers not only opportunities for contextualization of our principles but also different methodologies and perspectives that enrich our approach and training materials," Rueda added.

I was so impressed with their desire to forgive people from groups who had really hurt them, and in many cases, even killed people in their families.
Stephen Pope, Professor of Theology, Boston College

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Uganda has more than 1.4 million refugees, making it the largest refugee host country in Africa. In Adjumani, there are about 200,000 refugees living in some six settlements.

“The refugees need to feel heard and have their grievances acknowledged,” said Pope. “But through the workshops, we want them to see that their past conflicts do not have to define their future, and to help them imagine a path from revenge and hatred to cooperation and partnership.”

A priest from Kampala, Uganda, Fr. Wamala was himself a refugee and his experience and cultural knowledge contributed immensely to the program, according to team members.

In addition to Valiente, Pope, and Fr. Wamala, other BC members of the JRS-STM Reconciliation Project are STM Professor Melissa Kelley; retired international educator Doc Miller, who worked for Facing History, Facing Ourselves for more than 30 years; and STM Associate Director of Supervised Ministry/Global & Community Engagement Marcia Ryan. STM Dean Thomas D. Stegman, S.J., noted that Ryan, who coordinated with the JRS representatives on the logistics, was particularly instrumental in this initiative.

The workshop’s five modules center on 1) how personal and group identity is created; 2) how listening well to the stories of others can reveal similarities; 3) the causes and effects of their experience of anger, hatred, and violence; 4) the resources in their own communities that might enable them to move beyond animosity toward each other; and 5) how to build empathy, community, and peace. Some of the discussions in the workshop focused on cultivating empathy and the problem with collective responsibility or blaming an entire group for the actions of a single member.

Pope said this project capitalizes on the strengths and skill sets of both BC and JRS. Boston College faculty combined their research and scholarship in the area of reconciliation with JRS staff’s practical experience on the ground. 

The future of the refugees—whether they can ever return home, and if not, where they will settle—is unclear. This uncertainty, coupled with poverty, a lack of jobs, and a lack of education, exacerbates an already strained situation, according to Valiente and Pope.

We were impressed with the demeanor of the young people. There was a gentleness and resilience about them. There was an openness to change.
Ernesto Valiente, Associate Professor, BC School of Theology and Ministry

Though the situation in the settlements in Uganda is quite challenging, Valiente—who teaches Reconciliation in a World of Conflict at STM—said his encounter with the participants left him hopeful.

“We were impressed with the demeanor of the young people. There was a gentleness and resilience about them. There was an openness to change,” he said.

“They were exceptionally open to hear the story of the other, people who they had been told all their life they should be suspicious of,” added Pope. “I was so impressed with their desire to forgive people from groups who had really hurt them, and in many cases, even killed people in their families.”

Pope said he has a long-standing admiration for JRS. He first visited JRS refugee camps in 2003 in Tanzania. Four years ago, he worked with JRS in Cambodia to help create a pamphlet on interreligious peace building. “Accompaniment is the most distinctive part of JRS. From being with the people, [JRS] knows the best way to serve them and what to advocate for.” 

The initial idea for this program got its start in Rome—at a meeting between JRS International Director Thomas H. Smolich, S.J., and Fr. Stegman, who notes the JRS-STM Reconciliation Project is something that a place like Boston College was called upon to engage by Jesuit Superior General Arturo Sosa, S.J.

In a May 2019 letter to the Society of Jesus, Fr. Sosa wrote: “Refugees are present in every region of the world. The call to accompany and serve them is a responsibility given to the entire body of the Society.”

Fr. Sosa also cited Pope Francis’s call for the international community to have a shared response to refugees and migrants.

Earlier this year, Boston College entered into a formal partnership with Jesuit Refugee Service when a memorandum of understanding was signed by University President William P. Leahy, S.J., and Fr. Smolich.

The workshop in Uganda ended with action steps for the participants on how they will replicate the lessons learned and work in their own communities to mitigate conflict and promote peace-building initiatives.

Another BC contingent will return to Uganda in 2020 to work directly with some 50 religious leaders in the settlements.

—Kathleen Sullivan, University Communications