As I was coming out of my office, I met a lady who is employed by another agency for sweeping. Helen is a refugee. After greeting me, she started the conversation, “Father, you have visited my home to see my daughter, Celine”. Celine is twelve years old, a child with severe cerebral palsy. Helen made a comment but not in a complaint mode, “These days JRS and other agencies which serve persons with disabilities do not visit us. Celine is sad about this”. Although I was rushing for a meeting, I went back to the office and got all the details of Helen and promised that I will attend to the occupational therapy by sending the therapist as soon as possible. I assured her of JRS’s continuous care for Celine.
After about two hours, I returned to my office. There I recognized Helen who was waiting for me. She entered my office with an apologetic manner. With head down, Helen whispered, “Father, I am very sorry for the incorrect information. JRS’s occupational therapist, Martha, is regularly visiting Celine. When I come to work, the neighbors facilitate the therapy”.
With tears, she said, “When I went home and as I was feeding Celine, I related the morning conversation with you. Celine became agitated: Mama, you are wrong. Martha visits regularly and massages me. Two days ago, she was here. She sends someone to inquire about me. She provides milk for me”. Then Celine insisted that Helen had to return to my office to make the correction, “Mama, immediately meet Father and make the correction. It is not good if Father asks her about her non-attendance with me”. Celine demanded Helen to express our gratitude to Martha: A sense of gratitude and justice by a child who is living with a severe disability.
With these sentiments and many others inspired by walking with our refugee community, I celebrated the Holy Week meaningfully. Two moments were striking: the ritual of washing the feet on Maundy Thursday and veneration of the Holy Cross on Good Friday. This year, we were blessed to celebrate the Holy Week services in one locality. I was in Kalobeyei settlement.
For the representatives of the disciples, we had children, young ones, widows, single mothers, men and persons living with disabilities. Veronica was chosen and she is a young person with visual impairment. In the beginning, as I was pouring water on her right foot, she was a bit reluctant. I could understand her cultural shock as a man will not wash the feet of a woman according to her tribal culture. More than that, a priest is washing. As I was wiping her feet and kissing, I just looked at her. Veronica was crying. After Mass, as I was coming out of the Mass centre, Veronica approached me with her aid and said, “Father, when you washed and kissed my feet, I felt something. I can’t say what it is”.
I just imagined the feelings of the men and women disciples who were with Jesus during the last supper: when Jesus was washing their feet without the outer garment.
The next moment which really struck me was the veneration of the cross during the Good Friday service. A lady approached the cross with a small girl. Before kissing the cross, she was staring at the cross and started crying. The catechists were trying to take her to a side but I intervened and allowed her to stay as she was. The whole congregation was in silence. After a few minutes, she sobbed and uttered some words in her tribal language and proceeded. After the service, she met me with the catechist and explained to me what happened. When she was sixteen years of age, she was sexually abused. This is her daughter. She was infected with HIV. Now she is discriminated against in the community and feels hopeless. What she expressed in her language was, “God, you too are suffering innocently like me. Remember me”.
It reminds me of my daily encounters with our refugee community and my own question at daily prayer, “Lord, why do these innocent ones suffer?”.
All are pseudonyms
Fr Lasantha de Abrew S.J.
JRS team at Kakuma Refugee Camp