In 2020, while the world faced a global pandemic, another crisis continued to grow. By the end of the year, over 82.4 million people worldwide fled their homes due to violence, wars and human right violations – a 4% increase from the previous year.
Sub-Saharan Africa in particular hosts more than 26% of the world’s refugee population, with Cameroon among the highest of African nations.
According to UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, “Cameroon, with a population of about 25 million, is now home for close to 2 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced Cameroonians seeking refuge.” Some are looking to escape Boko Haram terrorism, while others are fleeing conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR).
“[CAR] has been troubled by unrest for years, but since May 2017, fresh and fierce clashes between armed groups have wrought increasing suffering, deaths and destruction of property,” said the UNHCR. “Violence and insecurity following the December 2020 general election has forced tens of thousands more to flee.”
Nearly half of refugees fleeing CAR have sought refuge in the neighboring nation of Cameroon. This is a relatively new trend; Ten years ago, the nation had fewer than 250,000 refugees. The growing influx of refugees has put additional stress on the people and resources of Cameroon, which has its own long history of civil war and violence.
Catholic sisters, often referred to as nuns, have witnessed this unrest and strain on their local communities in Cameroon. Participants in ASEC’s Sister Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI) program have been able to use the skills they’ve learned to provide local help to the displaced. Their ASEC education and training has allowed for emotional, physical and spiritual support for those among the Cameroon refugee crisis.
Witnessing the Journey of Refugees First-Hand
Sr. Veronica Dinla Jumfongai, HHCJ, a member of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, felt that in order to truly understand the plight of a refugee, she must witness their experiences first-hand.
She, along with a group of other SLDI alumnae, traveled to the Diocese of Mamfe, where gunfire and harassment from patrolling military personnel during Mass led villagers to flee. More than 200 families fled the villages by foot for bushes two to three hours away.
But, while this provided immediate and relative safety from the violence and harassment, it left the refugees without water or a source of income.
“In spite of these issues, they prefer to remain in the bush there, where they enjoy some freedom and peace of mind compared to life in the village at present,” said Sr. Veronica after visiting the refugees.
But she knew she could use her SLDI skills to help them find a sense of security. She plans to use her grant writing and financial management training to raise enough funds to build single rooms for each displaced family to start their lives again.
Skill Training For Internally Displaced Women in Yaounde
Sr. Felicitas Ngum Nengtoh, SSA, a Sister of St. Anne and SLDI alumna, and her sisters were brought to tears during many of their visits to refugees in what she calls “deplorable” conditions in Yaounde, Cameroon. They felt compelled to help the refugees, as well as those who have opened their doors to them, by finding a means of sustainable income.
Sr. Felicitas organizes sessions to train women in how to produce liquid soap and bleach. Each session participant is provided with training and ingredients to begin their own small-scale business. The St. Anne sisters follow-up with session participants and have found that the majority of trainees have been able to create and sustain a small business.
Not only have trainees found the market to be encouraging, but they have improved their economic status and found a sense of pride in self-employment. Sr. Felicitas credits her SLDI training for her ability to teach the sessions and efficiently use the resources available.
Nuns Provide Necessities and Reassurance to the Displaced
Sr. Marivela Condez, FDZ, a Daughter of Divine Zeal, is among those displaced in Cameroon. The day before she was scheduled to attend an ASEC gathering, Sr. Marivela learned her community of sisters was going to have to leave their home in Kumbo due to growing unrest and danger. She opted to stick to her plan of attending the gathering, despite knowing she would be leaving her home country for the safety of Indonesia shortly after.
At the program, Sr. Marivela’s group focused on the different needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs). They created plans to help IDPs with food and other essential items. Following the program, Sr. Marivela returned to Kumbo to gather her belongings and begin her relocation, not knowing when or if she would be using the skills and plans she worked on at the program.
But after finding refugees in need upon her return to the convent, she quickly found a use for those plans and put them into action. She sorted the food and non-food items that remained in the convent’s storeroom and redistributed them to IDPs in the area.
“I was very happy because I put into reality the plan of action [from] the activities that were discussed during the ASEC Alumnae Workshop,” said Sr. Marivela. “I am so glad to have been of assistance to the people and brought them smiles once more.”
Creating a Long-term, Sustainable Solution in Desperate Times
When Sr. Leonarda Ngoin Tubuo, SST, a Sister of St. Therese of the Child Jesus of Buea, graduated from the SLDI Finance Track, she found the war in Cameroon to be at its worst. Most of the projects she had secured funding for were cancelled due to the risk of looting. Farmers were being killed on their own farms and villagers had fled the area for safety.
Already established programs, like the congregation’s rehab center, were struggling to survive amidst the dangerous gunfire and violence. Of those that remained, most patients were afraid to travel to the rehab center or were unable to pay for their therapy sessions.
Sr. Leonarda and her community knew they needed to find another way to support the rehab center and found a solution in the creation of a sustainable farm. Employees of the center work on the farm and harvest crops like tomatoes, plantains, cassava, corn and other vegetables. They also raise pigs, quails and table birds, which provide eggs and manure for the crops, creating a cycle of sustainability at the farm. The funds raised from the sale of products are used to help pay the staff salaries and utilities of the center.
“I was able to cost and run the projects effectively because of all the knowledge I had gathered from my training,” said Sr. Leonarda.
She recognizes how her SLDI training allowed her to provide refuge to those displaced, while also building a sustainable business model with a farm that will continue to provide well into the future.