Since 2017, more than 70 thousand refugees have fled to Nigeria due to violence in the northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon. The conflict between secessionist Non-State Armed Groups and the army has led to significant displacement of the Cameroonian population. ASEC alum Sr. Virgilia Bih Zamah, who belongs to the congregation of the Tertiary Sisters of St. Francis in Cameroon, works as a Parish Secretary for her congregation. Through her funded projects, she serves refugees in Nigeria. She applies the skills learned in her ASEC training to help those in need. Her services underpins the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which implicitly and explicitly notes the need to include refugees in order to transform the world (SDG 10).
Sr. Virgilia graduated from ASEC’s SLDI Program (Finance Track) in November of 2015. After completing the program, she used her knowledge to teach SLDI Basic Technology to ASEC sisters in both Nigeria and Cameroon. Sr. Virgilia was elected to a leadership role in her congregation, overseeing and mentoring her local community of 30 sisters. Unfortunately, the Tertiary Sisters of St. Francis lost three sisters to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although a tragedy, Sr. Virgilia was able to use her skills in grant-writing and resource mobilization to prevent more COVID-19 cases. During 2020 she was awarded a grant to aid her sisters living and working in the southwest region of Cameroon, which was used for purchase of materials and equipment to prevent further infection.
Sr. Virgilia was recently assigned to work as Parish Secretary in the mission office of her congregation in Kumbu, Cameroon. The office had been closed for some time and she was to reopen it. The office had no records of previous funded projects, so she had to start from scratch. She was grateful that ASEC gave her the experience to effectively take up the position. Using what materials she had, she began writing project proposals for funding. After a six month wait, she received a positive response from Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters, securing a large grant to assist in the refugee crisis in Nigeria.
“ASEC has given me the skill of grant-writing. To be honest, I have been using that skill most often," Sr. Virgilia explains.
Through funding from this grant, Sr. Virgilia’s Apprenticeship Training Program for Cameroonian refugees in Nigeria is currently being implemented. The congregation saw the need to help youth in the area, not only by providing meals but also teaching lifelong skills they could use going forward. She educated students on income-generating practices to encourage them to become more self-reliant. These opportunities helped them see meaning in life despite all that was going on around them.
The Apprenticeship Training Program is designed to train 50 people with skills in tailoring, craft-making, bead-making, computer-aided design, barbering, and hairdressing. When those 50 people become conversant enough in the skill to teach others, they then train an additional five people. The funds, therefore, are envisioned to serve at least 125 people and possibly more. The aim of the project is to empower the younger generation to start their own businesses. They are also encouraged to take in refugees as apprentices, which most of the participants are eager to do.
One prominent skill Sr. Virgilia reported to be using while fulfilling her duties as Parish Secretary is the skill of listening. She explained that there are many who seek her advice regarding trauma from the political crisis. She said that although she may not be able to offer any tangible solutions to the problems faced, the act of listening can be powerful enough to help others feel cared for and heard.
“I can’t tell you how many times a week people want to share the experiences they are going through with the Separatists … You may not have a solution to give but what you do have is ears to hear the person. They want to know that somebody understands what they are going through.”
Some of Sr. Virgilia’s other achievements include being elected in 2017 as executive secretary of the ASEC alumnae group in Cameroon. There are seven sisters on the ASEC alumnae executive leadership team from different congregations with different charisms. She says she appreciates the collaboration among the sisters and gives credit to ASEC for teaching them how to work together. She said the collaboration among executive members flows down to the other members of the group and as a result there is oneness among the sisters. She added, “ASEC has made us realize the need for oneness.”
Sr. Virgilia is grateful to ASEC for all that she has learned. She said, “I have a lot of gratitude in my heart for what ASEC has done for me.” Through ASEC she has come to know many sisters and many congregations which she is in contact with often. She has also learned to work in harmony with the charisms of other congregations leading to a system where they work as one.