Saturday, February 15, 2014

Christian aid group zeros-in on helping South Sudan victims

Refugees from South Sudan. Credit: Aid to the Church in Need.Christian aid organization Sudan Relief Fund is helping thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons with supply water and other life-saving assistance after devastating conflict in the country.

“We are changing focus” to help the Southern region more directly, Neil Corkery, the group's executive director told CNA in a  Feb. 7 interview.

While the organization is continuing its development projects around the country, it is “focusing on humanitarian needs” in central South Sudan for those affected by sectarian violence as well as areas that are hosting thousands of the displaced.

In December of 2013, violence erupted between forces loyal to South Sudanese president Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe and those allied behind former Vice President Riek Machar, a member of the Nuer tribe.

The resulting conflict, arising less than three years after the country gained independence from the Republic of Sudan following a 20-year-long civil war, has killed thousands. It has also forced nearly 900,000 people from their homes and places around 3 million people in danger of starvation according to United Nations estimates.

The Sudan Relief Fund, started in 1998, has focused on humanitarian aid, infrastructure improvement and development in the Nuba mountains and South Sudan for over two decades. Working with local Catholic dioceses, the organization has started a hospital, “Mother of Mercy,” in the Nuba Mountains – still a disputed territory between the Republic of Sudan and South Sudan – in addition to working alongside eight parishes and starting a teacher training program in the region.

The organization has also begun a teacher training program in Malakal in the center-East of South Sudan, a vocations training center in Eastern South Sudan, a nurse training facility in the diocese of Wau to the west, and an agricultural and educational training Center in Yambio along the South-Western border of South Sudan.

Due to the increased violence, “it’s very much changed into a humanitarian crisis” and the organization is shifting its focus to “life-saving issues,” Corkery said.

“Where the real crisis is now is in a different part of the country” from the Sudan Relief Fund’s other operations, he noted, but the organization is still able to help the displaced and needy in these areas.

The Sudan Relief Fund just authorized two large water filters for use in displaced persons camp – run by Samaritan’s Purse, another Christian organization – in the eastern part of the country, where the fighting has been centered. Sudan Relief Fund is also helping to assist with food and medical aid for persons displaced by the violence.

Displaced persons, however, are also spread throughout the country, and the organization is helping to distribute survival kits containing basic cooking supplies, nutritional staples, and essential needs to women and children seeking shelter in other regions of South Sudan.

“The people that are suffering the most are these women and children,” Corkery said.

The organization’s structure and connections to the local Church is essential, he added, to delivering aid.

According to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, Christianity forms much of South Sudan’s social structure, with over 60 percent of the population professing Christian beliefs, forming a population of over 2.7 million Catholics and over 2 million Anglican Christians spread throughout dioceses in the country.

With the increase in violence and breakdown of reliable political infrastructure, “the only reliable way to get aid is through these faith based organizations,” Corkery said.  

While the United Nations and USAID are trying to provide aid in the crisis, he continued, many of their current efforts are focused on building infrastructure. In addition, the “organizations with large hierarchies”  are not as able to set up aid networks quickly.

“Unless you’re using the Church, there’s no way to reliably get aid,” because it is the churches who are already in local communities serving the people. He pointed to the Cathedral in Malakal, which has been serving as an unofficial refuge for thousands of internally displaced persons since December, feeding and sheltering over 5,000 people who have nowhere else to turn.

“We believe we will be able to be effective,” he said, “because we’re small” and connected to existing aid structures through Church networks.