"We are never without hope" was the message of Loreto missionary, Sr Orla Treacy, as she received the 2017 Hugh O'Flaherty International Humanitarian Award in Killarney at the weekend. "It is very humbling to accept this award and I accept it on behalf of our sisters, staff and students at Loreto School in Rumbek, South Sudan" she told a large and appreciative audience some of whom had travelled long distances to honour her inspiring work.
In his opening comments, Chairman of the Hugh O'Flaherty Memorial Society,Jerry O'Grady, reminded the audience of the words of Nelson Mandela that "education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world"
Presenting the award, Cllr Niall Kelleher, Mayor of Killarney Municipal Authority, said that "Ireland, and Killarney in particular, has a centuries' old tradition of our citizens venturing overseas on missionary service and to help others especially during famine, natural disasters, occasions of war, and helping to rebuild and develop services that meet the basic needs of any society. Killarney town has acknowledged this by naming one of its most important roads as "Mission Road" and installing a memorial and fern garden to commemorate all of its citizens involved in humanitarian work around the world".
"This is symbolic" he said "of how proud the people of Killarney are of their missionaries and in particular of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty. In 2013, a truly striking memorial was unveiled to commemorate his life that demonstrated a true missionary and humanitarian spirit beginning in Haiti in the 1930s and during World War II in occupied Rome. This evening we are honouring another great humanitarian, Sr Orla Treacy, who selflessly gives of herself educating girls in South Sudan.
Referring to the Fragile States Index for 2017 which states that South Sudan is considered the most fragile democracy of the 178 nations assessed, Cllr Kelleher said: "There are few places in the world where the challenges met by missionaries are as great as they are in South Sudan"
This year the O'Flaherty International Humanitarian Award includes a €1,000 bursary made available by pupils of Killarney's primary and secondary schools. Jerry O'Grady, Chairman of the O'Flaherty Memorial Society said that involving students in this way not only commemorates the work of Mon. O'Flaherty but it reinforces an understanding of humanitarianism today that will live into the future.
Sr Orla, Principal of the Loreto School in Rumbek, told the audience: "South Sudan has had a difficult past and the pain continues to be very real for the people. It is wonderful that our mission can be recognised in this way tonight and that I can have a chance to share the story of those who live it. The Loreto decision to go to Rumbek was prompted by a desire for us internationally to go where the need was greatest and rediscover our missionary spirit and refound a new mission in a new land. In February 2006, our sisters responded to the call to open a school for girls in the town of Rumbek - then part of the greater country Sudan. The country had just ended 22 years of civil war with the North.
"We began with a girls secondary boarding school but over the years we realised the needs of the local community were greater than just a secondary school and we have since added a primary school for boys and girls - this operates 2 shifts - morning and afternoon and more recently we added a clinic to serve the needs of our 1,200 students and the workers - in particular malnourished babies in the community."
In hushed silence, she told how "10% of our babies die before the age of three months and 14% of our children are dead by the age of five. 56% of the population have no access to medical care and if treated by medical personnel most don't have the finance to buy the medicines, or the medicines are not available …and the biggest challenge we came across was lack of education and belief in the power of the witch doctors. There is a great poverty in our service - we dream of better days and yet we struggle with the local traditions, senselessness of war, the ignorance that comes from lack of education, the emotional tiredness and numbness of mothers who have already lost so much and don't have a fight in them".
She illustrated how the reality of South Sudan is a bleak one. "We voted for and achieved independence in July 201. Six years later the UN is calling us the 'most vulnerable country in the world'. We enjoyed just two years of peace after independence. Unfortunately we top the polls in all the wrong areas" she said.
Using harrowing statistics, she continued: "We are the hardest country for girls to be educated in, 1% of girls finish secondary school. We are the most illiterate country in the world, 27% of the population are literate and that's in urban centres, not where we are. I have never met a mother educated in our local community. 52% of girls are married by the age of 18 and in many cases they are forced marriages. We had a population of 12 million people in 2011- today, two million are gone as refugees to neighbouring countries while nearly two million are internally displaced people - one in three are displaced and more than half are hungry … six million are in need of food support. Our economy has collapsed. Almost 90% of the population are unemployed. We boast of 200kms of tarmac roads in a country 10 times the size of Ireland. The people know more of the experience of war than they do of peace. This is our reality" she pointed out.
"In such an environment we can be forgiven for asking how do people survive. In reflecting on tonight's event, I think of our many students - our girls - each have had to challenge the local culture and fight for their right to an education. When most of their peers are being married off the girls are fighting to stay in school. And I think of our local chief - he only had one year in school but has committed himself to ensure that all his children have a right to education. He supports us in cases of forced marriages - when families come with even guns and sticks he stands with us to help the girl continue her education. He does it at great personal risk" she said.
"I think here of the parents who dream of a better world for their daughters And then there are our graduates, young women filled with hope that they can make a change for their country. Our school will be ten years old in April and already we have over 100 graduates - most of whom have gone on to third level, they are training to be the teachers and medical people for the next generation. These young women and mothers give us the hope that life will be better.
"I think of our donors, especially Irish Aid and Misean Cara, and the strangers who support our work - with their support we are able to educate 1,200 young people each day, offer employment to 200 local families and provide 2,000 meals each day.
"I take comfort in the life of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty. He remained always a man of faith, he didn't discriminate, and he selfishly put himself out all the time. He didn't always succeed in rescuing people and I am sure he suffered for that, and he had his critics too. Like him, we are never without hope" she concluded to a standing ovation from an audience that included the Bishop of Kerry, Dr Ray Browne, and retired Bishop Bill Murphy, and other clergy.
During her visit to Ireland, Sr Orla visited the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in Cork to thank them for their financial support from their recent fundraising appeal. "It is unique for one congregation to financially support another one, so this contribution to our work in Rumbek is extremely generous" she said.
(Matt Moran is author of book 'The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On' which describes how the work of Irish missionaries is being carried forward in the global south - available from www.onstream.ie).
The Hugh O'Flaherty Memorial Society www.hughoflaherty.com/
Loreto Sisters in Ireland https://loreto.ie/
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