Noelle Fitzpatrick pictured shortly before taking up the role of country director JRS South Sudan, alongside Mercy Muchai, Endashaw Debrework, Elizabeth Razesberger and John Guiney, organisation director.

Pope’s South Sudan visit will aid peace

A Cavan woman leading a humanitarian relief effort in South Sudan is helping lay the groundwork for Pope Francis’ planned visit to the impoverished African nation later this year.

Pope Francis will visit South Sudan in July, a trip the Vatican had repeatedly delayed partially because of security concerns in a country emerging from post-independence conflict.

As much as the visit itself, the timing is considered just as meaningful, with July marking the 11th anniversary of South Sudan’s secession from Sudan.

Civil war erupted two years later, and it wasn’t until 2018 that a peace deal was formalised. A year after the accord was reached, Pope Francis hosted South Sudan’s opposing leaders at a Vatican retreat, kneeling before both men and kissing their feet, urging them not to return to a deadly conflict that has so far claimed the lives of around 400,000 people. “You have begun a process, may it end well,” he said.

Kingscourt-native Noelle Fitzpatrick, country director for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in South Sudan, views the gesture as vastly important given the elaborate context and many still unresolved issues that exist.

“There is a real sense of expectation,” she says of the upcoming Papal visit to South Sudan’s capital Juba (July 5-7), which tailends a journey taking in Kinshasa and Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (July 2-5).

Noelle muses how impactful the “recognition” that comes with a Papal visit is for a country like South Sudan. That sense of validation, and “great excitement” the visit by Pope Francis has imbued already throughout Christian communities there, she likens it to that which preceded the arrival of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979.

“[South Sudan] is a very Christian country, not necessarily Catholic, but different denominations. There is a real sense this visit, even for a few days, what it means for peace, is giving people a real lift.”

Noelle had the honour of meeting Pope Francis once before, when working on JRS’ Syrian crisis response. It was during a gathering of faith-based entities in Rome. Noelle recalls being shepherded with around 30 others down the cobble-stoned alleyway outside Domus Sancta Marthae (St Martha’s House) from where Pope Francis emerged.

“There is no one else that exists in the world when he meets your eyes,” remembers Noelle.

Knowing what that meeting, however fleeting, meant to her, Noelle has already impressed upon the Vatican’s representative to South Sudan the importance of having Pope Francis meet some of the localised JRS team, as well as some of the displaced people with whom they continue to work. “Even a small audience, five minutes, I think he’ll definitely do as best he can. If he sticks with his normal protocol [Pope Francis] usually tries to meet with Jesuits, so I would really love that. It would mean everything to them. I know what it meant to me.”

Noelle met with the Vatican’s representative to South Sudan before travelling to Ireland, where they talked a little about planning for Pope Francis’ visit will be and how JRS International can support proceedings. “We’ll do what we can to support the visit. We don’t have money for it, what little we have, but do have drivers and logistics people.”

The hope of raising funds is part of the reason for Noelle’s brief return to Ireland. Sandwiched between spending time with friends and family and speaking with the Celt, she is pressing other organisations with an established presence on the African continent for financial support. When the Celt arrived to meet with Noelle, she was on one such phone call. She makes the pitch knowing full well that the financial focus of most global aid organisations and governments is currently on supporting those fleeing Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

“We don’t have discretionary money. The money [JRS] has is all tied to donor budgets,” Noelle explains. “So there will be a whip-round to try and raise a few bob to prepare for the visit and we want to be able to say ‘Yes’, we want to be able to contribute something. It’s important we support the local church, the population, and government, and also to bring a few of our team members as well from differing locations.”

She brings to mind a visit to a village called Ezo, on the border with Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo, where JRS are currently working with the local church to develop temporary learning spaces for the children of displaced families.

“It’s their passion that makes what we do work, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I would love to be able to have some of them there for when Pope Francis arrives. Anyone that remembers, especially Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland, or was there in the Phoenix Park and what that meant. It would be like that. That was massive and this will be the same for South Sudan.”

Noelle estimates that at least one in three of JRS’ own staff has been a refugee or displaced at some stage in their lives.

It’s estimated there are over 4.3 million refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs) and asylum seekers living in South Sudan, the highest numbers from Sudan’s Kordofan and Blue Nile regions.

Noelle and her team oversee operations in three remote locations, with the organisation’s biggest programme of work located in Maban County, on the border with Ethiopia.

With worst fears surrounding Covid now past, the focus on South Sudan had returned to the “fragile” peace deal in place.

While that process has been slower than some Western-led governments might’ve liked, Noelle prefers to err on the side of cautious optimism, noting that things have been “improving”, albeit slowly.

“We can have an expectation on what timelines must apply, but sometimes [in Africa], things take a lot longer to happen. There is a complexity, even with the best will in the world, we can’t understand because we are not of the place. The way I see it is - every step is a step forward. Yes there are still issues that need addressing. I’m not highly political, so I prefer to put my focus where the hope is, not naively hopeful, but every day there isn’t an outbreak of violence nationally is a good day to me.”


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