YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A Ugandan coalition of religious orders dedicated to serving populations scarred by decades of conflict, poverty and disease has received the inaugural award bestowed by a Rome-based foundation dedicated to the memory of St. John Paul II.

The John Paul II Justice and Peace Center in Kampala, Uganda, was founded in 2006 by religious orders working in the country, including Comboni Missionaries, Holy Cross Missionaries, Mill Hill Missionaries, Missionaries of Africa, and Jesuits. It’s dedicated to promoting the social doctrine of the Church, and draws special inspiration from John Paul II’s 1995 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Africa.

The award is to be presented in a May 22 ceremony at the Vatican.

The Director of the Center, Holy Cross Father Leonard Olobo, told Crux the origins of the center reflect Uganda’s experience.

“The centre’s inception was fueled by a deep sense of responsibility,” Olobo said. “As Northern Uganda emerged from two decades of devastating conflict, its people bore the scars of suffering—killings, rape, and the loss of limbs. Basic services were scarce, and rural communities faced daily threats, forcing them to seek refuge in towns and even sleep on the streets.”

“The pathetic condition in the country, compelled us, a group of religious congregations –to intervene collectively in the social, economic, and political life of Ugandans by establishing an institution dedicated for action against injustice of different ramifications,” he said.

The following are excerpts of Crux’s interview with Olobo.

Crux: What was the feeling like when you learned that your center had won the maiden edition of the St. John Paul II Award?

This maiden edition of the St. John Paul II Award is inspiring and a moment of celebration and motivation to continue the important work of the center with greater enthusiasm, determination, and commitment.

What inspired you to create the center?

At the time, the people in Northern Uganda were emerging from two decades of war. They underwent immense suffering, killings, rape, cutting of limbs and no access to basic services. The rural people were commuting from their villages to towns and sleeping on the streets on daily basis because they were being attacked and killed and maimed in the villages. This even compelled Archbishop John Baptist Odama to join them to sleep on the streets to draw attention to their plight.

Uganda was experiencing wanton violation of human rights, rising economic inequalities, extreme poverty, violence in families and communities, among others. The pathetic condition in the country, compelled us, a group of religious congregations – Comboni Missionaries, Holy Cross Missionaries, Mill Hill Missionaries, Missionaries of Africa, and the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) to intervene collectively in the social, economic, and political life of Ugandans by establishing an institution dedicated for action against injustice of different ramifications.

Thus, our motto: “Faith Doing Justice”.

What projects do you carry out at the center that make the Church’s social teachings come alive?

One of the projects being implemented at the center is combatting Trafficking in Persons (TIP) and Modern Slavery (MS). Under this project we create awareness because some of the survivors fall victims due to lack of information, while others aid their own trafficking due to ignorance. We do this through workshops, community outreach, radio talk shows, town hall meetings, social media, docudrama and distribution of information education and communication materials.

We also provide assistance to the survivors in terms of facilitation to return home, medical care, legal aid, healing from trauma, and livelihoods to cope with life upon return. In other words, we rescue, provide psychosocial support, legal aid, life skill training, start-up capital, and follow up on them. We also advocate to influence those in authority to enforce the laws and policies in place, and the public to hold the leaders accountable.

We also have projects at the refugee settlements. Uganda is host to about 1.5 million refugees and about 41 thousand asylum seekers and the majority of them, about 59 percent, are from South Sudan – hosted mostly in the West Nile region of Uganda. Our activities in the settlement and host community revolve around peace -building, economic empowerment, and provision of solar energy in health facilities and schools in the settlements.

Under peace building for harmonious living among the refugees and with the host community we conduct community dialogues, build the capacity of the leaders in conflict resolutions, hold inter- religious prayer conferences, organize cultural galas to celebrate cultural diversity, create awareness through radio talks shows, and provide legal aid for impact cases and psychosocial support.

With promotion of livelihoods, we give the refugees skills in areas such as agro-ecology, tailoring, fish rearing, baking, soap -making, beekeeping, etc.  We provide solar energy in the health facilities to improve on the health services. We also provide solar energy and computers in refugee settlement schools to improve the learning of the pupils.

We promote girl child education through advocacy. The girl child education program includes community outreach, radio talk shows – involving parents, community leaders, government officials and educators, and town hall meetings with stakeholders at the districts.

Under the Civic Education Program, we primarily focus on training secondary school students to become responsible and active citizens, enhance their engagement in national affairs and foster their active participation. We usually form civic education clubs and peace clubs in these schools.

As the police are being accused of brutality and regarded as the most corrupt institution in the country, we have intervened by enhancing their professionalism, through workshops, development of a strategy for community policing, police- public community dialogue, among others. We are also involved in promoting the democratic process in the country. We do this through civic and voter education, election monitoring, and research and documentation.

Can you cite some of the success stories that might have triggered the interest of the jury in selecting your center to win the award?

Through our advocacy with our partners for over three years, we managed to influence the Catholic bishops in Uganda to come up with a pastoral letter against human trafficking in 2022 titled “Break the Yoke” (Is.  58:6). The letter highlights the roles of each stakeholder in combating the vice and calls upon the government to do more.

Another success story in our advocacy against [trafficking] is that several Uganda girls have been repatriated from the Middle East countries. The campaign through the National Day of Prayer where speeches are made and status of trafficking is highlighted compelled the leading opposition to take action to visit the girls in the Middle East and supported some to come back. Similarly, the government deeming that act as a political gimmick reciprocally repatriated more trafficked girls from the Middle East. All these were widely captured by the media in the country.

In the early years of the center, we campaigned on the plight of the slum dwellers. Our campaign ended with the government coming out with the National Slum Upgrading Strategy and Action Plan (2008) to provide a framework, direction, and plan to all stakeholders on how to improve slums and fast-track Uganda’s target of uplifting the lives of at least one million slum dwellers.

Some of your recent projects have to do with refugees and trafficking in humans. Why focus on these issues? What is the situation of refugees and human trafficking in Uganda?

Uganda is host to 1,584,484 refugees and 41,567 Asylum seekers, out of which 926,550 are South Sudanese who are mostly settled in the West Nile region. The majority of this population is women and children. It is important to note that the refugees’ settlements in Uganda are located in hard-to-reach places and lack critical infrastructures including electricity. Despite Ugandan favorable refugee policy, and efforts by government and humanitarian organizations, the refugees are faced with limited access to basic services such as healthcare, education, and clean water. They conflict over access to natural resources such as farmland, water sources, firewood for cooking, grazing ground, materials (sticks, ropes, and grasses) for constructing temporary houses, etc., among themselves and with the host communities.

The refugees, especially those from South Sudan, have come to the settlement with a conflict mindset from their own country which sometimes generates violent conflicts within the settlement. There is also the issue of food rationing in the settlement which has affected their livelihood. Other issues within the settlements include drug abuse, gender-based violence, domestic violence, early marriages, sexual exploitation, insecurity, poor social services, limited source of livelihood – to mention but a few. This pathetic situation compelled the center to intervene in the areas of peace building and economic empowerment to enable peaceful coexistence among the refugees and with the host communities.

What challenges do you face as you work to make the social doctrine of the Church come to life?

One of the challenges is lack of the understanding of the doctrine among the religious leaders as they perceive our work too political and as such dangerous. Indeed, with respect to [trafficking], when we approach some religious leaders, they tell us it is too risky and as such we do not need to venture into it at all. This is because the traffickers are powerful and well-placed in the society and will not hesitate to eliminate anyone who constitutes an obstacle to their business. Indeed, we have sometimes received calls asking whether the girls and children being trafficked are ours and what we intend to achieve by stopping it.

Again, the political environment in Uganda poses challenges to organizations that are critical on governance, human rights, and corruption. In the recent past, the government has become restrictive in the operations of advocacy-oriented NGOs where the center belongs.

Furthermore, the social justice issues are enormous in this country and our interventions are sometimes insufficient due to limited resources with respect to personnel and funding. Consequently, we only prioritize the key issues depending on the available resources. Moreover, our interventions, like in most African countries, depend on support from outside, yet the sustainability of our work can be realized on locally generated funds.

Despite these challenges, we remain committed to advancing the principles of Catholic social teaching and promoting justice, peace, and the common good in Uganda. Through perseverance, collaboration, and the support of our partners and stakeholders, we continue to make meaningful strides towards realizing our mission and vision.