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23/10/2015 - RMG – “The Young, together with Doctors and Nurses, have been the Heroes against Ebola”

(ANS – Rome) –After long months of efforts, thanks to the generous contribution of many benefactors and the direct intervention of the Rector Major, the Salesian center for the orphans of Ebola in Freetown has returned to be what it had always been: a school. “All the 250 children we hosted during the Ebola epidemic have been able to return to their homes”, declares proudly Fr. Jorge Crisafulli, the Provincial of the Salesians in Anglophone West Africa.

                                                                                                                                                       by Gian Francesco Romano

“The ‘Don Bosco Interim Child Care Center’ has been closed because we could reunite the children with their extended families, with an uncle, a grand-father, or with some adoptive families. The commitment of us Salesians, for the next three years, is to accompany and sustain these minors and their families, ensuring that they will be well treated, that they go to school, that they be happy…” says the Provincial, with satisfaction.

The willingness of the Salesians to give priority to the welfare of children before anything else implied considerable work and burdens: “In some cases we had to provide for the construction of houses, because we might have the case of 4 or 5 orphaned brothers: we chose not to separate them, and the extended family already numbered 15 to 20 people. Then we made small houses: one room for the boys, one for the girls, the bathroom, the kitchen…”.

In other cases, the Salesians had to intervene with lawyers, because some of the relatives and acquaintances of the Ebola victims had taken possession of the lands and properties that by law belonged to the orphaned children.

In these circumstances, or when the reunion with relatives was impossible for several reasons, minors were entrusted to some adoptive families that assumed legal responsibility. “We already knew some of the families, thanks to the ‘Don Bosco Fambul’ project, which looks after street children and youth at risk; once we got in touch with them, some families expressed their willingness to accept one, two or three children… Obviously, in these cases too we do not leave the families alone: we accompany them and give them, for a period of three years, the same support for food, for enrolment in the school and for the sanitary care to which are entitled extended families that welcome orphans”.

Fr. Crisafulli explains: “During the phase on contagion, there were organizations which were only concerned with finding a close relative to orphaned children and entrusting these minors to them, with a sack of rice. Our strategy was different: we always tried to carry out a holistic healing process, a longer journey. All the children of our centers remained from 3 to 6 months, followed by Salesians, educators, social workers, with a treatment that aimed at physical, emotional and psychological recovery”.

The Salesians and their collaborators also followed proper formation courses to help the minors that had been traumatized by Ebola, by the loss of their parents, by the stigma of contagion; they also made use of the instruments they know best and which once more proved to be effective: the methods and instruments of the oratory, the resources proper of Salesian tradition, which this once were used not only to educate and entertain, but precisely to heal: therefore music, dancing, singing, sports and jugglery. “Twice a week there was a course of conjuring tricks, one afternoon there was cycling, another afternoon there was music, and school lessons continued every morning, while the other schools of the country were closed… There was a full-integrated program, with individual accompaniment, group encounters, anger control therapy… There also was a good deal of drawing therapy. When children were asked to draw what had stricken them most, they always painted the ambulance, or their dead parents…; but if they were asked to draw their models, a sign of hope, a new phase of their lives, they drew doctors, nurses… who have been the heroes of Ebola”.

All this human and organizational effort would not have been possible without the use of great economic resources. “At the beginning, money came directly through the initiative of the Rector Major. Then, my great worry was that, once Ebola had disappeared from the media, everybody would forget. But it was always the Rector Major who assured us that he would continue to support us, that we would not have been forgotten. And now, to thank him, we are thinking to organize a meeting between Fr. Angel and the children that have been helped during this crisis”.

At the end of this terrible epidemic, Fr. Crisafulli also manages to identify some signs of hope: “With this epidemic, we also understood the importance of accompanying the sick in a holistic way; progress was also made in prevention and cure: in August 2014, the mortality range among the infected was 80-90%, whereas at the end, thanks to human, psychological and also spiritual accompaniment, it had dropped to 40%”.

The efficacy of operation to fight Ebola depended also on the collaboration among various social actors engaged in the field: “You cannot face an epidemic of this type and level on your own. At the beginning, when the first contagions appeared, we took our first steps alone, we created a task force at a national and provincial level, but with no connections with other realities. Then we all realized that we could not go on like this. And we adhered to the appeal of the bishops; we collaborated with three other realities bringing our specific contribution in the field of prevention and education. And since August 2014 to date we have grown very much in the network, also interacting with great international agencies, such as UNICEF, the World Food Program, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières)…”

This epidemic above all showed the initiative and generosity of the young, who in many cases put their own lives at risk to save the lives of others: “The young, together with doctors and nurses, were the heroes against Ebola. It was not only the group Josephat, the Muslim old pupil who did prevention work with other friends of his. I also speak of the Salesian Youth Group (MGS). They were the first to go out; even before us Salesians, even before the intervention of Bishops, they were already in the squares, in market places, distributing information leaflets and preparing songs and sketches to explain how to prevent contagion. The first song against Ebola that was broadcast on the radio was composed by MGS youth”.

The witness of the young today remains a valid example of solidarity, of charitable commitment and also of faith. Fr. Crisafulli concludes: “I very well remember what they said: “It is better to go out and die infected while you are doing something good for the others, than staying to die of fear listening to the news on TV.’ In some cases they perhaps risked even too much. But from the beginning, since that video-conference with Fr. Angel, the Rector Major, we asked the blessing of Mary Help of Christians and we trusted in her protection, recalling what Don Bosco said to his youths when there was the cholera epidemic in Turin: ‘If you trust in Mary Help of Christians, nothing will happen to you’”.

Published 23/10/2015

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