Catholic Charities official recounts trip to impoverished African nation
By Luke eggelston
SUN staff writer
When Paul Welch arrived in Aweil, Sudan, en route to the village of Malek in that stricken African nation, an official warned that he was about to enter the “Stone Age.”
Initially, Welch, the director of Catholic Charities of Onondaga County’s Advocacy and Parish Outreach, dismissed the remark. After all, he had already been to the developing world. But trips to Peru and Mexico did not prepare Welch for what he was about to experience.
The trip was intended to give an official from the Syracuse Diocese a first-hand encounter with Southern Sudan, a region devastated by nearly five decades of civil war. In Southern Sudan’s rural areas, healthcare is practically non-existent. “Lost Boys” Garang Daniel Amet and Angelo Kiir have been attempting to build a health facility in the region they both call home. They named the facility St. Josephine Bakhita Health Clinic, in honor of the patron saint of Sudan.
Along with Amet, another Lost Boy, Angelo Kiir, had launched several appeals to Bishop Thomas Costello in order to help foster the effort. They also approached St. James Episcopal Church in Skaneateles along with Bishop Gladstone Adams of the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York.
Bishop Costello and the director of Catholic Charities of the Syracuse Diocese Cindy Falise had encouraged Welch to join Lost Boys Amet and Garang Daniel Mayen as they returned to their homeland.
Welch noted that St. Vincent de Paul Church parishioner and local attorney Carl Oropallo was also instrumental in facilitating the trip to Sudan. According to Welch, Oropallo has dedicated the last seven years of his life to the cause of the Lost Boys, many of who attend St. Vincent de Paul. Welch himself is a parishioner of St. Vincent de Paul.
“It [the effort to send Welch to Sudan] had a St. Vincent’s character to the whole thing,” Welch said.
The party initially arrived in Nairobi, Kenya. From there they set out for Sudan, stopping first in the small cities of Aweil and then Juba, the regional capitol of Southern Sudan.
Welch noted that Father Charles Oduke, SJ, was critical in helping the party establish contacts in both Kenya and Sudan.
“I got off in Nairobi, Kenya, and it was very similar to Lima, Peru, and as a developing country it was similar to that. So that was our transit point,” Welch explained. “However, when we got to Aweil and Juba, I knew, in fact, that we really had stepped into a different world.”
Welch described the villagers of the Southern Sudan as “living pretty much now as they lived hundreds of years ago.”
Although the Southern Sudanese are no longer under constant attack by the Khartoum government, the impact of five decades of civil war is still significant.
After returning from Sudan, Welch submitted a report to Catholic Charities and all of the parties interested in the Lost Boys’ project. In it, Welch cited statements issued by the government of Southern Sudan’s ministry of health in 2007. The report details healthcare conditions that Welch described as “deplorable.”
According to the report, more than 90 percent of the population lives on less than $1 per day and it is estimated that only 25 percent of the population has access to healthcare. The infant mortality rate in Southern Sudan is 150/1,000 live births compared to 7/1,000 in the U.S.
When asked to evaluate the healthcare situation after having been exposed to it in person, Welch simply stated, “There is very little.”
Even in larger communities such as Aweil, Welch noted, the healthcare facilities are sub-standard. He described a facility that much more closely resembled “a warehouse than a hospital.”
In the villages, the situation is much more dire. Many of the rural people of Southern Sudan live hours from the nearest clinic.
Welch, Amet and Mayen spent three days in the village of Malek where they met with various contractors and officials regarding the construction of the clinic.
After Malek, the trio traveled to Aweil and then Juba, meeting with officials. They also presented medical equipment donated by the Welch Allyn Company in Skaneateles to the hospital in Aweil. Amet had also arranged for the delivery of malaria medicine to the same hospital.
When Welch returned from his Africa trip, he presented the St. Josephine Bakhita Steering Committee, which includes several agencies and churches involved in the Lost Boys’ effort, with a series of recommendations for helping the St. Josephine Bakhita Clinic, which include funding earmarked for the facility and enabling medical training for the Lost Boys who want to return to rebuild their region.
“You’re starting from ground zero. You’re literally starting from ground zero and trying to build something that will help people who are hurting,” Welch said.
Welch sees the Lost Boys as having enormous potential for rebuilding the shattered region of Southern Sudan.
“The Lost Boys are a tremendous reservoir for helping this country come back it seems to me,” Welch said. “If we could somehow get these Lost Boys who want to go back and support them to go back, that would be up to 3,000 villages that we could get to. And they could upgrade or establish a school or upgrade or establish healthcare.”
Welch cited several instances in which he met with officials who were in fact Lost Boys that had returned to their homeland and assumed positions of leadership in their respective communities.
“The potential among the Sudanese people both at home and abroad is great,” Welch said. “With our help, they will recreate a beautiful country.”