Father Michael Bassano, a Binghamton native, offers aid to refugees
By Tom Maguire | Associate editor
In central Africa, the days sizzle and the needs boil over.
As South Sudan endures its second national coronavirus lockdown and victims of flooding in prior months seek food, shelter, and clothing, Binghamton native Father Michael Bassano, who formerly ministered in the Diocese of Syracuse, finds ways to reach out.
A Maryknoll missionary, he is the Catholic chaplain for people who have been displaced by civil war in the UN Protection of Civilians (POC) camp outside the town of Malakal in Upper Nile State. Up to about 3,000 of the 33,000 displaced people are members of his parish. The camp has no dentist, so Father Bassano has a “new ministry” as a sort of emissary of dental care.
“We are in the hot season now until the rainy season begins in May,” he writes, “temperatures averaging about 100 degrees.”
The lockdown is in effect until April 3. “All large gatherings and church services are suspended and we continue to record our prayer over Nile Radio as the Catholic Church of the Radio Waves,” Father Bassano writes.
Over 249 confirmed cases of COVID-19 were recently reported in Juba, the capital, he says. “Here at [the UN mission compound] there were nine more confirmed cases with three at the [non-governmental organization] Humanitarian Hub and four in the POC camp, although we do not have adequate testing to know how many cases are in the camp.”
The newly appointed governor has yet to arrive in Malakal and is still in Juba, Father Bassano says. Some of the government ministers will be arriving in Malakal very soon with the governor to come by the end of March.
“Because of severe floods of months past,” he writes, “at least 20,000 people have been displaced from their homes within the country. This group includes people and families who were South Sudanese refugees returning from Kenya, Sudan, and Ethiopia looking to return to their home places of origin.
“The UNHCR [UN refugee agency] staff and myself have joined hands together in reaching out to these displaced people who are living without shelter, food, or protection.
“Through the Maryknoll famine relief fund we have been providing large quantities of rice (each bag 44 pounds) to help the people while UNHCR staff provide temporary shelter, blankets, clothing, and cooking utensils. It is sad to see so many people lacking the basic necessities of life. But we become the hands of God’s compassion as we reach out to these people in need. …
“Recently some of our priests of the diocese including our Bishop Stephen were asking help for problems with their teeth. I brought them to our dentist at the Level 2 Hospital in our UNMISS compound.”
Regional Level II hospitals offer medical service to UN civilian and military staff, according to the medical trade journal BMJ.
“Once our people in the camp heard that I was taking people to see the dentist, many requests were made for me to take them to see the dentist,” Father Bassano writes. “We have no dentist for our 33,000 people in the camp. When they go with me to see the dentist their teeth are so decayed that some of them have to have one or two teeth removed. It is hard to see our people suffering from lack of basic necessities like a simple visit regularly to a dentist as we do in the USA, but that is the reality here. I would prefer not to be known as a person who brings people to the dentist to have teeth taken out but if it lessens their pain, so be it !!!!!!”
Since he is restricted from going into the POC camp, Father Bassano watches the sunrise and sunset and keeps in touch with members of his church through phone calls. And he follows world news.
“Great to see Pope Francis in Iraq,” he writes, “as a troubadour of peace and harmony in respecting all diversity of people and religion.”
He also writes poetry; below
Somersaulting joyfully delighting exceedingly of what surrounds me speaking of You
Flight of birds at early dawn announcing news of emergent beginnings
Bubbling heartily with wit and humorous thoughts today minimizing existing stress of pandemic living
Equanimity arising encouraging everyone as giftedly special inwardly free
Dreaming of equality discrimination decreasing justice prevailing becoming Beloved’s community
Expecting change anticipating everything ensuring healing peace and harmony among us