Q & A with Sr. Leema Rose, training health professionals in a war environment

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Indian Sr. Leema Rose is a member of the Missionary Sisters, Servants of the Holy Spirit and heads the Catholic Health Training Institute in Wau, South Sudan, where she oversees a nursing training program for certified nurses and midwives.

The institute, which goes by the acronym CHTI, is one of the key projects of the church-based humanitarian alliance Solidarity with South Sudan, and works on behalf of the Sudan Catholic Bishops' Conference. The institute trains health professionals who, it notes, "are inspired by a Christian vision of the dignity of the human person and the values of respect, compassion and justice."

Wau has been caught in the midst of South Sudan's four-year civil war, with tens of thousands of displaced people arriving on the grounds of the city's Catholic cathedral for shelter. Students and instructors are not strangers to the war's pressures and conflicts: Rose notes that one of the challenges for her and other staff is to keep the institution going in the midst of a tense environment outside the walls of the institute's campus, located just outside the center of the city.

GSR: What kind of toll has the war taken on the institute and its students?

Rose: The resilience of South Sudanese is very strong, though often, people think they are stronger than their problems. And the problems are serious: War affects people mentally, and some who are very vulnerable who have left homes in their villages are stranded on roads with nowhere to go. There are not facilities to help those harmed. Unlike India, there is not a system of good municipal hospitals where they could receive treatment. The basic facilities — those are not here.

Yet you and others are doing your best to train people to build up the system.

We are, but we often come up against the realities of the country. Sr. Veronika Terezia Rackova [a Slovak member of the Holy Spirit Missionary congregation who was killed by South Sudanese soldiers last year in a case still under investigation] started a medical unit to help people coping with mental problems. But after she died, it closed. In [the war-affected city of] Malakal, the Salesian communities worked so hard to establish medical facilities. One sister in particular put her heart and soul into establishing a facility, and then it was destroyed. It became a kind of lost hope.

The underlying problem, of course, is a war environment. You can't look at other citizens as your enemies and promote the change in the country that is needed. A big part of that is that the country is going through a crisis of poor leadership. South Sudan needs peace.

Students here have been affected by the war themselves, with some having lost family members. What are their experiences like?

Many come from families that have been displaced in the war, and many are depressed because of what has happened to their families. Some students keep their bitterness, and that bitterness remains, though out of 100 students, let's say, only a small number, one or two, are really like that. I think in the case of 98 students, they are hopeful about the country and really want it to work. We brought in a counselor here for counseling to help students cope with the situation, and you could see good changes in people.

But overall, in the country, there is not enough teaching about the importance of the solidarity of peace. Students still stay to themselves and do not mix because of clan division. We need to better promote that space for them to be together. I can say that here at the institute, we do keep promoting that model of "we are one" as a people. Certainly, we emphasize celebration, of prayer together.

But the war environment does add a poignancy to life on campus, doesn't it?

I don't know how to improve that need for God, but I do feel something is missing. We are still developing a culture, a culture of life, and it's still a long way away. But I have hope in the long-term both for the students and the country. I am very encouraged with their enthusiasm for their studies and to achieve. Most make very good marks in their work here. That somebody can lose a father one day and the next go to class — that's extraordinary. But in a way, their feelings are being killed.

Sometimes I wish students would come to cry [after a traumatic event]; very few do that. We as a staff do our best to be available to them, to let them know that we try our best to understand where they are coming from, what their experiences are. We try to see them in the full spirit of who they are. Their experiences are like those of the country as a whole. People need encouragement. People have to believe themselves.

In terms of your own spirituality in this environment, what have you learned?

Whether you are in a pleasant situation or an unpleasant situation, God is there. In South Sudan, there is much to cope with, and suddenly you are faced with challenges. But you learn that everyone has their own richness, and in the case of a learning environment like ours, you learn that each is doing their best. Here we have a common mission, and whatever you do is part of an overall larger sense of service.

In my own life here, I do experience God as something so great that it feels like he is loving me and no else but me. That is a great gift. But I am always aware of the greater context: that I'm in the midst of people suffering. That does affect me. As sisters, we always ask, "What kind of sacrifice can we make so that people can live better?" And so we take part in different ways in their struggles.

[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is cherlinger@ncronline.org.]