An Irish priest is not letting violence detract from his mission to bring literacy to war-torn South Sudan.
Fr. Tony O’Riordan has never been one to step away from a fight — not when it comes to drug dealers and thugs on the streets of Limerick, Ireland, nor mobs of attackers at a refugee camp in South Sudan, Africa.
It was July 23. O’Riordan and others working for the Jesuit Refugee Service, in Maban County, home to one of the world’s most isolated refugee camps, heard a mob attacking another compound not 1,000 feet away from their own, and knew they would be next.
Violence is not unheard of in the region. Hundreds of humanitarian aid workers, including O’Riordan, project director of the JRS in Maban, and his team, are among those living and working in the “tent city” for about 150,000 refugees trying to flee the civil war in their country, but who also battle hunger and disease on a daily basis.
The compound includes a learning center, including computers and English language books — and it’s here that Fr. O’Riordan believes the war of political power and poverty can be won — through education. Less than a third of the population is literate; 85 percent of the population cannot read. The reason for this is the lack of resources, as well as the problem of displacement because of the conflict.
As the mob of 2,000 “protesters” busted through the sheet metal walls of the compound, the aid workers locked down as best they could, evacuating many to their local homes, with the rest of the staff hunkered down in their strongest rooms as the attackers descended. According to the Irish Mirror, the attackers were protesting lack of local employment in the area — which is ironic, O’Riordan noted, as that’s what the school was trying to accomplish.
Classrooms were raided, and all the computers, books and supplies were taken — except for papers in a recent teaching exam that can be seen scattered across the floor in one of the photos. The mob looted other areas of the camp as well, taking all the cooking equipment, beds, chairs, and tables.
Luckily, no lives were lost in the attack, which was defused after several members of the parish council convinced the mob to leave, but unfortunately, that was not the case in other attacks. In another related raid, 19 unarmed civilians, including women and children, were shot. In another project 40 children, both boys and girls, were abducted — the boys made to fight and the girls to work as sex slaves.
While the raid is disheartening, O’Riordan refuses to let violence win. “We cannot give up,” he told the Irish Mirror.
He is one of 50 aid workers who are remaining at the compound to monitor the situation and to try to rebuild all they have started, even though with no supplies and staff (as most of them have been evacuated to UN facilities for protection) the job will be daunting.
This perseverance in the face of impossible circumstances is not unusual in the parish priest. Before working in the South Sudan, Fr O’Riordan was parish priest at Corpus Christi Church in Moyross, Limerick, Ireland, which is steeped in poverty, drug gangs, and crime.
For the Year of Mercy, O’Riordan was mandated as one of 700 missionaries from around the world a Missionary of Mercy and received a special mission from Pope Francis to preach and teach about God’s mercy. O’Riordan was the only priest in Limerick named as a papal missionary.
O’Riordan asked Pope Francis to solicit prayers for the community of Moyross, and was never afraid of delivering hard-hitting homilies, calling drug dealers to task by calling on them to “reject the lure of drug money. Open your eyes and hearts to the damage you do to children and mothers,” he continued, “and how you destroy individual, families, and communities. Any other good you do in life is worthless because of your enterprise. To those profiting from drugs or dealing in drugs, in the name of God, stop.”
“Morale among the JRS team has been badly shaken by the incident which was frightening for everyone to witness,” said Fr. John Guiney SJ, Director of Irish Jesuit Missions which funds JRS programs in Maban. “They are supporting each other, and are grateful for the leadership and guidance that Tony O’Riordan has provided, which has proved invaluable at this difficult time.”