My experience as a former refugee

22 June 2020

At our 2020 World Refugee Day Event: Sharing the Lives of Refugees, speaker Taban Patrick Consantino SJ told us about his experience as a young refugee in Uganda, his journey to becoming a Jesuit priest, and vocation to advocating for the rights of the marginalised.

My name is Taban Patrick Consantino SJ; I was born in South Sudan in 1987. I grew up in the Magburu refugee settlement camp, Adjumani, Uganda. I have two brothers and two sisters. My parents and siblings got repatriated to South Sudan in 2008, again were forced to leave in 2016. Presently, they live in different refugee camps in Uganda.

The name “Taban” is an Arabic word, meaning “tired.” The name was given to me in the light of the experiences of war and it also reflects the subsequent experiences of the refugee camps. I have lived and heard many stories of what it means to grow up as a refugee. Being tired is one way of looking at it. For me, it is important to explore other perspectives, in order to highlight not only the negative aspects of the experience, but also the possibility of rising above the difficulties and bitterness.

My worldview growing up in a refugee camp was full of negativity: helplessness, hunger, thirst, nakedness, loneliness, hatred, and so forth. But at some point, I began to see that even though I had found myself in an undesirable situation, I was not condemned to it. With time, hope increased as I began to recognize the blessings and the opportunities that were present even in that situation.

I often recall the moments of lacking sufficient food, clothing, and other basic needs. Now when I see children growing up in a similar situation, I cannot hold back wanting to listen to them and offering whatever I can to assist them. Having been there myself, I can connect easily with their experience of lack and helplessness.

In the refugee camp, what seemed to matter most were the immediate needs, and for me, education was not one of them. It was my mother who taught me to see education as a priority. When I was seven, she took me to a nursery school. On the first day of my experience, I was shocked; I sang and was given porridge with sugar for breakfast. But this never made sense to me. The following day, I told my Mom that I didn’t want to go to nursery school. Then she took me to the primary section, where I did not need a certificate for admission. The qualification was simply to put my right hand over my head and touch my left ear. I failed the test but got admitted anyway. There were no classrooms. I attended classes under the shade of trees and wrote on the ground. It still never made sense to me, so I asked my mother to sit with me while attending classes, or else I would return home with her.

The childhood drama continued until one day my mother surprised me with a question that changed my life forever. She asked me, “My son, what do you want in life?” I replied, “Mom, I want you to buy me a dog, a radio cassette, and a motorcycle.” She looked at me and smiled and said, “Son, I will buy you a dog and a radio cassette.” Partially happy, I asked her, “What about the motorcycle?” She replied, “You will buy the motorcycle.” I was surprised and asked, “How can I buy the motorcycle when I am only a child?” Then she replied, “You will be able to buy it only if you go to school.” Then the following day, she fulfilled her promise and bought me a dog and a radio cassette and then told me to fulfill my part by going to school. Later on, I became passionate about schooling. I worked so hard to perform well in school with the aim of buying a motorcycle. My mother saw and taught me the importance of education in breaking the cycle of poverty and realizing one’s dreams.

My Jesuit priestly vocation journey began when I got introduced to the Catholic faith in the camp. After my baptism, I took an active role as an altar boy and a member of the choir. This experience introduced me to the Jesuits that worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service and offered pastoral services to the refugees. Their ministry and examples sparked my early desire to become a priest. Later, I joined the Minor Seminary.

When I completed my ordinary level, I was privileged to get support from the JRS to complete my Advance level studies during which time I worked with them. It was through this experience that I saw how refugees were suffering and how the JRS was supporting them to attain education and become self-reliant. I began to consider the Jesuit life as a possible way to make an impact in the lives of others.

I joined the Jesuits in 2010, and the formation journey has taken me so far to Tanzania, India, Ethiopia, Kenya, and now, Rome, where I am doing Licentiate studies in social sciences. It is hard for refugee children to imagine this kind of journey, and many of them, for lack of support, are stuck in the cycle of poverty and despair.

But the good news is that I can do one thing. I can be a blessing through advocacy, joining an event, supporting refugees-owned businesses, prayers, and donations. I can get involved with what JRS does in transforming the lives of many refugees as they accompany and serve them, and advocate for their rights. The JRS has been a big part of my story and many other stories like it.