WHEELING, WV, June 11, 2010 — Wheeling Jesuit University’s director of the Service for Social Action Center, Erin McDonald, has a new assignment this fall with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). After five years of working with WJU students and connecting them to both national and international service opportunities, she will become the project director of educational programs in a Rwandan refugee camp this August.
The two-year assignment in Africa is one that she is very passionate about pursuing. In fact, she first explored the option last summer when she decided that the time was right for her to pursue international service opportunities with Jesuit Refugee Service. The application process is lengthy but worth the wait. (Erin is shown at right, packing up her office.)
“Since I was in high school and younger, serving others has been a significant part of who I am,” she said. “I want to serve the poor and especially the desperately poor. Globally, people displaced by natural and man-made disasters are one of the neediest populations in our world today and I hope that I am able to do my part to alleviate the suffering of those individuals, most especially the children.”
The exact location of her refugee camp and new home is Kibuye, Rwanda, near one of Africa’s Great Lakes, Lake Kivu. That’s about 7,000 miles from her hometown of Cape Cod, Mass.
McDonald first came to Wheeling Jesuit as a transfer student in 2001 after visiting Wheeling during a service immersion trip to our area, which was sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Joseph (now the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph). At the time she was a student at Regis College, just outside Boston, which is run by the Sisters of Saint Joseph.
There are about 18,000 displaced people living in the camp that she’s heading to in Rwanda. Most of the refugees fled to the Rwandan camp because of violence and extreme poverty in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples have been ongoing over the years. The camp has been in existence since late 1990s and it houses about 4,500 school age children. Though McDonald is just 30 years old and has never been to Africa, she is looking forward to her new ministry, the new people she will meet and the challenges she will face in adjusting to life and work in central Africa.
“My past five years working in the Service for Social Action Center have lead me to a desire to live and work in the third world; to live in simplicity and solidarity with those most in need,” she said.
McDonald took students on many service trips to areas like El Salvador, Mexico, New Orleans, rural Appalachia and other poor struggling communities in the U.S.
“I’m ready and excited for this new transition. I have had an interest in serving overseas and with JRS for a while and I feel that my experiences as the director of the Service for Social Action Center have prepared me well for this next step into more challenging international service,” she said.
She doesn’t know anyone there first hand, though she has received support from JRS and has communicated via e-mail with JRS staff in central Africa, including Irish Jesuit priest, Father Gerry Clarke, who is the JRS Country Director in Rwanda. Clarke lives and works in a refugee camp in northern Rwanda and has served with JRS since 2008.
This is a big life transition for McDonald who has also consulted with her colleague, Rev. Harry Geib, S.J. who works in the office of Campus Ministry at Wheeling Jesuit. Geib has served in refugee camps with JRS oversees on three different occasions. He served with displaced people in Thailand, Malaysia, and Uganda.
"I am happy for Erin that she has this opportunity to accompany the Congolese adults and children in the Rwandan camp. Her experience in community service and social work, as well as her positive energy, will be a gift to them, especially for the thousands of children whom she will assist," Geib said.
McDonald will live in a house in the refugee camp and will have to learn a lot, including language skills (French is the official language of Rwanda), international driving and culture. The diet and climate will be a change too, though the landscape is similar to West Virginia in its hills and rural regions. Rwanda is often referred to as the country of a thousand hills because of the green rolling landscape.
Jesuit Refugee Service is an international Catholic organization, at work in more than 50 countries, which has a mission to accompany, serve and defend the rights of refugees and displaced people.
Set up by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1980, JRS is a worldwide network of associates and institutions of this Catholic religious order. It serves refugees, offering them practical and spiritual support, according to their humanitarian needs, regardless of their beliefs.
Wheeling Jesuit University is one of 28 Jesuit institutions of higher learning in the United States. WJU's Service for Social Action Center coordinates service and course-based service-learning activities for members of the campus community.