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Cardinal Turkson Explains Hopes to Help 16,000 Ebola Orphans

Pontifical Council President Shares Details of Holy See’s New Fund to Aid Epidemic Stricken Nations

In the face of the Ebola epidemic that to date has claimed some 10,000 lives and is still wreaking havoc in West Africa, the Holy See through the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is launching an initiative which, with a fund of €3 million, will help fight the epidemic and its long-lasting effects.

In this exclusive interview with ZENIT, Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the pontifical council, discussed how the “Expanding the Catholic Church’s Commitment to the Ebola Emergency Response” initiative came to be and how it plans to address issues and challenges, together with his hopes for the project based on the Holy Father’s support and their discussions.

The Ebola Emergency Response initiative aims at strengthening Catholic hospitals and clinics, helping families and local communities to be informed, and helping religious and other pastoral caregivers learn the basics about the disease including strategies for providing spiritual consolation and hope to those affected.

The Ghanaian cardinal also explained to ZENIT how this fund will both compliment and nourish the growth of the efforts of other Catholic-inspired organizations around the world. While many nations, NGOs and individuals around the world have responded – including commitments made through the United Nations which, collectively, has almost $4.9 billion committed to the ebola emergency, there remain some 24,350 cases of the disease reported worldwide, according to this month’s figures.

The pontifical council has set up a committee to review selected projects, and with the hope that fundraising is completed by April, applications could anticipate funding over the next six months of 2015.

The fund is open to any Catholic-inspired order, congregation, or organization and all are encouraged to apply. More details can be found on the council’s web site (www.iustitaetpax.va) and with the funds available, they hope to help with 100+ projects this year.                  

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ZENIT: Your Eminence, could you speak a little bit about how this initiative came to be?

Cardinal Turkson: Sometime this year, an old friend of the Holy Father from his days in Buenos Aires came to us following a chat he had with the Holy Father and the desire to want to do something for the Popular Movements (sometimes referred to as Organizaciones Populares), for which we hosted a conference together with the Holy Father in October of 2014. So when the friend [of the Holy Father] expressed to us this idea, [implying] that a dicastery focuses on an additional initiative I, of course, naturally, wanted to speak with the Holy Father and, yes, it is something he had at heart. So then what does one do? From that discussion, came up the topic of ebola, because the Pope himself has spoken about his concerns in his public addresses.

He has compared it to leprosy, and even called it modern day leprosy. So I brought that up, thanked him for his attention to the matter, and suggested that we take it one step further and develop something concrete. He embraced this. And the concrete gestures were two.

ZENIT: What were the two concrete gestures?

Cardinal Turkson: One was that I was going to do a solidarity visit to the ebola-affected countries, which I did last year in December. I was in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and unfortunately I could not go to Guinea. When I was in these two countries we met with the healthcare workers, the dioceses, the bishops and all those who were involved. Also, in Liberia, I was able to meet the president, Ellen Johnson Sirlief, and later he [the Holy Father] was very appreciative of these visits. He made the distinction between messages that can come from people outside and what had been shared with us in person, particularly to express solidarity. So he was very appreciative of our collective decision to go to these countries. So this is the first.

The second initiative – or the second concrete follow-up action – was the development, or establishment, of a fund to support the local Church in its response to ebola and related healthcare needs. Once again, the Holy Father embraced this; that we would do something additional and direct. Once the fund was in place, the Holy See made the first contribution and we ourselves developed a project together with Caritas Internationalis, which had already engaged, or had at least paid a visit to the countries, to help develop an action plan.

While it is challenging to make comparisons, I was talking to someone the other day that had compared ebola to HIV and AIDS.  And she said Ebola is more a structure-deficiency epidemic. It is an epidemic that became an epidemic because the healthcare structures were somewhat poor and were not capable of dealing with it; and so it spread and had gotten out of control. Now this is not to say we have a complete view or agree with these conclusions, but it does mean that it is paramount for us to help them improve their structures as they need it. One thing to realize is that because many facilities did not know how to react, doctors, nurses, and top staff became infected and facilities had to be shut down. In Monrovia, we know in fact, that they had to close a hospital because they lost valuable staff. So we knew that one of the top priorities is to be able to offer support to improve on their structures.

The second is to help in addressing the effects of ebola.  Its first victims are the orphans. Parents or members of the immediate families became infected, passed away, and left behind – what adds up to be – a significant number of children. To help with this, some of the religious congregations have set up centers to help orphans. Also, some [of the local] dioceses have set up other initiatives. For instance, one diocese in the south decided that rather than create a center, they would encourage families to welcome and bring in the orphans, so they could grow up in a family, in a household. So that is another great initiative and we most certainly want to support all the initiatives intended to help any child that had become an orphan. Particularly, we feel this way because, [we think that] growing up in an institutional setting, even if a good one, can never have all the benefits of growing up in a family. So to have the children welcomed by families, if it’s possible, is a great priority of ours.

ZENIT: There are about 16,000 orphans, correct?

Cardinal Turkson: Yes there are a lot; truly a lot of them. The 16,000 number is just a figure that “we think” are known. Our hope is to help these children, whether it’s providing a roof over their heads, nourishment, education, etc., starting with basic education which is easier to provide, support, and deliver. Ideally, then, as time progresses the Church will want to support efforts to continue with secondary schooling, being admitted to university or other trade studies, and then enter into a given profession. That would be the ideal situation: to provide them the chance to stand on their own feet, so that they lead fulfilling and dignified lives.

So this, with what I mentioned earlier, encompasses just some of the objectives we’ve set for this fund, the biggest again being the healthcare structures, including the need to equip local hospitals and clinics and to support training so that they can respond in the future to such an epidemic, or an outbreak of unknown diseases and so on.

To share it a bit differently, the fund is allocated into three areas:  50% towards health care, 30% for community, and the remaining 20% to pastoral needs.

[The Pontifical Council provided ZENIT with additional details that show that the 50% for the “Health Response” includes: financial support for Church-related health structures, protective supplies, medications, building changes, personnel training, and transport vehicles for patients; 30% for the “Community Response” includes: training parishioners and residents of local communities on behaviors to stop the spread of Ebola, provide food and hygiene kits, support families who are under observation for possible infection with Ebola to access adequate nutrition and other essential needs, support orphans, and re-opening Catholic schools; and 20% for the “Pastoral Response” includes: training and support for clergy, religious, lay pastoral workers, and catechists so that they, in turn, can train parishioners and local community residents.]

Our overall goal is to raise €3 million … and the response to our efforts, so far, has been positive; it’s been good. And we are seeing support not just from traditional benefactors, but from all over.

To monitor this and respond to these needs, we have put together a small team — only five people. There will be someone from Justice and Peace, someone from Caritas Internationalis, and the remaining three from the religious congregations from within these countries: people who really know these countries, but who are now based or frequently in Rome. So this team will receive and evaluate these applications and will see how we can best extend help and support. 

ZENIT: Why is this important to you?

Cardinal Turkson: It is important because it responds to the nature of the Church. First and foremost, the first line of Gaudium et Spes, which has always been my inspiration anthem recalls how the joys and sorrows of a people are the joys and sorrows of the Church. This invites us to express and show solidarity for all that is happening there [in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea]. And secondly, while initiatives of this type have generally been for other dicasteries such as the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, or undertaken by Caritas, we can see the value of inter-dicasteral relationships. We consider this as a kind of, or rather something alongside, the project I mentioned at the start regarding Popular Movements. But, of course, right away, I spoke with the president of Cor Unum, so that he [Cardinal Robert Sarah] could know first about both this visit to Liberia and Sierra Leone, and secondly what was being considered after our visit. This initiative really illustrates the generosity of the Church and the other people around the world to come to the aid of those who are suffering.

ZENIT:  If the final figure is €3 million, how do you hope to achieve this fundraising goal? Are there certain donors you would like to see contribute?

Cardinal Turkson: No, we are just knocking on all doors. In fact, if ZENIT can provide a check, we’d be happy to receive it. [laughing]. As I said, we are just knocking on all doors.  For instance, Missio, right from the start was on board, doing what they could to help improve healthcare structures, realizing that it is not only the Holy See and Caritas who are interested. Whether it is Missio interested in supporting people affected by Ebola, or CRS [Catholic Relief Services], or others, we are interested to discuss what we can do together. We are also knocking on some doors of some episcopal conferences and individuals that we know; all people who are compassionate about offering support. Ultimately, it is something we will have made known – the information and details are on our website as well – and every Christian, indeed every person, can make a contribution if they want.

ZENIT: How will it be monitored that the funds administered will go to the intended cause?

Cardinal Turkson: That is always a challenge. We have told the nuncios in these countries and the bishops about this fund, and we expect some of them to come forward with requests. And leaders of some of the religious groups are informed about this fund as well. And, as we speak now, one group has already sent forward a large request. So we have this to work through carefully without delaying support. I can share, though, that we do not just ask from them only requests, but require also the details of how they will report their results. So there are and will be reports. And some of the benefactors contributing to this fund have made it clear already that they are not paying for travel or for salaries. Their contributions should go right to whatever the people need. And we are completely on-board with this as well.

For many work projects, there are salaries, travel allowances, etc., but that is not the style of the Church. A check sent to us is treated very much like a charity and we will not be approving projects that contain costs that are sometimes more common place in larger global efforts. Our support is to local initiatives, local people. It’s direct delivery to those who need the help.

As to the question of how can we ensure this? Well, we work with each group directly and we also rely on the trust that exists with the Nuncios, the bishops, the many well-established religious congregations that have a track record for delivering support. Also, since we have done a visit before, we will not exclude a visit in the future to see some of these projects; we have an idea of what is going on and as a result we know what we will expect to see.

But, the most important part is that we are aiming to help the people affected. This is our concern. The people involved are donating their time and are not looking for any remuneration or any help from us to do this. Likewise, we are not looking to derive any benefits from this. Otherwise, it is not charity. We [the Church and this Pontifical Council] are driven by the need to help the people afflicted and affected by this type of disease. Let’s be focused on this type of help. If we, or someone, is motivated by something other than helping those in need, then that is not charity. So that’s what we want to uphold and propagate.

ZENIT: In terms of certain things that are not quantitative, such as the fact that orphaned children may have been stigmatized, or that priests may have been concerned of how to be close to the people given the deadly consequences of becoming infected with ebola through physical contact, how is this initiative going to consider these realities?

Cardinal Turkson: That is part of the support we intend to provide within the education component of the fund. Yes, certainly there are a lot of stigmas. Just as stigmas were not limited to people with HIV/AIDS, it is not limited here. In fact, when I was in Sierra Leone, there was an instance of a recovered ebola patient who committed suicide. He had recovered, but he felt stigmatized and found the sense of rejection too strong. Not being accepted by his family, or by his own community, was very difficult and – at least as far as we know from before his death – it seemed he could not find a way to deal with the rejection. So it is very important to us that we support people who experience this and yes it is a big part of our education package to help people deal with stigmas. I can share now, though, that one of the missions is to engage recovered patients to share their story and message of hope; as the ones to say, “Yes, I had it. But now it’s behind me and I can live my life.” We want to make sure people know of these real cases.

And this is true for all people, including, for example, married couples, in which one of the partners is recovering. It will be important for the health of that marriage to understand how they can relate to each other, including physically such as during marital intercourse and when it may be safe again for both people. So it is not only the stigma, but also the behavior of the recovered patients themselves that we are there to support.

ZENIT: Any final thoughts?

Cardinal Turkson: [Smiling] Yes. I would welcome all the readers of ZENIT to contribute!

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On the NET:

To find out more about the Emergency Ebola Initiative of the Holy See, including application to apply for support, visit the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace website (available in both English and French):  http://www.iustitiaetpax.va/content/giustiziaepace/en/archivio/news/2015/incrementare-l_impegno-della-chiesa-cattolica–in-risposta-allem1.html

About Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is a Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in four languages). She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, at times from the papal flight, and has done television and radio commentary, including for Vatican Radio and BBC. She is a contributor to National Catholic Register, UK Catholic Herald, Our Sunday Visitor, Inside the Vatican, and other Catholic news outlets. She has also collaborated with the Vatican in various projects, including an internship at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and is a collaborator with NBC Universal, NBC News, Euronews, EWTN and Salt & Light. For 'The Other Francis': https://www.amazon.com/Other-Francis-Everything-They-about/dp/0852449348/

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