Leaving home for the homeless: How a New York City priest became the spiritual glue in Malakal
“I will be here until they leave.”
Seventy-year-old Father Michael Bossano’s solemn declaration sounds resolute. His streaks of white hair tell tales of many years spent travelling the world. For now, however, the soft-spoken Catholic priest has found his place in Malakal, a long way from the comforts of the city he used to call home, New York.
“I always felt I wanted to go beyond my own comfort zone. I was a priest in New York, with a nice place, a car, everything. But when I heard of missionaries going overseas and giving their lives serving others, I thought that’s what I wanted to do.”
On the surface of it, Father Michael would be forgiven for muttering “be careful what you wish for” under his breath. He spends his days in a large tin iron structure where he tends to his flock: the thousands and thousands of displaced people staying at the UN protection site in Malakal. Every night he returns to his home: a tent he shares with seven others, in a hub hosting hundreds of humanitarian workers providing services to those in need.
Yet, as far away from the metropolitan glitz and glam of New York as he may find himself, Father Michael is at ease. He is at peace with himself, much like the South Sudan he found in Juba, shortly after the young nation had gained its independence.
He did not, however, arrive with a private jet straight from New York. His missionary journey took him to South America and Southeast Asia, to Chile and Thailand respectively, before setting foot in East Africa.
In Tanzania, Father Michael worked at a shelter for homeless people. There he joined a group called Solidarity with South Sudan, a cluster of Catholic religious organizations who were working collectively in the country. When a request for volunteers to work in newly born South Sudan, he heeded the call.
Father Michael came to a country brimming with positivity. Millions of South Sudanese were united and hard at work to recover what had been lost in years of fighting.
“I arrived in Malakal in October of 2013. At that time there were about 300,000 people here – it was a vibrant town with people from everywhere going about their business,” he says.
All that would change in a matter of months. On Christmas Eve 2013, fierce fighting broke out in Malakal, the second-largest town in the country.
“It was very difficult because we were housed right in front of the military barracks and we were caught up in the middle of the fighting.”
Father Michael’s voice drifts off as he narrates how he and three sisters hid in the bathroom for two weeks, praying for themselves but also for the people, before they were evacuated.
For days, mortars and bullets struck their humble abode endlessly.
“That was probably the first time I thought we could die here.”
And yet, he is still here. He has remained here through the subsequent fighting in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and has become a household name in the process. Humanitarian actors here trust him as a peace ambassador and a kind of precious “spiritual glue”, as Father Michael possesses the rare knack of reaching out to, and in to, people across religions.
These days the Catholic priest also has a say in how the camp is run. He attends meetings with both the different sections of the UN peacekeeping mission and with humanitarians and community leaders at the protection site.
“I support both UNMISS and the humanitarian hub, for instance the Danish Refugee Council, who manage the camp. As I’m walking through the protection site all the time, I hear what’s going on. So, I can share at these meetings how we can better resolve problems and challenges,” he says.
Apart from the protection site, Father Michael also visits holding facilities and various other places, keeping his eyes and ears open. He reports any human rights issues or difficulties he encounters to the appropriate actors for intervention.
Needless to say, regional Human Rights Coordinator Christian Mikala considers Father Michael a valuable asset to the mission’s work in Malakal.
“Father Michael gives the impression of being a sponge who absorbs every incident, every situation, every fact with a smile. His daily ‘marathons’ are now legendary, as for many hours a day he goes in and out of the protection site, the UNMISS compound and the humanitarian hub with a serenity that few people have.”
Having been here through the good, the bad and the ugly of the protracted crisis, Father Michael still believes that all is not lost.
“There is hope because I see it in the people. I see it not just on Sundays in church, but in the way we greet each other, the relationships they have with each other, and when we meet, you can see it in their faces. You see it in their faith, they are rooted in their faith and that helps them to face anything else.”
In 2016, fighting between different communities resulted in widespread destruction in the Malakal protection site, prompting Father Michael to make countless visits to homes to preach peace. He speaks fondly of moments that kept his spirits up.
“One of the kids, an 11-year-old in a home I went to visit, noticed that my hat was dirty. He took it and started washing it. And as he washed it, he was singing some of the songs we sang in church. And suddenly he broke out and said, ‘You know we are the one family of God.’ Something that I still say time and again in church. That moment gave me hope.”
Father Michael is a content man. He is happy to be working to improve the lives of the people of South Sudan and especially the displaced persons living in Malakal.
“There’s no regret. I feel fulfilled. I only wish the situation would improve,” he says. “There’s so much life amidst people who have nothing. I will be here until the time comes when they can go back home.”