By Michael Hill
The Catholic University of Sudan is not a very impressive place, but it sure makes a lasting impression.
Just moved to a borrowed compound of non-descript, low-slung buildings that surround a hardscrabble courtyard in the sprawling town of Juba, the university would not win many converts were it on a college tour of high school juniors in the United States. But to a few hundred Sudanese, it looks like Harvard yard.
They pay about $800 a year to study economics and business administration here. Another site in a more rural area teaches agriculture.
That's a lot of money in a country like Sudan. But the real currency that's traded here is hope -- something even more elusive in this country that has seen so much violence and conflict in its half a century of independence.
The vision of Jesuit priest Michael Schultheis, the university just started its third year. "We're about a month late starting classes," said Father Schultheis who has a Ph.D. in economics from Cornell. "That's because we had to find a new location."
The university just hosted a delegation from Catholic Relief Services, both visitors from the United States and people who work in the country which faces a crucial referendum in January. Juba is the capital of southern Sudan whose people will be voting on whether to declare independence or remain a part of greater Sudan on January 9.
Many fear a return to the decades of fighting between the north and south that killed and displaced millions over the last several decades if the referendum is not conducted with integrity. The students certainly know the trauma that comes with such fighting. One told of his father being killed when the fighting started back up in 1983, of going into the bush at the age of 3 with his mother, staying there until the peace accord that includes a provision for the referendum was signed in 2005. Another said he was in a refugee camp in Kenya during the decades of war, educated by various Catholic groups there to prepare him for college.
"I am happy for this schooling but it only offers economics and business for now," he said. "I want to study international relations."
The students had gathered in a classroom where two ceiling fans beat at the fetid air as a wasp wandered about, avoiding the whirring blades. A bare light bulb hung down from the ceiling. The faded letters on the blackboard talked of price theory and the supply-demand curve.
As the students talked with the CRS staff, learning of CRS' work trying to build and keep the peace in the run up to the referendum, they acknowledged the many tensions surrounding the referendum, how the country might go back to war.
"Our grandfathers and fathers fought in this war," one said. "Now we are at peace. But it could be our children will have to fight as well."
CRS is funding programs that bring people of disparate backgrounds together, trying to build trust across class and party lines, trying to build peace in a society that has seen little else but violence.
One student, the one who spent many years hiding out the bush, thought the predictions of violence were off base.
"It will be peaceful," he said. "People are tired of fighting."
Fatigue could be one of the most effective peacekeeping strategies.
And whatever the reason, if you did not have hope in the future, why would you be studying for a college degree today?
Read more about peacebuilding in Sudan: http://peaceinsudan.crs.org/
Michael Hill is a senior writer for CRS, based in Baltimore. He traveled to Sudan as part of a CRS/USCCB delegation for the launch of the 101 Days of Prayer for Peace in Sudan.