JESUIT Father Enrique “Kike” Figaredo is known internationally as the bishop of the wheelchairs for his unique mission to Cambodia’s disabled, many of them maimed by landmines.
Bishop Kike believes the sufferings of life are balanced out by love – a lesson learnt in a country where three decades of war has taken a severe toll.
“Right after the war, in the year 2000 we had 20 (landmine) accidents a day. Today, in 2018, we have five accidents per week,” Bishop Kike told the Assembly of Catholic Professionals in Brisbane last week, during an Australian tour that included his attendance at Proclaim 2018.
It’s a sobering reminder of the cost of war, even when the shooting stops.
Millions of potentially deadly landmines still lie dormant in a country with 40,000 amputees, one of the highest rates in the world.
Bishop Kike said his guiding mission during decades spent in Cambodia, first with landmine victims, and later with education, training and relief programs, had been to bring the joy of the Gospel “with faith and hope to give life to the people”.
“We are coming from a very concrete history of destruction in Cambodia – a society destroyed by war, by many ideologies – and we are trying to build a Church, a place that welcomes everyone, and a place that helps the people to find themselves as the children of God,” he said.
“So what we want is to be present and to make the people know that God the Father is loving us.”
Turning 59 this year, Bishop Kike grew up in a rich Spanish family and during his university studies as a Jesuit novice, volunteered for the Jesuit Refugee Service.
He was sent to a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand and witnessed the trauma of injuries caused by war.
It was the moment that changed his life.
After finishing his studies and ordination as a Jesuit priest in 1992, he immediately went to Cambodia, where he founded Banteay Prieb (The Dove House) – a place children maimed by landmines could go to school, and people with disabilities could make wheelchairs following what he described as “the Mekong model” (a wooden wheelchair with three wheels).
The simple-designed wheelchair – cheap and made from available parts – immediately caught on and started to change lives.
Teams of disabled volunteers were able to meet demand by producing about 1000 wheelchairs a year.
Just as the sacrament is an “invisible grace” and a sign that life can transform, Bishop Kike said a wheelchair for a disable person in a “physical sign” that life can change and they can have mobility.
Instead of lying on the floor at home, a disabled villager could now go to the river, be part of community activities, he said.
“We try to address their basic needs – to have hope, confidence and to let them know that we are with them,” he said.
In Battambang, where he is now the Apostolic Prefect, Bishop Kike founded the Arrupe Centre and promoted development all over the region with projects in education, vocational training for adults, infrastructure and relief aid.
The Arrupe Centre continues to produce about 1000 wheelchairs a year.
Bishop Kike has added to Cambodia’s development through his collaboration with many different non-government organisations, raising funds and helping victims of war.
He is Caritas’ representative in Cambodia and cooperates with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which was awarded the Peace Nobel Prize in 1997.
Another of his major works has been promoting Cambodia and its culture throughout the world – particularly showcasing the country’s unique and highly sophisticated dance.
One of his dance groups featured people with disabilities – proof, he says, that people (in wheelchairs) can have a life of artistic movement and grace.
Around his neck, Bishop Kike wears a “kroma” – a distinct and often colourful scarf woven by village women and worn by most Cambodians.
It is an all-purpose accessory – draped over the head to shield from the tropical sun, used to wipe sweat from the brow and even tied together to make a hammock.
For Bishope Kike the “kroma” is also a symbol of Cambodian life, presented as a gift to visitors, and a constant and significant reminder of his mission.
“We can see a story of love between God and His people intricately woven in their history and daily lives,” Bishop Kike said.
Bishop Kike also wears a crucifix depicting Christ as an amputee with one leg missing – “the handicapped Christ” he calls it.
“Jesus is in solidarity with people who suffer from landmines,” he said.
“But also I want to say, the people suffering today join the sufferings of Jesus to save the world.
“It says something important to me and all of us – the mystical body of Christ is missing something – and this missing part can be lack of understanding, lack of kindness, lack of dialogue, lack of love.
“As followers of Christ we have to help to fulfil (mend) this leg.”