By Lisa Zengarini
The Argentinian-Slovenian Lazarist missionary Father Pedro Opeka and his humanitarian association “Akamasoa” (“City of Friendship”) have been nominated for the Peace Nobel Prize by the Prime Minister of Slovenia, Janez Janša. The nomination was announced on January 31st on the official website of the Slovenian government.
According to the Prime Minister, the Akamasoa Community – which father Opeka founded over 30 years ago and which Pope Francis visited in September 2019 during his Apostolic Journey to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius – has given an outstanding contribution to “social and human development” in Madagascar, helping it to achieve the 2030 UN goals for sustainable development. Janša has also remembered the former Malagasy President Hery Rajaonarimampianina as saying that father Opeka “is a living beacon of hope and faith in the fight against poverty”.
In the communiqué, the Slovenian Government points out that the humanitarian work of the Argentinian-born missionary and his collaborators in Madagascar has attracted public attention and support across the world and is an inspiration in the fight against poverty, marginalization and social injustice.
Born in 1948 in Argentina to Slovenian refugee parents, Father Opeka started working for the poor at a young age when he traveled to various countries. After entering the Congregation of the Mission (also known as Lazarists or Vincentians), he became a priest in 1975 and subsequently transferred to Madagascar. In 1989, because of his success with young people and his impressive high qualifications and knowledge of languages, his superiors appointed him director of a Vincentian theological seminary in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, where he soon noticed the extreme poverty in the slums of the city and discovered the human degradation of the “garbage people ” scavenging the waste hills to find something to eat or to sell. He thus convinced a group of them to leave the slums and improve their lot by becoming farmers, teaching them masonry skills, which he had learned as a young boy from his father, so they could build their own homes. The idea was to give these people a house, a decent job and an education. Since then the project has grown by leaps and bounds, offering housing, work, education and health services to thousands of poor Malgasies with the support of many international donors and friends of the association.
During his visit to the Akamasoa City of Friendship, on September 8, 2019, Pope Francis remarked that at its foundations “is a living faith translated into concrete actions capable of ‘moving mountains’” and that its success shows “that poverty is not inevitable”.