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Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and others mourn sudden loss of colleague

Regional Project Manager Sheku Sillah ‘cared about people’

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Sheku Sillah was PDA’s Regional Project Manager for Africa and Asia. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Friends and colleagues of a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance employee who died this month are celebrating his life with kind words and remembrances.

PDA was notified last week of the sudden death of Sheku Sillah, its Regional Project Manager for Africa and Asia, who passed away after experiencing chest pains.

“Sheku was a wise and gracious friend and colleague whose contributions to the humanitarian field will be remembered and celebrated for years to come,” said Dayna Oliver, PDA Associate for International Program Administration. “He will be missed by many but never forgotten by those fortunate enough to have known him.”

Other individuals shared similar comments about Sillah, who forged a strong bond with coworkers and ministry area partners over the years.

“Sheku Sillah was a wonderful colleague with a beautiful heart,” said the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo, Director of PDA. “The world and especially the humanitarian community has lost a great advocate, leader and gifted soul. May he rest in power.”

The Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, Director of Humanitarian and Global Ecumenical Engagement for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, also praised Sillah and the way he handled his job and built relationships.

“Sheku became a regular part of our team in 2019, stepping graciously and seamlessly into an international staff team that was undergoing unexpected changes and reorganizations,” Kraus said. “Since then, his commitment, kindness, generosity of spirit and genuine camaraderie with all of us has been a joy and a blessing to his colleagues and to our many partners around the world.”

On a more personal note, Sillah “was a devoted husband and father, a dedicated professional, a wise companion, and a beloved friend,” Kraus said. “We are shocked at his sudden death, and deeply bereaved by his loss in our lives and work. In the words of his own Muslim faith tradition, we say: ‘O soul that are at rest! Return to your Lord, well-pleased (with him), well-pleasing (God), So enter among My servants, And enter into My garden.’”

PMA partner RELUFA (Reseau de Lutte contre la Faim), the Network for the Fight Against Hunger in Cameroon, held a tribute for Sillah that included remembrances and prayer as well as a tribute video, featuring photographs of him, that ended with the words, “Goodbye dear friend. We will miss you forever.”

Many PMA colleagues have memories of taking overseas trips with Sillah, who had “a wealth of experience in the design and management of emergency, recovery and development programs in both peaceful and highly insecure environments,” according to a personal summary of his career, listing nearly 20 years of experience as a humanitarian worker in various countries, from Sierra Leone to Nepal.

Sheku Sillah forged strong friendships with co-workers and ministry partners. Pictured from left are Sillah, Jennifer Evans of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, Dayna Oliver of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and  Valéry Nodem of PHP. (Contributed photo)

Jennifer Evans, a Mission Specialist for the Presbyterian Hunger Program, recalls sharing time with Sillah during trips to Nigeria and Cameroon in 2019.

“I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to travel with Sheku and to see him engaged in the humanitarian work that changes lives,” Evans said. “Sheku wasn’t just a colleague; he was a funny, encouraging and thoughtful mentor. He cared deeply about the work of PDA but more importantly, he cared about people.”

That’s reflected in comments from PDA partners, such as the Civil Society Coalition for Poverty Eradication (CISCOPE), which works to eliminate hunger in Nigeria. On Facebook, CISCOPE referred to Sillah as a humanitarian who was committed to his job and accountable to the populations that he served. CISCOPE also praised Sillah’s understanding of context, culture and diversity.

“His memory shall always remain with us as we continue to work as partners, towards alleviating the suffering of persons affected by human induced or natural disaster,” CISCOPE wrote. “May the good Lord assuage the pains of the family and loved ones he’s left behind and may the soul of the faithful departed rest in peace.”

Because of the nature of PDA’s work, Sillah often helped people through some of the worst times in their lives.

“He always had words of wisdom and compassion,” González-Castillo said. “I remember many moments where he shared words of hope and encouragement during difficult times.”

Sheku Sillah, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s Regional Project Manager for Asia and Africa, is shown in the front row near the center distributing water filters to a school in Nepal. (Contributed photo)

Sillah explained his motivation in a 2020 article. “I love seeing the lives of people change,” he said. “So that’s why I have my partners who go to hard-to-reach areas. You see people you met with nothing, and now they’re happy, their kids are happy. For me it means a lot of satisfaction.”

Kraus tells a story about Sillah helping people to recover from a natural disaster in the Philippines.

“Sheku Sillah first came into our PDA world during the Super typhoon Haiyan response in the Philippines, responding to a request by our partners in the United Church of Christ in the Philippines to walk alongside their ongoing response to the destruction and to mentor their rapidly developing expertise in disaster response, mitigation and risk reduction,” she said. “He proceeded to become our field manager in Nepal after the devastating earthquake there, identifying and nurturing two groups of young, passionate leaders who wanted to be a part of the repair and development of their people.”

Sillah and organizations such as Juneli Nepal and Together for Nepal helped transform the “lives and communities of remote villages, their women, children and men,” who achieved “restoration, hope, dignity and a stronger future,” Kraus continued. “All of these organizations, so carefully nurtured and built, responded robustly throughout Covid and continue today as strong partners of PDA/PC(USA) in the work of supporting the vulnerable, eradicating poverty, and building more resilient communities. Without Sheku’s dedication, vision and commitment, so many opportunities would have been lost.”

Sillah will be remembered fondly by people like Anjila Khadka, president of Juneli Nepal, a nonprofit that works to empower women.

“The loss of a person like him is something that can never be recovered,” she wrote on Facebook. “He has always been an essential part of our organization. Juneli Nepal is forever grateful and thankful for all the immense love and support through all these years. … A man may die, but his legacy will continue through his deeds.”

PDA and PHP are part of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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