By Christian Fuchs
In the late 1970s, Father Pedro Arrupe, then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, moved by the perilous journeys to exile of the Vietnamese boat people, appealed to Jesuit major superiors for practical assistance.
The resulting spontaneous and generous “first wave of action” provoked him to reflect on how much more the Society of Jesus could do if its responses to this––and other crises of forced human displacement––were planned and coordinated. On November 14, 1980, Fr. Arrupe announced the birth of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).
JRS opens a door into the inspiring lives of people struggling to defend their rights, to protect their families and to give their children a future.
Accompaniment is the foundation of the JRS mission: to accompany, serve and advocate for the rights of refugees and forcibly displaced people. Working alongside refugees informs the goals of JRS programs, and the lessons derived from accompaniment and service drive advocacy efforts for just and generous policies and programs to benefit victims of forced displacement.
JRS Cambodia Country Director Sr. Denise Coghlan, RSM, said, “Accompaniment means seeing each person that we meet as a person of dignity. Our message is about creating communities of love.”
Dr. Katrine Camilleri, JRS Malta country director, underscored the need not only for immediate assistance to those in need, but also for continued, ongoing support. “People imagine that the refugees’ journeys finish the moment they reach the place they apply for asylum . . . but in fact it’s the beginning of a new phase in their journey.”
For 35 years JRS has focused on education as a means to build peace and foster the development of more resilient and cohesive societies.
Pope Francis meets with refugees, Jesuit Refugee Service staff and JRS supporters during an audience in the Vatican on November 14, 2015, the 35th anniversary of the founding of JRS. Photo by l’Osservatore Romano
The U.N. Refugee Agency reports that 60 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes. Refugees sometimes spend many years in camps, notes JRS International Director Fr. Thomas Smolich, SJ. “Sometimes they’re able to go back home, sometimes they wind up being resettled in countries near and far. What they can always take with them is an education; it’s an intangible asset that allows them to make a better life wherever they may wind up,” said Fr. Smolich.
Mercy in Motion reflects the powerful words of Pope Francis: “Mercy is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality.”
During an audience last November with refugees and JRS staff, Pope Francis said, “To give a child a seat at school is the finest gift you can give.”
Inspired by this mandate, JRS teams in cities and refugee camps around the world will strengthen and expand existing educational programs and make sure the potential of thousands of refugee children and young adults is not wasted.
“It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding work, because we have the ability to be present as lives are being transformed,” said JRS Uganda Country Director Fr. Kevin White, SJ.
JRS views education as a life-saving intervention. During emergencies when JRS and other agencies are focused on providing humanitarian assistance, JRS is also organizing educational and recreational activities as tools for healing and promoting psychosocial well-being. These are ways of bringing a sense of normality to the lives of children and youths, and the individual growth and empowerment lessons promote long-term, durable solutions to communities in conflict.
“Education helps resettled refugees integrate and contribute to new communities more quickly, and helps refugees who are able to return home to rebuild their countries,” said Armando Borja, regional director of JRS/USA.
JRS/USA serves as the major refugee outreach arm of U.S. Jesuits and their institutional ministries, mobilizing their response to refugee situations in the U.S. and abroad.
“As Pope Francis has spoken about the Year of Mercy, what I draw from it is asking us to extend the hand of the Church to those most in need. That’s what JRS is fundamentally all about,” said Fr. Smolich.
More on the Web: Listen to an interview with Jesuit Refugee Service International Director Fr. Thomas Smolich, SJ, JRS Cambodia Director Sr. Denise Coghlan, RSM, JRS Uganda Director Fr. Kevin White, SJ, and JRS Malta Director Dr. Katrine Camilleri at www.JesuitsEast.org/JRS-interview