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News Story

By William Bole and Mike Gabriele

Although it can be extremely challenging to provide an education to refugees—children and adults escaping violence and unrest in their homelands—it is by far the best way to aid them in starting over with hope for a better future. The coronavirus pandemic has made this task all the more difficult, especially in remote areas where many have sought refuge from armed conflicts in their own countries.

Enter the Jesuits.

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has found ways to provide education amid lockdowns, often in places without reliable Internet or even stable electricity. In the highlands of Afghanistan, for example, JRS is broadcasting daily lessons for refugee children. Teachers are managing to make the lessons interactive by carving out time for children to call in with questions on cell phones.

Bringing Jesuit education to forcibly displaced people is one way the Rome-based agency is revitalizing its global mission during the most troubling times since its establishment 40 years ago.

Refugee boys who escaped with their families into the African country of Malawi enjoy being boys and having fun.

“I don’t think Fr. Arrupe envisioned us being around four decades later,” says Fr. Tom Smolich, SJ, JRS’s international director. He was speaking of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, the beloved Jesuit Superior General who served in that role when refugees began flooding out of Vietnam on rickety boats and rafts in 1979. The plight of the Vietnamese “boat people” led Fr. Arrupe to call for a worldwide humanitarian response by Jesuits and Jesuit organizations. Out of that campaign came the founding of JRS in November 1980.

Soon after, another crisis materialized —the Ethiopian famine, which triggered another humanitarian push by JRS. These were unusual eruptions at the time, and many thought the emergencies would pass (and so would the need for such large-scale campaigns). “But here we are,” says Fr. Smolich, “still showing the face of Jesus at this time when there are more and more forcibly displaced people.”

Indeed, the United Nations reports that there were 79.5 million forcibly displaced people at the end of 2019. Their numbers have swelled in the decades since the boat people, largely due to vicious conflicts in places ranging from Syria to South Sudan. And, just as alarmingly, these people are living through much longer periods of refuge, because the conflicts are not only intense, but also protracted. Fewer can return to their homes or find opportunities to resettle permanently.

Fr. Leo O’Donovan, SJ, former president of Georgetown University, who currently serves as director of mission for JRS/USA, appropriately relates the mission of JRS to welcoming the stranger as a Good Samaritan. “The biblical witness speaks repeatedly of welcoming the stranger,” he says. “In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we see that the stranger in need is our neighbor indeed. Not really ‘a stranger,’ but one of us, part of us, someone without whom we are literally less. As if a member of our very own family were to be lost—and could not be found. These children at the border—at any border—are not ‘someone else’s.’ They are our children.”

Fr. Leo O’Donovan, SJ, director of mission for JRS/USA, shares a laugh with children at the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Ariz.

This mentality Fr. O’Donovan speaks of is why JRS has been leading these efforts for the long-haul. While it does provide short-term aid such as food and money (and the emergency list has lengthened to include soap and hand sanitizer during the coronavirus era), the agency has shaped its outreach knowing that these people are spending years, even decades, uprooted. They need schools, counseling and other help along their journeys. They need what Jesuits call “accompaniment.”

“We walk with them,” says Fr. Smolich. “We educate them. We help them find their voice so they can tell their own stories. They get what they need to move forward. And that’s what Jesuit ministry does. It helps people fulfill their hopes and what God intends for them.”

The work is further spelled out in the organization’s mission statement: Inspired by the generous love and example of Jesus Christ, JRS seeks to accompany, serve, and advocate the cause of forcibly displaced people, that they may heal, learn, and determine their own future.

Fr. Kevin White, SJ, is the Geneva Representative for JRS, working as part of the Advocacy Department, where he represents JRS at the United Nations and other organizations. When faced with the staggering statistics of displaced people today—ten times the number than in 1980—Fr. White emphasizes the all- important mission and vision of Fr. Arrupe. “It’s important to keep in mind that behind each number is a human person with a story—usually traumatic—who wants nothing more 7 Going where the need is greatest—Fr. Kevin White, SJ, JRS Geneva Representative, shares morning tea with villagers in Ethiopia. than what we all want: a life consistent with our dignity as children of God. How we respond reflects our own humanity. Is our response commensurate with what Fr. Arrupe did? General Congregation 36 aptly described the Society of Jesus as ‘an apostolic body whose sole consolation is to be placed with the Son in His suffering as well as in His glory.’”

Going where the need is greatest—Fr. Kevin White, SJ, JRS Geneva Representative, shares morning tea with villagers in Ethiopia.

In connection with its 40th anniversary this past November, JRS has articulated four basic priorities and goals:

Reconciliation. Diverse teams of JRS workers are teaching children and others from disparate backgrounds how to live together and respect one another. For instance, in regions torn by religious and ethnic violence, Christian and Muslim students have sat alongside each other in JRS classrooms. They’ve learned not only the basics, but also lessons from a peace-studies curriculum that teaches about culture, dialogue and mutual understanding. The aim is to foster “right relationships,” not only among the forcibly displaced, but also between them and their host communities. Fr. Robert McChesney, SJ, who taught English to refugees in Amman, Jordan, experienced both joy and heartache in his work. “I learned to praise God with Jesus for a share in the wisdom available only to little children, both Christian and Muslim,” he reflects. “JRS has provided the vehicle Fr. Arrupe desired—to identify Jesuits and the Ignatian family more closely with Christ—poor and powerless. In this sense, JRS is blessed with a privileged and enduring symbiotic relationship with the world’s refugees.”

Children are happy and ready to learn in a primary school sponsored by JRS in South Sudan.

Mental health and psychosocial support. Violence and chaos, along with years of displacement, can take a psychological as well as a physical toll. For that reason, JRS workers offer an assortment of community-based services to improve psychological well-being. “All the relief 8aid in the world won’t necessarily help a child with her trauma,” says Joan Rosenhauer, executive director of JRS/USA, explaining why such support has recently emerged as a priority. “And if children are struggling with their mental health, having good scientific facts in their heads is not going to help them much.”

Education and livelihoods. JRS is adapting Jesuit education to the world of the displaced. The idea is to nurture hope among both children and adults and help them develop marketable skills (as teachers, healthcare workers, entrepreneurs, and other roles such as coders in the global economy). This past summer, JRS schools in Beirut were the first green-lighted by the government to reopen after lockdowns —a tribute to the high esteem for Jesuit education there and elsewhere. Fr. Dan Corrou, SJ, serves with JRS in Beirut. “There was and is much to fear about COVID-19 for displaced people,” he says. “They are already vulnerable, and this adds an additional trauma to the pre-existing traumas. It would be easy to run away in fear. Our staff invited them in a different direction, to use this as a time to learn community in new ways. The children we teach and the women in our support groups do not have easy access to computers. So, our shift to remote learning and remote support groups had to occur over the phone, and in limited ‘data bundles.’ Even in these difficult situations, our teachers and social workers were able to keep students engaged, and communities connected.”

A representative from JRS looks from a building damaged in the blast that rocked Beirut in August 2020. JRS assisted with food and money.

Advocacy. JRS—notably inspired by Pope Francis’ passion for this cause— advocates policies…”As currently written, it implies the forcibly displaced persons are the ones inspired by the Pope’s passion. “We continue to lift up the importance of rights established under U.S. and international laws, including the rights of asylum seekers,” says Rosenhauer of JRS/USA. “It was more complicated during the pandemic, with borders across the world closed. But even in a pandemic, you need to find a way to help people in desperate situations. They shouldn’t be sent back to situations that threaten their lives.”

JRS is now at work in 56 countries, serving nearly 800,000 refugees who have fled their countries. As Fr. Smolich emphasizes, “They have stories to tell.”

Patience Mhlanga, who spent five years in a refugee camp and was educated by JRS, went on to receive a degree at Fairfield University and studied Theology at Duke before joining the Peace Corps.

A wonderful example is Patience Mhlanga, who was 11 years old when her family fled Zimbabwe after her father was reported to authorities because he voted for an opposition political party. They eventually settled in a refugee camp in Zambia, where Patience was able to restart her education in a JRS classroom. After five difficult years, the family resettled in Bridgeport, Conn. Patience went on to attend Fairfield University, a Jesuit school, and from there pursued a graduate theology degree at Duke University before returning to Zambia as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Now she’s getting a master’s in public health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “As a Catholic woman and a Jesuit-educated woman, I hope to give back and always remind myself that God has given me a bigger calling in this world,” she says in a testimony circulated by JRS. “I hope to use my education to help others flourish.”

“The earliest Jesuits founded a Society on this: begin with reality; be grounded in love; let your response be defined by creativity,” says Fr. Corrou in Beirut. “The sin of a continued and growing presence of refugees in our world must summon in us a call to action. The lives of these refugees are models of the grace that abounds and gives hope to us in our response.”