By Michael Gabriele
His request stems from the age-old Jesuit mission of accompaniment—that to truly provide care and outreach for the marginalized, we must first meet them where they are and share in their experience. Today, more than six and a half million refugees have been forced from their homes due to war and persecution. Many have toiled in exile more than five years, living in camps that hardly pass for long-term communities. It is a hardship most of us cannot fathom, and children, of course, are the ones affected most. Fleeing from their homeland disrupts one of their most crucial needs: education. More than half of refugee children have no access to primary or secondary education.
Fr. Robert Hussey, SJ, is the provincial for the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. He also serves on the U.S. board for the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), representing other U.S. and Canadian provincials. When asked to serve in this capacity, Fr. Hussey felt the need to directly experience that mission of accompaniment. “In order to best serve in my role on the JRS board,” he said, “I wanted a real hands-on experience with refugees.”
Fr. Robert Hussey, SJ, Maryland Province provincial, experienced first-hand the educational needs of the refugees in Chad.
He didn’t have to look hard for the right opportunity. Fr. Thomas Smolich, SJ, the international director of JRS, invited Fr. Hussey to accompany him on a trip to the African country of Chad, home to more than 300,000 refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan. Escaping genocide in their war-torn homeland, these Sudanese people found themselves as refugees in one of the poorest countries of the world—a plight that has imprisoned them to a scattering of 12 refugee camps for over a decade.
One of the greatest injustices stemming from this ongoing crisis is the lack of education. Displaced children, forced to grow up in camps rather than homes, miss the opportunities and resources for a good education, if any education at all. This loss of education only adds to their struggle to break free from poverty and hopefully start a better life.
This is where JRS comes in and what Fr. Hussey was able to experience first-hand in Chad. A shortage of teachers and dilapidated or nonexistent schools are two major roadblocks refugee children in Chad face when seeking the education they so desperately need and want. The Jesuit Refugee Service is providing hope. JRS trains people, many of whom are refugees themselves, to become qualified teachers for their community. They lead the charge to build schools that have floors instead of dirt and classrooms instead of huts. In fact, JRS oversees most of the education programs in eastern Chad, including preschool, primary, secondary and tertiary education. They also offer training that goes above and beyond the academic classroom—programs designed to teach about life, confidence-building and good decision-making.
Refugees from the community all chip in to help build new schools.
“You can see the hunger for education in these children’s eyes,” recalled Fr. Hussey. “They are in awe as they see their new school take shape, a school their own parents helped to build. It is truly a communitywide effort to make this crucial need a reality.” Thanks to JRS, children in these refugee camps are slowly shifting their hopes and dreams from ones of sheer survival to aspirations of becoming teachers or doctors someday. A textbook to call their own is treasured like gold.
Hopefully, as access to education increases for refugee children, and as they begin to integrate more with the citizens of Chad, these exiled people will begin to feel less disconnected. Until then, the effort to train more teachers, build more schools, provide more supplies and offer more programs will continue. With many of the refugees in Chad having now lived in a camp for more than five years, the hope of returning home seems lost. This is their new home.
For Fr. Hussey, experiencing what so many mistakenly believe is a short-term crisis has provided some insights on what it will take to address this long-term issue. “Working among the refugees in Chad has given me such a profound respect for the work JRS does and also the reality of how many more resources are needed,” he said. “The global refugee crisis is very complex. To really appreciate its scope, you have to genuinely experience it. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to do that.”