25 Years of Jesuit Refugee Service: Past & Future

Fr. Ando Isamu, SJ (Jesuit Social Center, Tokyo)
Social and Pastoral Bulletin issue:  No. 129  /  December 15th, 2005.

On 21 October 2005, JRS held a press conference to mark 25 years of service to forcibly displaced persons, in the Institute Maria S.S. Bambina, Rome.
Fr Lluis Magrina SJ, JRS International Director, provided an overview of forced displacement and JRS activities worldwide. He presented two new books on spirituality and education, which reflect on the way JRS has accompanied, served and advocated for the rights of refugees through life, death, hope and difficulties for 25 years.
The two books by ex-JRS staff were presented at the conference with a short explanation.God In Exile: towards a shared spirituality with Refugees was presented by Fr Pablo Alonso SJ. He described how the book seeks to give meaning to the rich spirituality that underlines the journey in exile and the specific JRS response. It is a practical book, echoing the structure of JRS, and always reflecting on people’s experience. “We must deepen our spirituality in order to find God in camps, detention centers and closed borders. A shared desire for a better world brings hope, a gift that refugees can offer”, said Fr Alonso SJ.

Horizons of learning: 25 years of JRS education was presented by Sr Lolin Menendez RSCJ. “Education can give displaced people hope, and in this sense it is as important as food, shelter and water. A time of exile can be used to provide skills and a sense of future in a terrible situation. Education is not just about schools, books and academic learning. Programs such as education about conflict resolution are very useful, and can mobilize leadership, monitor human rights abuses and even improve health. The book is a celebration of efforts made by refugees to educate their children or themselves. It also celebrates JRS workers worldwide who believe in the power of education,” said Sr Menendez RSCJ. On 14 November 1980 when Fr General Pedro Arrupe SJ called on Jesuits to establish a service to accompany, serve and advocate for refugee rights, there were 16 million refugees in the world. Jesuits accompanied Vietnamese boat people and provided humanitarian assistance and education services. Today, with 50 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the context in which JRS works has changed dramatically and the number and scope of services provided has increased radically.

While I am writing this article a letter from Jesuit General, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, addressed to all Jesuits on the 25th anniversary of JRS has just arrived.

On 21 October 2005, a Thanksgiving Mass was celebrated at the Church of Gesu (Rome). In the homily Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao said (excerpts): “People still follow Jesus the Messiah. They believe in the value of non-violence, instead of killing children. They accept sacrifices instead of giving in and watering down values of truth and love. They are convinced that Yahweh God will realize a full life for people, through his power, becoming visible in people and their attitudes; through our hands and the hands of those who will follow. And his word comes to us: Today, I call you, my daughter, my son, from Egypt.
We all are here because we responded to that call, in one way or another. We remember with gratitude the twenty-five years of service of JRS. In perseverance and with faithfulness they remained in difficult situations. An organization that is alive and present with so many displaced people. The Jesuit Refugee Service is a blessing for them and enrichment for those who share in their experiences.

JRS directly engages with people at grass roots, being at their side, looking into their eyes and listening to their stories. In camps where food security is threatened, with youngsters in educational projects, in protective places where women at risk are counseled, in detention centers visiting innocent people, with Christian communities coming together to celebrate the hopes and sorrows of daily life. A future has to be realized. That same attitude brings the Jesuit Refugee Service also in the corridors of the United Nations and the European Union. To tackle the causes of the problems, to lobby, to be involved in advocacy and to persuade politicians or civil servants so that signs of hope are realized for those who do not have a voice. Indeed, that is the Jesuit Refugee Service at work. They are an example of faith-centered action which is an inspiring example for many to follow.
Bringing individuals together, in dedicated service, seemingly powerless, but prepared to go his way, following Jesus the Messiah. Believing that together with others it is possible to realize signs of that Kingdom. I hope and pray that we remain such people. After all ‘the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of the women and men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way oppressed, these are the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties, of the followers of Jesus Christ.'”

Bangkok, the origin of the Regional office of JRS fully involved in its beginning with Vietnamese Boat People, Cambodian and Laotian refugees celebrated quietly the 25th anniversary of JRS. A Jesuit of the JRS team there reflecting on his experiences says: “One thing is clear: refugees are dangerous people. All governments instinctively realize this fact. Why else do nations and their media treat refugees as unwanted criminals, the source of all evils in the countries they enter?

Once they enter your life, as they did mine, they change a person, as they did me. They challenge deeply held, albeit probably largely unexamined, assumptions and presumptions. Just by being who they are, refugees will discover for you that many of these assumptions and presumptions are empty of true value, and even full of unseen violence. Let a refugee enter your life and touch it, a person will no longer be able, without terrible violence to the self, to view the world and its mechanisms from the comfortable viewpoint of before.

Refugees rewrite the history of the world, from the point of view of the dispossessed and powerless. Refugees enable people, like me, to begin to re-configure our own lives, again from the point of view of the disadvantaged, unwanted and marginalized.
Refugees are dangerous because they mediate conversion, change. And personal change implies change in all and every aspect of life. For many, this is a most disturbing reality.

This is, of course, a highly charged spiritual process of conversion and of subsequent adjustment to the call of that Divine Reality Christians call ‘The Father.’ Other faith traditions and other people of good will have their own ways of referring to this personal experience. The call is to see every human being as a sister or brother, children of the same ‘Father’, to remove violence far from ourselves.

Refugees reveal the sin of the world, and what the violence of sin does to human beings, ourselves included. Refugees reveal the structural sin embedded in the world’s contemporary systems, be they political, economic, military, educational, social, medical, etc. Despite the good efforts of so many good, intelligent, well-qualified and well-motivated people using their talents and their efforts to improve society, refugees reveal the rottenness at the heart of all systems. Above all refugees reveal, to those who dare to be touched by them, the complicity, again often not noticed, of all people, myself included, in this sin of the world. Refugees reveal a task still to be accomplished.

So, my refugee friends, whom I deeply admire for your incredible courage, resilience, creativity and humanity, a huge ‘Thank you.’ Your retention of your own humanity despite your often appalling treatment and experiences, is, for me, a mystery of the power of God’s tremendous loving compassion in your lives, and is a challenge to a world so clearly in need of loving compassion. I thank my Jesuit superiors and JRS for allowing me the opportunity to meet you, to know you, and to be touched by you. Above all, thank you, my refugee friends, for befriending me.”

On 15 October, a gathering of ninety present and past JRS workers came together at River View College in Sydney to celebrate 25 years of accompanying, serving and defending the rights of refugees and other forcibly displaced people. It was an evening for sharing reflections and reconnecting with old friends.

But the night was also tinged with sadness. Currently, 50 million people worldwide are forced to move from their homes either within their own country or across national borders. The goal of Fr Pedro Arrupe was to establish an organization that would provide practical, unobtrusive assistance to people displaced by the Indochinese war. When JRS was founded there were 16 million refugees worldwide: as that population has expanded year by year, so has the work of JRS. Fr Mark Raper SJ, International Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service from 1990 to 2000, spoke at the JRS dinner. In his talk, Mark recalled refugees and volunteers who had helped shape the spirit of JRS.

He reiterated the philosophy that drives the organization, a style that begins in accompanying refugees, and shapes its service and advocacy from that accompaniment. It also sets out to work where there are few resources and where the greatest need is.

“Discussion and the search for solutions on migration issues must start by recognizing its human aspects,” said Fr Michael Schoepf SJ, Assistant Director, JRS Europe, addressing a conference on ‘Migration in Europe: Political Vision for Change in European Societies on 21 October at Institute Maria SS Bambina in Rome. The Conference was organized to mark the 25th anniversary of JRS.

Ms Angela Martini, European Commission Directorate for Justice, Liberty and Security, a main speaker at the Conference stressed the three European priorities of the Hague Program, as it is known: a clear consolidation of legal immigration, which would involve securing legal status for all regular migrants; a fight against irregular immigration involving the strengthening of European Union borders and more cooperation between migrants’ countries of origin and the EU member states; and a safe and generous asylum policy.

After congratulating JRS on 25 years of service to refugees, her contribution concentrated on what she called the ´asylum-migration-development nexus´, meaning the difficulty of distinguishing between migrants and asylum seekers, and the importance of working together with refugee producing countries on development policies to combat the reasons why people flee. She also saw integration of asylum seekers and refugees as important. To this end, she supported policies that allow asylum seekers to work.

The origin of JRS is closely linked to the issue of Vietnamese Boat People and although Japan was never willing to accept refugees as many other industrial countries did, she has been very generous in providing financial assistance especially to UNHCR and other international organizations caring for refugees. As regards our Japanese Jesuit Province it is worthy to note that around the time JRS was starting to get organized, first the Asian Relations Center of Sophia University (Tokyo) and later on the University itself became actively involved in the issue of Khmer and Vietnamese refugees sheltered in the temporary camps of Thailand. Under the leadership of the University at the time, many students had the opportunity to work as volunteers in those refugee camps for short periods of time. Although this program had a short life many young people were able to experience how miserable the life of refugees was. The camps degraded people humanly and spiritually. Thousands of displaced persons were refused the status of refugees, treated as illegal occupants and even evicted from a few feet of beach to sit or lay their heads. Refugees are political beggars and they are deprived of the most elementary human right. Two publications of the Asian Relations Center: “Documentary: BOAT PEOPLE, Today’s Untouchables” (1978) and “REFUGEES, the Cry of the Indochinese” (1980) recall in vivid images the tragic situations that provoked the establishment of JRS by the Jesuits. At present the Institute for the Study of Social Justice of Sophia University keeps contacts with JRS in Africa where sponsors some programs for refugees there. The Institute also sporadically has held some international symposia on world refugee issues.

The Jesuit Social Center of Tokyo, the liaison office for JRS in Japan, has been deeply involved with various JRS programs in East Asia mainly through the Regional office in Bangkok (Thailand) and has promoted national campaigns in Japan against anti-personal landmines in collaboration with JRS Cambodia. The center promotes independent development programs in Vietnam and Cambodia together with other Japanese groups. In Japan, as well, has been involved with advocacy activities for refugees and displaced persons from the Indochina region living in Japan. At present because of the serious situation of hundreds of thousands of foreign workers that are now working in Japan one of the main focuses of our work is their pastoral care and advocacy tasks.

(This article was edited from the reports on the site of JRS International.
For further information see http://www.jrs.net/reports/)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s