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By William Bole

Jesuit Refugee Service finds new ways to serve, amid a pandemic and ever-growing numbers of forcibly displaced people

It’s challenging enough to provide an education to refugee children — who, together with their families, are escaping violence and unrest in their homelands. The pandemic has made the task all the more unlikely, especially in remote stretches like the mountains of central Afghanistan, where many have sought refuge from armed conflict elsewhere in the country.

Father Tom Smolich, SJ, international director of Jesuit Refugee Service, Chad, 2018

Enter the Jesuits.

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is finding ways to keep up the learning amid lockdowns — often in places without reliable internet or even stable electricity. In those 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 ministry is revitalizing its global mission — in the most troubling times since its establishment 40 years ago.

“I don’t think Father Arrupe envisioned us being around four decades later,” says Fr. Tom Smolich, SJ, JRS’s international director. He was speaking of Father Pedro Arrupe, SJ, the beloved Superior General of the Society of Jesus who was serving 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 Father Arrupe to call for a worldwide humanitarian response by Jesuit organizations. Out of that campaign came the founding of JRS in November 1980.

Father Pedro Arrupe, SJ (third from left), 28th Superior General of the Society of Jesus
and founder of JRS, Saigon

That year, another crisis materialized — the Ethiopian famine, which triggered another humanitarian push by the Jesuits. These were unusual eruptions at the time, and many thought the emergencies would pass, as would the need for such large-scale campaigns. “But here we are,” says Fr. Smolich, “still showing the face of Jesus at a 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 conflicts in places ranging from Syria to South Sudan. And, just as alarming, 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 permanently resettle.

In light of this reality, JRS is playing a long game. It does provide short-term aid such as food and cash when the situation demands — and the emergency list has lengthened to include soap and hand sanitizer during the coronavirus era. At the same time, the agency has shaped its outreach with the understanding that the displaced 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, a member of the Jesuits West Province. “We educate them. We help them find their voice, so they could 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.” He adds, “We listen, because oftentimes there’s a lot of trauma.”

Art therapy class at the JRS Special Needs Centre.
Teachers and students at an art therapy class at the JRS Special Needs Centre in Kenya

The work is further spelled out in the 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.” In connection with this anniversary year, JRS has also articulated four basic priorities an goals, including:

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 (between the Syrian refugees who have poured into Lebanon and the Lebanese, for example).

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

Joan Rosenhauer, executive director of JRS/USA, visits a JRS classroom, Burundi, 2018

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 to develop marketable skills (as teachers, healthcare workers, entrepreneurs, and in 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.

During the global health crisis, JRS has pivoted toward a patchwork of options. These include open-air classrooms, lessons broadcast over refugee-camp radio and online learning. Sometimes instructors hand-deliver course materials to the one-room urban apartments of refugee families and teach with the use of cell phones.

Advocacy. JRS advocates policies, practices and legislation that offer protection to forcibly displaced persons — inspired notably by Pope Francis’ passion for this cause. “We continue to lift up the importance of rights established under U.S. and international laws, including the rights of asylum seekers,” says Rosenhauer referring to
U.S. policies in recent years that have severely hindered the asylum process as well as refugee resettlement. “It’s more complicated now, during the pandemic, with borders across the world being closed up. 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.”

Father Smolich meets a class of students.
Fr. Smolich meets a class of JRS students in South Sudan

JRS is now at work in 56 countries, serving over 800,00 refugees who have fled their countries and those forcibly displaced within them. As Fr. Smolich says, they have stories to tell.

Patience Mhlanga was educated by JRS as
a child in Zambia

There’s Patience Mhlanga, who was 11 years old when her family had to flee Zimbabwe after her father was reported to authorities because he voted for an opposition political party. They ended up in a refugee camp in Zambia, where Mhlanga was able to restart her education in a JRS classroom. After five difficult years, the family was resettled in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Mhlanga went on to attend Fairfield University, a Jesuit school, and from there pursued a graduate theology degree at Duke, before going back to Zambia as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Now she’s pursuing a master’s in public health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “As a Catholic woman and 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.”

William Bole is a journalist who writes frequently about the Jesuits.