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In Celebration of World Refugee Day, June 20: A Conversation with Giulia McPherson, Director of Advocacy and Operations at Jesuit Refugee Service

By Kristen Smith

As of May 2022, more than 100 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order.

The numbers are shocking. As the recently released UNHCR’s 2021 Global Trends Report indicates, global displacement numbers have increased nearly 8% from last year — the highest level since records began.

Giulia McPherson, Director of Advocacy and Operations at Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS)/USA for the past seven years, has witnessed this dramatic and rapid surge, particularly with recent world events such as the Ukraine crisis, during which about 7.5 million people crossed the border and became refugees in only two months.

As international conflicts, and violence continue, along with the ongoing disruption of COVID-19 presents numerous challenges, JRS’s impact continues to stretch beyond the displacement of individuals.

“Organizations are being pushed to their limits and resources are being stretched thin,” McPherson notes. “It’s challenging when we need to address both the root causes of why folks are forced to leave their homes and addressing how to meet their needs.”

Working with a “small but mighty” team of roughly 30 people across the U.S., McPherson’s role centers around policy and advocacy, with a specific focus on education opportunities for refugees. For several humanitarian organizations access to education is not a priority area for investment, as it’s not typically seen as “a life-saving intervention.”

“At JRS, we make the counter argument that it’s absolutely life-saving and we remain dedicated to providing that opportunity for refugees,” she says. “Access to education is crucial not only in terms of maintaining normalcy and stability for young people who’ve gone through so much, but also in terms of rebuilding community and providing hope for future generations. Education is critical in maintaining that momentum.”

About 68% of refugees are enrolled in elementary/primary school, but only 34% of refugees continue on to secondary schools and 5% stay in school beyond secondary education. From certain work and societal demands, cost, as well as stigma in some communities — particularly for adolescent girls — the dip in participation from elementary/primary and secondary school remains a hurdle.

“JRS tries to address that gap, in terms of access to education, building a political will to prioritize education in humanitarian incentives,” adds McPherson.

Despite these disparaging numbers, there are bright moments in McPherson’s work at JRS. Victor comes to mind. He’s a young man from Angola who received a JRS scholarship to help pay his high school tuition when his family couldn’t afford it. He then went on to university, returned to his home country when it was safe, and returned to the U.S. with his family to live and work through a visa program.

“There are a number of folks like Victor who credit JRS for the investment we make in them, as well as the thoughtfulness and accompaniment we provided to them and their families as they struggled during a challenging time in their lives,” says McPherson.

Victor’s story, says McPherson, should remind everyone that “Refugees aren’t refugees forever.”

“That’s our goal,” says McPherson. “We want refugees to be able to build new lives in their host communities and new homes or be able to go back to their home countries and do the same there.”

Beyond World Refugee Day, we need to recognize the contributions and opportunities refugees offer to their communities, beyond the difficulties they faced in their journey.

“It’s important to honor their stories and history, but also look at their futures and see them as people with the same hopes and dreams that we have,” McPherson says. “Going back to Scripture, welcoming the stranger and seeing them as our brothers and sisters is at the core of JRS and our work.”