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By William Bole

It is challenging to provide an education to refugees, both children and adults who are escaping violence and unrest in their homelands, but it is also the single best way to aid them in starting over with hope for a better future. The coronavirus pandemic has made the task all the more challenging, especially in remote stretches like the mountains of central Afghanistan, where many have sought refuge from armed conflict elsewhere in the country.

Fr. Tom Smolich, SJ
Father Tom Smolich, SJ, international director of Jesuit Refugee Service in Chad in 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, the international agency 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 – in the most troubling times since its establishment 40 years ago.

“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 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 Fr. Arrupe to call for a worldwide humanitarian response by Jesuits and Jesuit organizations. Out of that campaign came, in November 1980, the founding of JRS.

Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ
Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, polishes the shoes of a young boy

Soon after, another crisis materialized – the Ethiopian famine, which triggered another humanitarian push by the Jesuit agency. 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 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 protracted. Fewer can return to their homes or find opportunities to permanently resettle.

“The major change in the refugee world is that the underlying conflicts which cause the outflow of people are not being resolved and the duration of exile extends (now an average of 17 years),” says Fr. Michael Gallagher, SJ, a member of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province and Deputy International Director of Jesuit Refugee Service. He has served with JRS for nearly two decades.

Father Gallagher walks with refugee children.
Fr. Michael Gallagher, SJ, with refugee children in Rwanda

Father Gallagher began working with refugees in 1991, when the Haitian crisis was at its height, and he helped Haitians in Miami. Then he went to El Paso, Texas, in 1994, where, as a lawyer, he handled asylum cases. “I loved working with refugees and found them the most interesting and grateful clients I had ever had. They would even thank me sincerely when we lost the case!” he said. “I thought that this was my niche, and the province agreed.”

He went to Oxford for a master’s degree in forced migration and then was hired by JRS Southern Africa as a policy officer. He went on to become the country director in Zambia, then a regional advocacy officer in Johannesburg, South Africa. Then he served 10 years as the JRS representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

“When I started international refugee work, there were resolutions to situations. Now that is not the case,” he says. “Humanitarian workers were not targets of abduction and killing as they are now in many parts of the world. As for the refugees, their number is greater than any time since WWII. They are typically housed in the least developed countries in the world, where they are excluded from full participation in society. It has remained true throughout my time working with refugees internationally that as a group they are underfed, undereducated and unemployed.”

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 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.” He adds, “We listen, because often times there’s a lot of trauma.”

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.”

“We provide a way for them to provide for themselves and their families, and that is through education,” Fr. Gallagher said. “Education toward livelihoods, marketable skills – a path out.”

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

In connection with this anniversary year, JRS has articulated four basic priorities and goals, including:

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.

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 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.”

Even in refugee camps, there are people at the margins: those with a physical disability or a mental illness, or those who have been victimized. “We are serving the people who are the least served,” Fr. Gallagher says.

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

Education and Livelihoods
JRS is adapting Jesuit education to the world of the displaced. The idea is to nurture hope and help students 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. 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 multiple channels for 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.

JRS advocates policies, practices and legislation that offer protection to forcibly displaced persons – inspired notably by Pope Francis’s 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 of JRS/ USA, 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.”

JRS is now at work in 56 countries, serving nearly 800,000 refugees who have fled their countries and those forcibly displaced within them. As Fr. Smolich says, they have stories to tell.

Patience Mhlanga
Patience Mhlanga

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 eventually settled 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, Conn. Mhlanga went on to attend Fairfield University, a Jesuit school, and from there pursued a graduate theology degree at Duke University, before going back 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 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 wrote. “I hope to use my education to help others flourish.”

“Refugees are signs of hope for me,” Fr. Gallagher says. “For the most part, they remain filled with hope for themselves and their families, sure that God is looking out for them and finding God in situations where I would be severely challenged to do so.”

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