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Urban Refugees: Making Visible Refugees Hidden in Plain Sight
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Urban refugees in Damascus, Syria. (Peter Balleis, S.J. - JRS)
Bernardus colles, valles Benedictus amavit,
oppida Franciscus, magnas Ignatius urbes.

Bernard loved the hills, Benedict the valleys,
Francis the towns, Ignatius great cities.

This brief couplet of unknown origin captures in a few words the distinct charisms of four saints and founders of religious communities in the Church—the Cistercians, the Benedictines, the Franciscans and the Jesuits. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), placed much focus on the plight of the poor in the great cities of his time. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius imagined God gazing upon the teeming masses of our cities, on men and women sick and dying, the old and young, the rich and the poor, the happy and sad, some being born and some being laid to rest. Surrounded by that mass of human need, Ignatius was moved by a God who joyfully opted to step into the pain of human suffering and became flesh, sharing fully all our human joys and sorrows.


Reflections for Prayer
Bernardus colles, valles Benedictus amavit,
oppida Franciscus, magnas Ignatius urbes.

Bernard loved the hills, Benedict the valleys,
Francis the towns, Ignatius great cities.

This brief couplet of unknown origin captures in a few words the distinct charisms of four saints and founders of religious communities in the Church—the Cistercians, the Benedictines, the Franciscans and the Jesuits. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), placed much focus on the plight of the poor in the great cities of his time. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius imagined God gazing upon the teeming masses of our cities, on men and women sick and dying, the old and young, the rich and the poor, the happy and sad, some being born and some being laid to rest. Surrounded by that mass of human need, Ignatius was moved by a God who joyfully opted to step into the pain of human suffering and became flesh, sharing fully all our human joys and sorrows.

Following in the footsteps of Ignatius, Jesuit Refugee Service has made it a priority to work with “forgotten refugee” who live not in remote border camps but right under our eyes in city settings such as Nairobi, Johannesburg, Bangkok, Kampala, Panama City and Rome. Barely tolerated, often homeless or living in shantytowns of cardboard and tin, these urban refugees live a truly hand to mouth existence. Unfortunately, the number of urban refugees is increasing dramatically. Angela, a refugee living in Johannesburg, described her problem in these words:

“Life is hard here. I am alone. My husband died. I have no brothers, no sisters. I have two girls. I have to do it all myself. We have no money, no job, we don’t have food. I sometimes ask God how I left one place so bad to come here and now I am alone. I have nobody.”

One of the greatest barriers in caring for urban refugees is their invisibility. Because they are so often barred from legal employment, urban refugees live in the poorest of neighborhoods, distant from city services. Festus, an asylum seeker in Kampala, Uganda, is typical. He begins his search for employment each day at 5:00 a.m., walking six miles to the downtown market where on a good day he may earn between fifty cents and a dollar. Later in the day, he spends long hours waiting in lines seeking to move his refugee claim forward. For Festus and many refugees like him, Jesuit Refugee Service offers a quiet assistance that can be a real lifeline.

God continues to enter our world with all its wounds and brokenness. The eyes of urban refugees throughout the world call out to us, asking us to be the heart and hands of Jesus who emptied himself, casting his lot with the most marginalized among us.

How is Jesus calling us to reach out in love to the urban refugees of our day? How can we make more visible those hidden in plain sight in our world’s cities?


Suggested Reading for Prayer
Philippians 2: 5-11

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,

Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance,

he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.