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The Spirit of JRS: Accompaniment
Monday, November 29, 2010

JRS volunteers and staff universally report that their lives have been enriched by their experience living and working side by side with refugees. Many note that working for JRS alters their whole perspective on the world. It encourages them to live more simply, to enjoy everyday life experiences, and re-focus their goals in new ways.
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“This was the best job I ever had. It made full use of all of my talents, skills, background ….and it really touched my heart in a way that no other job had, or has since,” said Fr. James Martin, S.J.
(Washington, D.C.) November 29, 2010 – It is now 30 years since the founding of Jesuit Refugee Service. In that time, countless JRS staff and volunteers from all over the world have responded to the call of Fr. Pedro Arrupe to reach out with hearts and hands to help people displaced by war, persecution, man-made and natural disasters and unbearable poverty. Many of those who responded to these needs were refugees themselves, or local people directly confronted each day by the plight of the displaced. Others, however, felt the call from afar, often traveling halfway around the world to touch the lives of people they otherwise would never have known. What motivated their gifts of service? What would the act of accompaniment come to mean to them? In commemoration of our anniversary year, we spoke with Americans who have worked with JRS over the years to ask them about their experience and how refugees have changed their lives.

Motivated by a Call to Service 

Overwhelmingly, JRS volunteers told us their first encounter with our organization and its mission to accompany, serve and defend refugees came through a personal connection with individual Jesuits and the works of the Society of Jesus. Some are graduates of Jesuit high schools or universities, others learned about our programs from Jesuit priests who are friends and mentors and others are former Jesuit volunteers in the United States and abroad.

Former JRS volunteers cite a sense of solidarity with the oppressed, an awakening understanding of refugee needs, a search for an opportunity to stretch themselves spiritually, to meet new challenges in an unfamiliar environment and to become “men and women for others” as factors which attracted them to the JRS mission. Ultimately, careful prayer and reflection solidified this initial attraction into a calling to serve refugees and displaced people. 

Typical is Brendan Downes, who grew up in a service-minded family with strong connections to Boston College, where he also studied. While Brendan was doing research in Kenya, Boston College professor Fr. David Hollenbach, S.J. put him in touch with the JRS Eastern Africa office, where he asked to work with refugees. He soon found himself in Kakuma, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, teaching classes in computer literacy

Initially, Brendan felt uneasy and out of place; but soon a Rwandan refugee named Eric befriended him.

"I was touched how he was the one to reach out to me," Brendan said. The two young men developed a friendship through the shared experiences of feeling out of place in a refugee camp, a connection which continues today.

When Brendan graduated from Boston College, he took a position as the Secondary School Coordinator with JRS in Nimule, Southern Sudan.  

"I just felt like there was a place there for me, working with refugees. I just felt a strong connection with people. Friendships could be built, but also there was something I could give in exchange," Brendan explains. 

Building a Future and Addressing Spiritual Needs

Often, the lasting impact of working with JRS leads volunteers to a lifetime of service. John Kleiderer, now a senior staff person at Jesuit Social and International Ministries headquarters in Washington, D.C. worked for JRS serving refugees from Burundi at Nduta camp in Tanzania in 1999.

"We were basically a pastoral team. A lot of what I did there was with youth groups, both through the church and a little bit though the secondary school in the camp. Anyone was welcome to come, and in fact we did have quite a number from outside of the Catholic church," John said.

John adds the JRS mission of accompaniment was noticed by refugees:

"Instead of just providing a service or providing something to or for the refugees, they saw JRS as different in that we would take time to really listen and to recognize them as individuals. That’s something that we heard, and that’s something that we really tried to do as well."

Former volunteers often emphasize the way that JRS programs address the long-term needs of refugees and displaced people. Education projects at refugee camps give refugees a sense of purpose. They combat boredom and despair and create the foundation for a better future. JRS income-generating projects empower the displaced, who learn basic business skills and are helped to start successful small businesses. JRS also addresses the spiritual needs of refugees through catechist training, prayer groups, and distribution of the Eucharist. JRS volunteers are proud that they have provided this support while maintaining a mutual sense of accompaniment that builds trust and recognizes the common humanity of those they serve.

Maryknoll priest Fr. Ken Thesing established the JRS Country office in Juba, Southern Sudan in January 2007. Fr. Thesing said that what meeting many refugees who spoke of the impact JRS had on their education had a strong effect on him.

"We really were mentors, I think, and that was what I kind of see as accompanying these people. We were looked upon and appreciated as mentors and someone who helped them get their beginning. They would ask, "What can we do ever to pay you back?" And I would tell them, "Someday somebody will ask you [for help], and you don’t have to know me or remember me. All you have to remember is somebody helped you get started, and so you help somebody else and don’t ask 'Can you pay back?' …you just pay it forward…it’s passing onto the next generation what you have received." That spirit was there with so many of them," Fr. Theising said.

Marc Valado, a Jesuit currently in formation, worked with JRS in Belgium and Portugal. "I was interested in questions of immigration and migration, being that my family itself is made up of immigrants. I was also interested in getting to know some of the apostolic work of the Society as well," Marc said.

"One of the important things there that I did was just to show how much [migration and development] are related. Simply put, when people are forced to move or forced to migrate, they can’t just simply be held in detention, especially after they’re held in detention for a certain period of time and they’re expected to go back to their homeland. They can play a role in developing their countries of origin if they’re given access to things like education, job training, and such. I think that JRS can certainly play a role in that and I think it does," Marc said.

In the early 1990s, Fr. James Martin, S.J. was in Jesuit formation when he oversaw income generating projects for urban refugees at the Mikono Center in Nairobi, Kenya. Through the program, refugees learned business skills such as accounting and marketing. This foundation enabled them to own businesses that provided them with a steady income.

Additionally, by helping them market traditional crafts in a new way, "we helped them to find the dignity in their work. We helped them connect to their own cultures as well." said Fr. Martin.

Serving others, volunteers transform their own lives

"The poor break you open in ways that you wouldn’t find anyplace else. They have nothing. They have no beauty, no power, and no money, but they have great hearts and that’s what they offer you in their poverty," said Fr. Gary Smith, S.J., who ministered to refugees in Rhino Camp and Adjumani.

JRS volunteers and staff universally

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