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Nairobi: friends in the Lord

Indonesia: Jesuit Refugee Service team members in Aceh, friends as well as colleagues. (Peter Balleis S.J. — Jesuit Refugee Service)
Sunday, December 07, 2014

(Nairobi) December 7, 2014 — Atsu Andre Agbogan reflects concretely on his own experience with Jesuit Refugee Service teams in the field and, from his perspective as a human resources officer, highlights the importance of accompaniment within JRS teams. He challenges all in JRS — team members and leaders alike — to understand accompaniment as a process of working together as a team, one complementing the other, striving to identify solutions to problems and offering mutual support in order to achieve the JRS mission.

JRS would not be where it is today without its most valuable asset: team members who work together at the heart of the organization. We need to look after one another, to walk together as true friend in the Lord. Something would ring false if we earnestly accompanied the refugees but neglected to show courtesy, respect and care to our colleagues, who are often those with whom we spend most of our time, our closest 'neighbors.'

In the field or in administrative offices, accompaniment may be seen as the process of working together as a team, one complementing the other, striving to identify solutions to problems and offering mutual support to achieve the mission of JRS. In one way, all this sounds like so much human resources jargon: teamwork, building a team in a workplace… Although we may have heard all this before, there is much to be said for returning to basics. To be productive and effective, we need one another's love, care and down-to- earth support.

Mutual respect. Mutual respect is key. For a team to accomplish the JRS mission, each member must fully understand his or her role but, at the same time, respect the position occupied by others. This involves offering encouragement and dealing with shortcomings without being judgmental and without stepping on others' toes. Leaders especially are called to know the role of each member of the team and develop relationships of confidence with each one.

Doing my job as well as possible. Being a true companion at work means doing my job to the best of my abilities, as conscientiously and efficiently as possible. Within the team, I need to give as well as to receive. I cannot rely on others to go out of their way to do things for me without being prepared to do the same myself.

All are called to do their job as well as they can: be they guards, cooks, social workers or directors. The consequences can be serious if we don't. I remember one evening in Nimule, South Sudan, when we were sitting outside and chatting over a drink. Suddenly we heard gunshots – not unusual at the time but the guard on duty ordered us to our rooms because he sensed danger. The next morning, we were shocked to hear that rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) had come looking for food, for the first time in the history of Nimule. Civilians were killed that night. Thankfully, the guard did his job well and protected us.

Stress and trauma. JRS often works in high-risk areas and with people who have been traumatized – not easy assignments. Having mechanisms for dealing with stress in the team is a practical and meaningful way of accompanying staff.

Doing things together, like playing games, watching a good film, gardening or organizing social activities help to handle stress. In Dollo Ado, a remote place in southeast Ethiopia, the JRS team joins the staff of another organization for volleyball and dinner once a week, something that has really helped both teams.

In Kenya's Kakuma camp, another remote place, our team members meet a counsellor to debrief every 10 weeks; this has proved to be crucial to energize staff especially after difficult moments.

Many people in JRS find it helpful to develop a contemplative space in their lives where they can sit in silence or share with another their feelings of joy, hope, sadness or discouragement.

Community life. Developing a sense of community within your team is crucially important for all projects and offices of JRS, and is an integral part of our 'self-care.’ Shared activities such as mealtimes, praying or reflecting, playing indoor and outdoor games, and celebrating birthdays are quality moments of accompanying one another.

This is perhaps especially so for those of us who do not live and work in our own country. Since we are far from family and close friends, fellow team members often become our 'immediate family,’ especially in isolated areas and when living together in the same house. Living in a community can be a real source of support and encouragement to team members in tough areas.

When I worked in the field, having a specific time for meals helped us maintain our sanity, especially in the evenings, when we often shared our frustrations, fears and disappointment as well as the successes of the day. We would tell stories and raise a few laughs. Simple as this may sound, these moments were rich ones that we cherished deeply.

An invitation to be compassionate. To accompany is an invitation to be compassionate. At times, team members face personal crises that may affect their work, such as personal illness, sickness in their families and bereavement. As companions, these are moments when we can show our solidarity by covering our colleagues' duties as much as possible and visiting or calling them to express our sympathy. JRS Eastern Africa, for example, has established a tradition of sending a delegation to visit bereaved team members and to attend the burial of the deceased.

Being caring leaders. Leaders in JRS need to see accompaniment of their teams as part of their professional role. Just as JRS cares and advocates for refugees, it must never forget to care for its staff. Although combining accompaniment and executive roles is never easy, leaders who care personally for their teams will discover that their colleagues are happier, more productive and more creative. 

There is no doubt that a just and equitable remuneration system boosts the morale of any team. But job satisfaction is not only about salaries and benefits. It depends as well on the creation of a work environment that enables the growth and self-realization of each individual on the team. This requires a holistic approach to leadership that appreciates the efforts of every one and takes time to ask how each is doing and how his or her work is going. 

In my years in JRS, I have realized just how necessary and important listening is. Sometimes, this is all that is needed. Giving team members space to vent frustration can be as important as solving their problem. Denying them that space only exacerbates their frustration. Listening is not just passive hearing; it is about giving your full attention to the person's story and feelings, to making him or her feel valued and part and parcel of the organization. It has to do with dignity. Real listening can be easier said than done in the midst of implementing many activities and meeting countless deadlines. 

I have known many caring leaders in JRS. I believe that I have been able to commit myself to service in JRS for many years because I have been nurtured and supported both professionally and personally. This is the experience of many who work with JRS and it is a strength that needs to be continually nourished. 

Solid human resources policies. The process of accompanying the team members starts from the moment they join the organization until they leave. It includes having proper policies and procedures in place and implementing them, starting with a proper orientation. 

Coaching and advising staff, in a way that boosts their morale and energy, is also part of accompaniment. Performance reviews are another crucial support mechanism because, if done properly, they can help to evaluate strengths, weaknesses and areas of improvement, and offer team members the chance to give their own feedback. For those leaving JRS, it is very important both for the person and for JRS to make time for debriefing, to learn about their experience and recommendations for improvement. 

Inspired by Ignatian principles. Accompanying one another is not easy because we are human beings with our own limitations. However the challenges we face as we seek to live out our mission of companionship should not derail us. Instead, they should encourage us to find even better ways of carrying out our mission. 

Ultimately, unless we accompany one another, our work with refugees will be limited. Healthy, happy teams make JRS a stronger organization. Our mission begins with one another as team members. Only when we become friends in the Lord, caring and loving one another with the right attitude of spirit and of heart, can our love then extend to the refugees we serve.

Atsu Andre Agbogan
JRS Eastern Africa