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Colombian refugees in Las Esmeraldas, Ecuador, in 2012. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Tuesday, September 09, 2014

(Washington D.C.) September 9, 2014 – There is something both inspiring and heartrending in the struggles of refugees. Several years ago, on an advocacy visit to the programs of Jesuit Refugee Service Ecuador, I interviewed a Colombian refugee, a beautiful young woman who had suffered unspeakable crimes at the hands of paramilitaries and human traffickers.

She spoke of how her struggles to make peace with her experiences had reinvigorated her spiritual life. "I was tortured by images of my attackers. Tortured by the question of why I had lived, when my father, brother and son had all died. For a year I fell into drinking and crying. I did not want to live. I felt dirty. I felt used, I felt unworthy of love. It was on a visit to Jesuit Refugee Service that I meta woman who invited me to attend Mass with her. And I went to the Mass, and I felt love again: I who had not been to Mass since I was a child! I listened with new ears to the story of the holy family. And I saw with new eyes that my life may yet have a purpose." 

Listening to this young woman, I was reminded of a passage from the American author John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a quotation that I believe captures accurately the experiences of many refugees: "People in flight from terror — strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever."

As an observant Jewish woman I was asked on more than a few occasions how I came to work for a Christian, Catholic organization like Jesuit Refugee Service. In explaining what drew me to work for JRS, I usually begin by describing how the accompaniment mission of JRS spoke to me on a spiritual level. It was this aspect of JRS' work — this mandate to provide not only legal, health, educational and advocacy-related services to refugees but to also offer friendship and be a witness to our common humanity and to the eternal and unconditional nature of God's love — that was evocative of my own faith tradition and family history.

The experience of the persecuted, of refugees, of the trafficked and the dispossessed was central to my family's history and folklore. Stories of struggle and perseverance, reliance and redemption peppered my childhood. My parents, who metas activists and educators during the civil rights movement in the United States of the 1960s and 70s, came from vastly different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. But they were bound together by a common understanding that their place in the world was beside those struggling for justice and human rights. As different as their families appeared on the surface, both my mother and my father had been taught that faith had strengthened persecuted and oppressed people for generations. From the ashes of painful histories, their parents' faiths had inspired them to persevere.

My reality was far removed from the Belarusian shtetl, the segregated bayou and the sugar plantation. Nevertheless, as a child I was taught to recognize that my faith tradition requires me not only to subscribe to a set of intellectual beliefs, but also, and perhaps more importantly, calls me to act in accordance with the highest ideals of my faith. It is through contributing to the holiness and healing of the world that we live out our faith tradition. This Jewish concept of tikkun-olam suggests humanity's co-responsibility with our Creator to heal, repair and transform the world.

Likewise, as JRS team members, we are called to witness to God's presence, not through proselytizing or seeking to convert refugees (who come to us from diverse faith traditions), but by offering compassion and friendship. Frequently we are called upon to accompany individuals who have suffered the worst forms of inhuman cruelty, acts that can deprive the victims of their sense of humanity, and can shatter their faith in God or their trust in human kindness. In listening to the most grievous stories of violence and brutality, we are challenged to see God's presence in moments of near complete despair. As we accompany refugees in their journeys, those who work for JRS seek to be the human and physical embodiment of an empathetic, loving and eternal God.

Refugee stories, stories of people forced to move, to leave behind all they have known to seek asylum in foreign places, are ubiquitous in human history. They are both biblical and contemporary. They form some of the most fundamental fabric of the story of the founding of my own nation, and they are a vivid representation of the human ability to survive and rebuild even after experiencing the worst brutality our world has to offer.

I recall my first visit to an internally displaced community served by JRS outside of San Pablo, Colombia. After three days of hearing haunting stories from displaced Colombians and NGO colleagues — stories of guerrillas gathering community leaders together and indiscriminately shooting them; reports of paramilitaries slicing open the bellies of women far along in their pregnancy to demonstrate their brutality and to demand cooperation from a local village; accounts of Colombian army brigades kidnapping and killing civilians whose bodies would later appear dressed up as guerrilla militants – we arrivedata farming cooperative where JRS volunteers (agronomists, biologists and sociologists) were living and working with a community of displaced people.

An older woman, a grandmother and leader of the community, greeted me with an enthusiastic hug, warm and open despite the trauma she and her family had suffered at the hands of both right-wing paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas. "Now we live here, working to rebuild," she saidata gathering of the community, surrounded by her grandchildren, children and neighbors. 

"Here we have begun a school for our children. We did that on our own. Here you have helped us to build our homes, raise crops and animals. It gets hard sometimes, when the planes come, when the army comes, when the groups come. But we can count on you. We are thankful for your support."

At times of intense human suffering, the presence of God can be difficult to recognize. Yet it is in the stories and struggles of refugees – in their ability to renew and reshape their lives after horrendous losses, in their will to survive and forge ahead, in their capacity to open their hearts once again to human kindness and love – that I have recognized the presence of the Divine.

by Shaina Aber, National Policy Director for the U.S. Jesuit Conference
Aber was Assistant Director for Policy at Jesuit Refugee Service/USA from 2006 – 2012

This article was originally published in the JRS book
Side by Side, Learning what accompaniment is all about