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Accompaniment creates 'communities of love’

Sr Denise Coghhan, JRS Cambodia Director. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Monday, February 15, 2016

(Washington, D.C.) February 15, 2016 — For those forced into exile far from home, the fear of being alone and vulnerable can be soul crushing. But for refugees and displaced persons, just knowing that someone is there can make all the difference. And few people know this power of accompaniment better than Sr. Denise Coghlan, Jesuit Refugee Service’s longtime Cambodia director. 

In an interview with Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, Sr. Denise, who in December received JRS/USA’s 2015 Accompaniment Award, stressed that accompaniment doesn’t have to be elaborate or complicated. 

“It’s making mobile phone calls, it’s listening, listening, listening, it’s being present to people and really trying to understand their hearts,” she said. “It’s also going and helping people find a house to live in, it’s going with them to the doctor, it’s sticking up for them with the police. And sometimes it’s being quite tough on people and really (sometimes saying) ‘get off your bottom and do something.’”

Sr. Denise said that “deep down” accompaniment is about “understanding each person that we meet is a person of dignity, and really understanding their hearts that really a friendship develops.”

“I know all the social workers will tell you that you should keep your distance and all that stuff,” she said. “But we’ve tended to go the other way. We’ve tended to think that the Christian message, and the JRS message, is really about creating communities of love.” 

“We tend to have a really open office (in Cambodia), where refugees and asylum seekers can come in and say hello, and when we get to know them better they can hoot off to the kitchen and make themselves a cup of coffee, so that they feel that there’s one place in Phnom Penh where they can just come and be themselves and be accepted as they are.”

Accompaniment isn’t always easy, she stressed, and at times it can be a potentially dangerous exercise. When Cambodian authorities expelled a group of ethnic Vietnamese Montagnards JRS was serving, the police didn’t come quietly, putting the refugees and JRS staff in harm’s way. 

“They invaded the detention site with electric batons and guns, and accompaniment then meant just sitting on the floor with the people holding hands really and saying please don’t use violence in return,” Sr. Denise said. “It’s pretty amazing because the police don’t know how to take that – they don’t understand people who just sit down and don’t retaliate. 

“So that’s another form of accompaniment. It’s also rejoicing in the births of new babies and sobbing when people die and being with people when their kids are sick. It’s really about being a friend to people, I think, and hospitality.”

Multi-faceted mission in Cambodia 

While accompaniment is at the core of her work, it’s only part of JRS’s broader mission in Southeast Asia. The strategy, Sr Denise says, includes pushing for the abolishment of land mines and clusters bombs. She played a key role in the work of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines that led to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, an achievement for which the group shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

“We were part of the international campaign to ban land mines, which was a major campaign in JRS from 1994-on. We have a very big (anti-land mine) outreach program, run by the survivors themselves, to people with disability in remote parts of the country. And we also campaign for all countries – including the U.S. and Cambodia – to join the Cluster Munitions Convention. 

“We’re also a bit keen on the Holy See’s campaign – well, more than a bit keen, very keen – on the campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons, because (JRS’s) founder (Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J.) was there in Hiroshima when those first atomic bombs fell.”

Sister’s work includes intensive dialogue and cooperation with peoples of other faiths. 

“To me, religion is becoming increasingly more important in the world that we’ve got at the moment; it’s sort of got put under the cupboard for a while — it was something that wasn’t politically correct, to bring up religion … So what we try to do is to find some issues that we think the Muslim people, the Buddhist people, the Christian people, could work together one.” 

Advocating on behalf of people forced from their homeland is another major mission of JRS Cambodia. 

“We’ve done some work on all the aspects of migration policies by the international, regional and domestic (bodies) on the five issues that we picked out as forms of forced displacement in Cambodia: migrant workers; refugees and asylum seekers; people who are stateless; land evictions; and trafficked people. We could also pick out people who are driven by natural disaster and environmental causes.”

And the Reflection and Reconciliation Center, which JRS runs in northwest Cambodia, is among her favorite projects. 

“We think this gives people a chance to reflect in a peaceful way about the issues that confront people forcibly displaced and the issues of Cambodia in a beautiful setting where they can use symbols and rituals and peaceful time to really think about how they could create a better world,” she said. 

American help

Sr Denise said the U.S. government and American public can play a critical role in easing the suffering of refugees and displaced persons worldwide.

“When the Uighurs, a Muslim minority from China, were deported in December 2009 … it was the time when the Cambodian government took over determining refugee status in Cambodia from the UNHCR. And out of that was supposed to have come a process whereby people who are recognized as refugees could become citizens eventually. But to do that they need the necessary documents, they need residency cards. And this is something that we could hope that the U.S. Embassy and other diplomats could push: for proper documentation for people who weren’t born in Cambodia, who came there as refugees and asylum seekers. 

“So if the U.S. public wants to do anything, help us feed the people, (donate) money for advocacy and money to help the people. 

“The other thing that the U.S. public could do would be to really push for the U.S. government to really respond to the mine-ban treaty and join the Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines, and also the convention to ban cluster munitions. That would make us very happy if we saw the U.S. flag on board with the other 161 countries that are signatories to that.”

Fix up your heart

But amid the tensions in Cambodia, Sr Denise finds great inspiration, especially from Tun Channareth, a JRS worker and former refugee who lost both legs to land mines. 

“He used to say to me, ‘Sister, you talk to me all this time about meta karona, which is the Cambodian word for saying mercy, and he says ‘And I believe it, I believe it. But sometimes I am just so angry that I lost both my legs, and I want to stand up and fight.' So we had a really good conversation about that … 

“He gave me a very good definition of accompaniment: ‘Well, first it’s about somehow fixing up our own hearts – getting our own heart right first.’ The Buddhists monks use to say, ‘ban and land mines of the heart as well as the land mines of the earth.’ And I think Pope Francis (in his declaration of 2016 as the Year of Mercy) is calling for repentance … (Channareth)  “called it “fix up your heart …

“We all have some little blocks in our hearts and we don’t want to forgive that thing. So I think the Pope is really saying to us, ‘Come on you people, get on with it this year.” And to me this has got an overflow or a resonance with the current situation in the world. The most important thing for me is that my gratitude for being part of JRS overflows because of all the people we meet along the way, and the most amazing people we encounter — not only refugees but Jesuits and others who’ve been very influential in my life and in the life of other people.”