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In Profile: Jesuit recalls early days of JRS in U.S.

Jesuit Father Frank Moan at the St. Claude La Colombiere Jesuit Community in Baltimore. (Sean Lengell — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Sunday, May 01, 2016

(Washington, D.C.) May 1, 2016 – When Fr. Frank Moan S.J. got the green light from his Jesuit superiors to start a United States branch of Jesuit Refugee Service in 1982, he faced an uphill struggle. The spartan office handed him had no desk, chair or telephone. He had no employees. His annual of budget $25,000 meant he had to beg for extra money just to keep the fledgling nonprofit afloat. And having no experience running an NGO, he faced steep learning curve.

But what Fr. Moan lacked in resources was more than matched with a burning passion and vision for helping refugees. He had seen first-hand the plight of desperate refugees in Southeast Asia and believed that prosperous nations like the United States had a moral imperative to help. By the time he left Jesuit Refugee Service/USA in 1986, the seeds he had sown already were blossoming into what would become a thriving and respected organization that today serves hundreds of thousands of people annually in more 45 countries.

Fr. Moan, 89, speaking from his home in the St. Claude La Colombiere Jesuit Community in Baltimore, recently shared with JRS/USA his recollections of those early years as the organization’s founding director, his thoughts on the current global refugee crisis and how he became a Jesuit. 

Question: When did you work for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA?       

Fr. Frank Moan: (JRS) celebrated its 35th anniversary last year, but that was (for the international office). JRS/USA didn’t start until 1982. So I was there from ’82 to ’86. And then I founded a different organization called Refugee Voices by which I did public education in this country about the refugee situation.

Q: How did JRS/USA come about?

FM: At that time in the early ‘80s I was the chaplain at Georgetown Law. And one day a fellow Jesuit whom I’d known since we were in studies (together) was visiting Georgetown, and he called me up and asked me if we could go to dinner that night. I knew that he was working at a refugee camp in Thailand and I thought he was going to ask me to come over there, which is what he did. So I went to Thailand just for the summer. He wanted me to do some educational projects since I had been in education for many years. So I spent the summer there in the Hmong camps, and it was a great experience.

When I came back to my job at Georgetown Law I heard a rumor in the province that the American (Jesuit) Assistancy was going to start a branch of Jesuit Refugee Service. Well, I knew right away that was the job I wanted. So I wrote to my own provincial at the time and asked him if he had anything to say about it and would he recommend me for that position, and so he did, he recommended me to Fr. John O’Callaghan, who was the head of the Jesuit office in Washington at that time. So Jack called me in and we had an interview. I have no idea if other people were interviewed or not, because it was all very quick.

Finally one day Jack said to me that I could start the day after Labor Day… I was told I had $25,000 promised for (each of) the first three years. I had to support myself and start an office. The Jesuit headquarters gave me an office; it didn’t have a desk in it, didn’t have a telephone, didn’t have a chair, I had to start from very scratch. And I was the only person, too, in the office…

My job was to get Jesuits and other religious and other volunteers to go and work in the refugee camps. Frequently the project involved some sort of educational program. So that’s how we began. I started contacting all the Jesuit colleges and universities in the country, trying to find out if they were doing anything with refugees in their own programs, and it grew on from there. I also started begging for money… I was responsible to the (Jesuit) provincials of the United States, so each year I would ask them for more money because $25,000 a year wasn’t (enough).

Q: In those early years what were the major issues, the big challenges, facing JRS/USA?

FM: At that time most of the emphasis was on the Vietnamese who were fleeing Vietnam. And then there also was the Hmong, who were in the upper parts above Cambodia, and they had been targeted by the Viet Cong because they had rescued the American pilots who had been grounded in Cambodia or Vietnam, and so many of them fled into Thailand, or they would go by boat to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) or other places.

The projects were to teach English to a number of these people, because they had a priority on being admitted to the United States, so we wanted them to be somewhat prepared to come here. So that’s basically what that project was in the camps for the Hmong… I was not to be tied up trying to get these people to the United States, because that was handled at the local level there. My principle job was to get other Jesuits and religious involved in the refugee work. And we did get a number of people to go. 

Q: So you wore many hats. You wore all hats, basically.

FM: Yeah, I did everything. I did a lot of talking. I did a lot of writing. I wrote some op-ed pieces.

Q: How are the challenges facing JRS/USA now different than when you started in the early 1980s?

FM: Now (JRS/USA) is into education, as I understand it, in a much bigger way. And so I’m sure that has to be much better organized (than the early years of JRS/USA). And I understand you now get government grants. (The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration provided grants for JRS projects in five countries this year.) We had none of that. I wouldn’t have known where to start.

Q: When you started in the 1980s did you ever envision that JRS/USA would grow and become what it is today?

FM: All I knew is that it would be a bigger operation than what I was running, because each year the refugee situation got worse. I never envisioned all this stuff from Syria and Afghanistan and all that’s happening there in Greece… I accept the word from the UN office of refugees that there are now 60 million refugees in the world. There may have been 30 million when I was getting JRS started. But to me (serving refugees) is a wonderful challenge for the First World. 

Q: Will we ever be able to solve the problems that create refugees?

FM: No, because we have our own refugees in this country; the poor. There is a statistic I read the other day that one out of every five children is born into poverty in this country. They keep saying that the rich are getting richer and the middle class is standing still and the poor are getting poorer. Well someday there is going to be a revolution about that, and there is going to be the equivalent of refugees living in our own country. Well they are now, they’re living in the streets.

Q: In the 30-plus years since you started JRS/USA, have you seen any improvements regarding the refugee situation worldwide?

FM: I think it’s gotten better in the sense that more people are informed about it now. At least the information is out there. Whether people are absorbing it or not, I don’t know. But while I hate to see the pictures on TV, I’m glad the television channels are still showing what’s going on. It would be nice if they showed even more things, if they did a little more basic research…

I remember very well, when people used to complain to me about all the refugees who were coming, sometimes they’d say they’re criminals and they’re no-goods. Well, there are some of those who get through, of course. But on the other hand, for a family to pick up and move itself, that takes a tremendous amount of courage and stamina. The don’t know what they’re going to face and yet they do it in order so they can have a better life. And therefore it seems to me they are to be commended… They brought lots of extra talent (to the United States). So here I am, 30 years later, watching TV and seeing a number of Vietnamese, (Southeast Asians), Central Americans and so forth, taking their place in the ordinary economy of the U.S. So they’ve contributed a great deal.

Q: Critics of allowing refugees to resettle in the U.S. say they’re a drain on society. 

FM: And some will be, just as some Americans are a drain on society.

I was in Thailand one time and somebody told me that at the airport there was a plane coming in of Vietnamese on their way to America and did I want to go out and see them. And so we’re up there at the top of this hill watching this plane land, and they get out and they’re going to change planes or something. And I see this Vietnamese young man carrying his old father on his back because his father couldn’t make it walking. Now to me that’s the real spirt of the refugee, that my family is going with me, and I’m going to preserve my family. It’s a great image.

Q: Last year JRS/USA donors provided funds for projects in all 10 regions of JRS. Did you ever think you’d see JRS/USA blossom into what it is now?

FM: I knew it was going to blossom, but I didn’t know it was going to be like it is now. And of course that’s the way it should be – it should go beyond my expectation.

Q: You’ve had a lot of contact with refugees. How do you think they’ve change your life?

FM: What the refugees taught me was that there’s a large world out there that should have the attention that America and Europe can easily give it. And then of course, I’ve found that all these people were such wonderful people and it didn’t matter if you were black or white or Asian – they were all in need. It was incredible to see some of the conditions that they lived in in the refugee camps. Incredible, stacked up in shelves. 

Q: Tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up?

FM: Well, I grew up here in Baltimore. I went to St. Dominic’s grammar school, then to Loyola Blakefield High School. Then I entered the Society (of Jesus) 71 years ago this year. And I did what most Jesuits do, I taught at a high school and was a principle of a couple of schools. I was the assistant dean of a Jesuit college – St. Joe’s in Philadelphia – for a year. And then I got into the refugee work and did that until I was about 70 or 71. And then my (Jesuit) provincial asked me to go to a poor Hispanic parish in Camden, N.J., and to raise funds for the programs that they had going on there, which I did until I was 78, and that was enough and I retired down here in Baltimore to the provincial’s residence. And I’m 89 now. So that’s what I did. That’s what most Jesuits do.

Q: Did you think of joining any other religious order?

FM: Yes, I thought in high school I’d joined the Trappists. So I went to see the Jesuit there who was sort of my spiritual director, and he said forget that, you’re going to be a Jesuit.

• Read articles written by Fr. Frank Moan S.J. in America magazine by clicking here.

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