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Advent: refugees – people without past and future
December 18, 2012

Advent: refugees – people without past and future
Jesuit Refugee Service International Director Fr. Peter Balleis, S.J. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
(Rome) December 19, 2010 – What defines the existence of a refugee? A journalist recently asked me this question on Swiss Radio. She could have looked up the definition in the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention but then she was asking the question from an existential rather than a legal viewpoint. What is the meaning of being a refugee, what does it do to a person? A refugee is someone whose past has been destroyed and whose future is blocked: a person seemingly without a past or a future.

Life as a linear progression of past, present and future. We all have a past and a future, which meet in the here-and-now. Most people have a home, a place where they were born, grew up, went to school, with family and friends, in a community based on a shared culture, values and beliefs. Rooted in this past we build the present and future, with dreams, career plans, opportunities in education and our chosen profession.

No past. For a refugee, however, the past has been taken away, left behind, or destroyed: the security and protection offered by a home, family and community have been lost. Dear ones, family members have been dispersed, some or all killed. School and university studies have been abruptly interrupted. Refugees find themselves in a new country, a new culture, sometimes with another religion and value system. They can no longer refer to their past when defining their identity because it has been torn away.

For some, the experience suffered in their home country was so traumatic and deeply disappointing that they want to cut loose, never to refer to it again, much less return to it. The past is no longer a reference point for the present.

No future. But there is no future either. Many refugees feel their host country tolerates them at best but doesn't really want them. The willingness to welcome large or even small numbers of refugees has faded. So-called xenophobia is a growing phenomenon not just in wealthier regions but also in countries in the global South, which were once receptive.

Forcibly displaced people who are granted international refugee status can end up living under the protection of the UN for more than 10, even 15 years, because their home and host countries fail to protect them. Children are born as refugees, grow up in camps and spend their entire childhood and youth there.

Many other refugees are not recognised at all. Nowadays, more than half the world's refugees live in cities, often illegally, without documents, status or protection. They live a life in the shadows. In many countries, even recognised refugees are not allowed to work. Less than one percent have access to higher education, due to many obstacles, not least because it's simply too expensive. No work, no higher education opportunities, no local integration, no return, no resettlement means no future for most.

Just the here-and-now. Refugees live at the crossroads between past and future. They just live in the here-and-now, often on the margins of society, at the borders of countries, in a ‘no man's land'.

Advent and Christmas. Let's consider the life of a refugee through the lens of Advent and Christmas. The experience of a refugee mirrors the meaning of Advent, a time in the here-and-now between the unredeemed past and expected salvation in the future.

The unredeemed past is marked by the sin of the world: greed for power, riches and glory. Across the world, people are oppressed, violated and killed for the sake of robbing their land, their resources, for the sake of the glory of a few. It is such violence and injustice that refugees have had to run away from, which destroyed their past.

Thus refugees are left with nothing but the hope and desire for peace, for a new home where they will find protection. They wait for years for this new home, which will be either back in their country, or in the host country through local integration, or in another country where they may be resettled. They wait patiently, without ever losing hope, until one day the message of peace is announced, the message delivered by the angel at Christmas: Peace on earth to all people of goodwill (cf. Lk 2:14).

The existence of refugees is an illustration of the theological meaning of advent, of a people who live in darkness and who see a great light, as the prophet Isaiah (cf. Is 9:2). 

Jesuit Refugee Service nourishes the hope of Christmas. Working with refugees, JRS also experiences this dimension of Advent to some degree. There is no need to go into detail to understand what it means for JRS teams to share the tragedies unfolding right now in eastern Congo and Syria. Hundreds of thousands have fled the wanton destruction. JRS still has teams on the ground in eastern Congo and Syria, holding out for as long as possible with people who are forced to endure an unredeemed world at war, a place in the here-and-now without past or future.

This is in line with our mission that gives priority to accompanying refugees, to being with them and sharing to some degree the dangers they are exposed to.

Another priority of JRS is to serve refugees by offering psychosocial and pastoral care, and especially education, to kindle hope through learning. JRS formal and informal education programmes reach over 250,000 children, young people and adults. School is about more than increasing knowledge, it is a place where the past is healed and the future is gained.

Education in the here-and-now of a refugee's life helps to re-connect the lost past and future. One can lose everything but not what one carries in the mind and heart, knowledge and values, the spirit of hope. Education is a source of hope and an instrument of peace.

The mission of JRS finds deep meaning in Advent, striving for the hope, joy and peace celebrated at Christmas. It is about finding a new home, the protection of a new family, community and country, just as Mary and Joseph found a humble place in Bethlehem, cared for by the poor shepherds who were the first to hear the message of the angels: Peace on earth to all people of goodwill.

Fr. Peter Balleis S.J.
JRS International Director

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