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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 93,  December 2003, pp. 243-245

A J.R.S. Experience in Africa

Sr. Anne Elizabeth VUYST, S.S.M.N.

J.R.S. Lilongwe


I am asked to speak about the experience of Jesuit Refugee Service in Welcoming, Serving, and Championing the rights of refugees. In fact, these are the three aims of Jesuit Refugee Service, also know as JRS.

My experiences with refugees in Africa draws from five years in Rwanda and Malawi. Both are very small, very poor countries who, nevertheless, have opened their borders and welcomed the poorest of the poor: Refugees.

My aim is to witness today about the current situation for forcibly displaced people from Rwanda, Congo, and Burundi, largely survivors of armed conflict in Central Africa and the Grand Lacs Region. 

In my years with these projects in Malawi and Rwanda, I have seen how JRS strives to live up to the three ideals of Accompanying, Serving, and Advocating the cause of refugees.

Accompanying Welcoming

The refugee is a person who has lost everything--his culture, his social background--and is therefore extremely insecure. Very often when refugees arrive in a camp they have told their story hundreds of times to border patrols, camp administration, government officials, technical committees, and so forth. Often, they merely tell enough of the story to gain asylum and benefits. They speak frequently in clichés and euphemisms. Still, there are parts of their story they never fully express until they encounter a special kind of listener. It is when they sense that kind of accompanying spirit and presence that they fully share the whole depth of their feelings, their pain. We accompany them by embracing their stories of loss, and even the guilt they feel at being alive when so many of their family died.

One old man, who looked in his 80s, but probably was in his 60s, a Roman Catholic, a catechist, sat with us as we read and shared in preparation for the Holy Week liturgies. We began to read of Peter denying his friendship with the Lord when he broke down and told us, weeping, Â“I also did what Peter did. I had to save myself and I told them I was not a catechist. I only thought of my own safety. Ever since, I have felt nothing but this terrible guilt.” We are convinced he would never have unburdened that heavy sorrow with us had we not been sitting, listening, and sharing in that spiritual preparation. 

When we take the time to listen, they tell about the sadness of leaving, and their insecurity and helplessness in the face of the violence they have seen and experienced. We take time and let them linger after discussing their business because it is often then that they will speak of the real reason for their visit.

Being present there in the camp with them—present to listen with our heart-- is so important. Very often the refugees will simply say to me, “Thank you for listening.”

What I want to impress upon you all is that we gain so much by accompanying these people. Despite all their immense loss and loneliness, they remind us to never lose hope. Though we may never be able to grant their first hopes----a life always secure with abundant food, shelter, and medicine for all their dependents--- I urge us all never to underestimate—as trite as it sounds—the power of reaching out to them with human warmth, with smiles, with the touch of a hand or arm which may fulfil for the refugees their desperate need to maintain dignity, to feel important, to feel they can truly be alive and make a rich contribution to the world.


To serve the refugees is our next aim at JRS.  

The first thing all refugees want is education for their children. This is why we attach a great emphasis on Education. It is not our only service to refugees, but it is one of our principle activities to keep their hope alive.

In both countries of Rwanda and Malawi JRS spends tremendous energy and spirit forming and strengthening not only Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Education, but also on developing the God-given potential of learners of all ages in a variety of ways. Sometimes our schools are started under trees, as in Rwanda, the only tool a slate as blackboard.

Most refugees are young people. In abandoning their countries, their homes, families and friends, they also lose that most important opportunity towards full human development: education. 

We focus education on Gospel values: the value and dignity of the person whose capacities and gifts are to be respected, the whole person, mind, heart and body.

As JRS personnel, we are attentive to girls and women to assure that they have their rightful share.

In Malawi we were approached by a woman who had never learned to read because of traditional roles, lack of opportunity, and lack of desire. Then, when we helped send her daughter to secondary boarding school, the mother started to receive the girlÂ’s letters, but could not read them herself. She came to JRS and told us, ”I want to learn to read. I am tired of not being able to know what my child says or to tell her what is in my heart.” So we started a literacy program for women, which grew from there. 

In the tradition of Jesuits and Ignatius, it is important to become a critical thinker, a “leader.” That is why our service in education has often a training component, so that the refugees themselves may eventually take charge of the education of their own children.

Our JRS National Director Father Luis Magrino wrote recently that seeing a camp without a school is like comparing a person who can walk to one who is paralysed. This is why education is one of the greatest ways to serve displaced persons in Africa.

Being present and serving the refugees is not enough. A work of faith is a work of justice.

Advocating Their Cause

Our third core value at JRS is to advocate for justice.

We have a responsibility not only to listen and to serve, but also to speak on behalf of refugees and to facilitate their communication with those who might protect their international rights.

Refugees themselves have contributions to offer, but their voices are often not heard. Therefore, they need others either to speak on their behalf, or to help them get their message to the right institutions. We have to let people know how refugees live and are treated. Often we have to champion their rights. 

For example, refugee children have a right to education. At first, that right was blocked in Malawi. Government officials did not permit refugees to complete their primary education. JRS spoke out repeatedly in a lobbying effort that took years to win. Finally, the national law was changed. In 1998, the first students sat for their Primary Leaving Certificate, and we have been able to send them to Secondary School ever since. Even such a significant campaign for justice can be tedious work. The Minister of Education himself recognized that it was the perseverance of JRS which had worn him down.

Similarly, it is often in small ways that we can act as advocates.  JRS opened their mailbox so that letters could reach the refugees, letters which enable them to stay in touch with relatives or friends, or to gain legal protection or resettlement. Opening communication is a vital way to advocate.

At other times, JRS made efforts to encourage aid agencies to speed up refugee processing, as delays deprive them for days of much needed food or blankets.

It takes many small steps to advance a mile. Yet even in the small steps we take to accompany, serve and advocate, we live out the words of Jesus:” What you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do unto me.”

Thank you.