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Jesuit Refugee Service: '40 years of accompaniment'

  • 26 November 2020
  Stories of volunteers who went to help in foreign crises used to focus on the impact on the people helped. Today they explore how both parties are changed through the experience. That was also true in Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) whose 40th anniversary occurred last week.

JRS was founded by Jesuit General Pedro Arrupe, a Pope Francis before his time. He was moved by the images of refugees from the Horn of Africa and from the former Indochina. He saw the international Society of Jesus as a network whose members and institutions could be mobilised to help refugees during this emergency. JRS was charged with coordinating this effort. There were then there about six million refugees and internally displaced people in the world. Now there are 80 million. JRS has programs and offices in over 50 nations.

In the Asia Pacific region a number of remarkable individual Jesuits quickly came to work with refugees mainly from Vietnam and Cambodia. They were housed in camps in Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. The Jesuits joined the many volunteers in a variety of non-government organisations working in the camps.

I spent three or four summers in camps at the Cambodian border, and for many years after I joined the annual JRS Asia Pacific meeting in Thailand. Initially embracing mainly Jesuits, these meetings soon included others associated in their programs. With growth and increased complexity, the regional JRS network developed a stronger institutional base.

My work in Site 2, a camp of about 250,000 people, was with the Thai Catholic Church agency. I taught English informally to Khmer workers in health and educational programs in which they needed to communicate with foreign doctors and other officials. Many refugees valued English also because it enhanced their opportunities of resettlement. Meanwhile, I wrote for mainly Jesuit publications to help develop the network of support for refugees.

The Khmer refugees at Site 2 certainly benefited less from my work with them than I did from being with them. This recognition is shared by many who have spent time in refugee camps. The benefits Khmer participants found in the programs, however, were greater. For many of them contact with people who manifestly came to serve them for their own sakes was mind-blowing. After the brutal years of Pol Pot where they found only contempt and suspicion such disinterested love was almost inconceivable. Apart from the tangible good these programs brought to