Jesuit Refugee Service: '40 years of accompaniment'



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.

 A Cambodian woman during evacuation following an attack on refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. (Jesuit Refugee International)

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 their health and welfare, they also helped restore their faith in human beings.

For myself the opportunity to spend time with people in an unfamiliar culture and land, who had suffered so much, was precious. I could listen to their stories, mourn and laugh with them, and find my own world both cut to size and expanded, while realising that I could never enter fully their world or their experience. I would always be an outsider in a world that I admired. I also felt what one colleague spoke of as the wound of the border — a sense of privilege at having touched the pain and sadness of refugee life that lay behind the smiling front of the refugees, and a desire to be faithful to them.


'This experience has continued to affect me. It led me from a theoretical commitment to social justice that fed on anger to focus on the faces of people suffering unjustly.'


This experience has continued to affect me. It led me from a theoretical commitment to social justice that fed on anger to focus on the faces of people suffering unjustly. This generated compassion that in turn generated a focused anger. The refugee experience acted, too, as a bullshit detector in my own teaching and reflection on Christian faith and theology. I weighed theological writing and disputes among Catholics by asking how they spoke to the experience of refugees. If they had nothing to say, I happily conceded that they might have merits, but took no further interest in them.

My experience in the refugee camp and later also began to pull down some walls that I had erected in my religious judgments. Among the volunteers were people from evangelical church backgrounds, whose language I had found alienating. Given leisure to explore with them their understanding of their mission and how it worked, however, I found surprising affinities. Similarly, my book knowledge of Buddhism had led me to believe that it put less weight on love than did Christian faith. That prejudice gave way to overwhelming awe when a Buddhist mother of seven young children told me of a theft she had committed in Pol Pot’s time. She had risked the certain death both of herself and her children when she raided the Khmer Rouge grain store, not to feed her children but the elderly in her village, who had no one to care for them.

Life with refugees was also a lesson in the nature of politics and the acute moral questions that it posed. The border camps existed because they supported small resistance militia that opposed the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Other nations funnelled arms secretly to these groups, including the Khmer Rouge in order to encourage the Vietnamese to withdraw. The camps were ‘protected’ by a Thai paramilitary group drawn from gaols. For the refugees night time, when volunteers returned to the local villages, left them open to robbery, rape and terror. When the guerrillas raided Vietnamese outposts and withdrew to the border, the Vietnamese artillery would engage them, and the Thai artillery behind the camp might reply. Shells falling on the camp could kill refugees, prompting international outrage against the Vietnamese.

The moral question keenly debated among volunteers was whether agencies, whose services drew people to the camps from inside Cambodia and so provided a compassionate face to a cynical political exploitation of human suffering, should continue their work or withdraw. The faces of the refugees dictated remaining, but not without shame. The experience left a deep distrust of governments, especially when they laid claim to such high values as democracy or freedom. Positively, it made central in all evaluation of government policies the faces of these affected by it, and asked first whether their human dignity was given due respect.

My association with Jesuit Refugee Service, both through the Khmer people to whom it introduced me and in my colleagues in it, was the spark of these inner changes. They, of course, were ambiguous and needed to be nurtured and blown to flame or extinguished by subsequent experience. In Australia I have had the good fortune to serve small Cambodian and Laotian Catholic communities. I also continued to write about refugee issues, most notably the arrival of Cambodian boat people and subsequent Government decisions to detain them remotely as a deterrent — initially to lawyers, and then to any other people tempted to come by boat. I saw, and still see, this as an ethically unjustifiable violation of people’s human dignity, by using their harsh treatment for policy goals that take no account of their humanity. It inevitably and predictably led to further corruption of language, contempt for truth when in conflict with expediency, of the exclusion of refugees and other minorities from the protection of law, and to the coarsening of policy and its administration.

In this anniversary others have celebrated more knowledgeably than I could the flowering of the seed sown forty years ago in its growth, the number of refugees to whom it has helped gift hope, the depth of the services it offers, the force of its advocacy, and the respect for persons shown in its members, its programs and its ethos. Some seed, of course, fell on thorns, and I am witness to its power to grow unpredictably far from the fields in which it was thrown.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: A Cambodian woman during evacuation following an attack on refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. (Jesuit Refugee International). You can find the gallery on 'Forty years of accompaniment' here.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Jesuit Refugee Service, Cambodia, Khmer refugees, Vietnam, anniversary



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Existing comments

This is the story of a person in a Catholic religious order who experienced the great paradox of exile and salvation in his work with refugees. A most illuminating journey, Andy. Your life circumstance has given you the opportunity to be part of the lives of people who were/are experiencing exile and to grow alongside them. This has shaped your theology and your writing. To be even a small part of the JRS ministry is a way to experience our own journey from exile to salvation. It may be wise to remember that those who make unjust decisions about refugees are experiencing a sort of exile themselves.

Pam | 26 November 2020  

Thanks for this article Andy.It brings back back many memories, both sad and happy. Regards, Carole

Carole McDonald | 26 November 2020  

Thank you Andrew for this comentary on the impact of the world in which the splendid JRS operates. Love Thank you for this commentary. Love thy neighbour is the fundamental directive and an absolute condemnation of the absolutely inhuman behaviour of Asustralia's federal government. The JRS deserves the support of every Australian, Christian or otherwise.

John Nicholson | 26 November 2020  

God manifested not in a theory, or a theology, or a book, no matter how holy, but in broken, suffering, vulnerable human flesh. That’s why Andrew’s ‘test’ is so right. “What do you learn from the suffering people before you? What are you learning from them about God and humanity? How do you now worship in spirit and in truth”?

Joan Seymour | 27 November 2020  

Thanks Andy for your story and your work which makes the world a better place and without which we would be even more savage. There is a Buddhist saying that the road turns with your feet. And I would add your guts.

Michael D. Breen | 27 November 2020  

Thank you for the story of your involvement with refugees and how it changed you, I have found it s a gift to be able to work in re-settling refugees in Canada, and the policy and political ramifications are many.

Marianne McLean | 01 December 2020  

Thanks Andy. Powerful and thought provoking.

Damian | 28 January 2021  

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