: JRS Anniversary talk
The Refugees our Teachers
Mark Raper SJ
St Ignatius College Riverview
15 October 2005
Text of a talk given at the JRS Australia reunion
of former JRS field workers, celebrating
25 years of Jesuit Refugee Service
Tonight we celebrate the JRS story, and our Australian experiences
within that larger history. Thank you for coming and thank you David
Holdcroft and your JRS Australia team for bringing us together.
Look around this room. We see people who have served the refugees
with JRS in Phanat Nikhom, Site II, Sikieu, Pulau Bidong, Sunggei
Besi, Hong Kong, Palawan, and Banteay Priap. Others of you ventured
to Africa, to Adjumani in Uganda, to Kenya, Ngara in Tanzania, Burundi,
Zambia, Angola, Mozambique, and also in Geneva and in Italy. Others
here have helped and do now help JRS at home, in the detention centres,
in the office, in research, raising money or sending out newsletters.
Your actions give life and hope to refugees. Thank you for your
ready and faithful support through JRS to refugees throughout the
May I acknowledge our special guest, Madam Commissioner Isabel
Guterres, associated with the JRS for some 20 years, first as a
refugee herself, then trained as a nurse with the Mercy Sisters,
then as a JRS team member serving refugees, now a Commissioner with
the CAVR of Timor Leste, that is, East Timor’s Commission
for Welcome, Truth and Reconciliation. On 31 October CAVR’s
report will be presented to the President, who will have another
month before he presents the Commission’s report and recommendations
to Parliament. Isabel, you are nearing the end of a long journey
and a most delicate task as a Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner.
We congratulate and thank you, and offer our prayers for you and
your people. We congratulate you also, Isabel, for your nomination
as the Secretary-General-elect of the Red Cross Society of East
Tonight I propose to speak to three points. First, this is one
rare opportunity to thank you Australians, on behalf of the Society,
for your contribution to JRS. Repeatedly over the years I prayed
a blessing on many of you and on JRS Australia. Without seeming
to favour any nation, and without naming each individual, I acknowledge
you all tonight, and your contribution to the world wide efforts
Second, today we recall our experiences and count our blessings.
“A life other than your own can be your teacher.” What
blessings we have received and what lessons we learned from the
refugees, and also from the people in the countries that hosted
them and us, such as Thailand, Zambia, Indonesia, El Salvador. Let
us be thankful.
Third, let us take stock of who we are and what, because of our
shared history, we know we can do. Many experiences bind us to one
another. It has been quite an effort to track everyone down, so
let us keep contact and plan together for the good of today’s
refugees. Extensive JRS programs in service of refugees continue
under good leadership today and they need our ongoing support and
Over these last days, in preparation for tonight, a flood of memories,
stories and faces have risen in my heart. Surely this has been the
case for many of you too. The time with the refugees has been an
indelible experience, and led to profound changes in our lives.
So much is different now. What activities we undertake, how we read
the Gospel, how we now welcome strangers: all are different because
of our time in JRS and with refugees.
Distant events, though they occurred years ago, are still too fresh
to us. We may not yet have fully integrated all that happened, and
we may fear that we never will get over what we saw, endured, or
lived through. For some of our sisters and brothers it may even
be why they could not come here tonight. We were exposed to raw
grief. We were left powerless in the face of evil. We were hit,
shot at, robbed, and publicly humiliated. At isolated check points
we faced inebriated or drugged soldiers. We discovered corpses,
or traversed village paths in the wake of recent massacres. But
we never experienced more than many refugees, at the abuse of whose
human rights we often felt we were left powerless.
Despite all this, we know that we were stretched beyond our possible
imaginings. We remember characters who are as alive to us now as
if they are in this room. Time and again we have been touched in
the depth of our hearts. We learned new skills. Some of us learned
to eat Thai food and to dance Thai dancing (with such elegant models
as Andy Hamilton and Lizzie Finnerty). Some of us we learned line
dancing from Marlene Flaherty. We learned to speak in other tongues,
or rather to adorn elements of other languages with horrific Australian
Each new country, each new people, brought new challenges and new
learning for each of us, but also for JRS as an organisation. “A
life other than your own can be your teacher.”
Each refugee situation was different. We were with the Khmer in
interminable, intractable camps, and witnessed how they somatised
their grief. We accompanied the Vietnamese on the way to somewhere,
creative, eager, learning quickly the stories that would get them
through the hoops of Western immigration. A few of us were with
the Hmong people, the hill-tribe Lao, still arranged in the tight
discipline of their mountain, tribal, loyalties and obligations.
Others of us met the Sudanese: tall, quiet, dignified, valuing education
like gold. Others of us gave our hearts to Rwandan people whose
gentleness contrasted so painfully with the horror they had endured.
The Thai people, such as Tiew, Lek, Boy, Tan, Kob, Looknut, Sujinda,
Ah, Tawatchai, Kep, Took, and Toi have shown us a hospitality that
we could never have imagined possible, and which became part of
the JRS Asia Pacific identity. The African people live and breathe
a simple dependence on God that leaves all our schools of spirituality
for dead. The Americans approached tasks with a can-do competence,
the Europeans with thorough specialisation. The sisters helped the
Jesuits keep their feet on the ground. The lay people helped us
all to take time off and to have a bit of fun. All these qualities
became absorbed into our way of doing things in JRS.
We did things that at first sight seemed impossible, beyond our
resources. For example, in Bangkok one day, we got news that several
Vietnamese young women, who had been captured by Thai pirates, were
held in Thai country towns. With the extraordinary charm and diplomatic
skill of people like Ah Siriphen Limsirikul and Lek Ratana Kulsiripatana
in our Bangkok office, we worked with the Thai police and the Royal
Thai Ministry of the Interior and with the UN and the Embassies
to rescue them. With the help of resettlement networks, and of such
resourceful and caring negotiators such as Sr Myrna in Melbourne,
they were taken out of Thailand, resettled in safety and cared for.
One of those young women came to meet me in Melbourne years ago.
With pride she showed me her baby and introduced her adoring husband.
Imagine my joy and gratitude to God.
The Burmese students were illegal in Bangkok. But they too showed
us new ways to care for refugees. One day a young refugee, a Burmese
student, came to see me and I assumed, to ask for help. Since I
was busy for a while, I asked Wa Wa, one of the students staying
at our office, to sit with her and to talk with her. When I came
an hour later to stumble through a halting interview, with Wa Wa
interpreting, it came clear to me that Wa Wa, from her own meagre
allowance, had already found a solution to the young woman’s
difficulties. Henceforth the group of young refugees, former students,
of whom Wa Wa was one, became social workers among their fellow
refugees who were hiding in Bangkok. Many of you remember Yee Yee
Thun and the care that Lizzie Finnerty gave her when Yee Yee was
dying of leukaemia. After the dramatic ceremony of cremation, her
12 companions, who had accompanied us each day to the hospital,
then formed a community that to this day still helps others and
longs for the freedom of their leader and their country.
Could we who had worked in Asia transport our experiences to Africa,
to Bosnia, to Central America? Yes and no. We brought some knowledge,
but in each new place we also learned much that was new. We already
knew the smell of poverty. We already had senses alerted to injustice.
We knew some things we ourselves could do. We knew what to look
for in the camps, to look out for the sources of hope and to build
them up. We knew to look for the women who gave strength to others,
for the widows and the mothers who had lost their sons to the fighting,
who lived on hope, rather than anything they owned. These people
speak in poetry and in song. They share visions of a future one
could readily long for. We knew that if we brought the children
of a camp together we had organised half the camp and had the attention
of most of the adults. We knew how UN works, we knew how far to
trust the tri-partite agreements, and that they exclude any refugee
In JRS we had our own patterns of association and our networks
of loyalties and allegiances, trying always, for example, to build
up the local church and local agency capacities, and knowing which
other agencies we could more easily work with. JRS experiences in
other parts of the world added rich qualities to our common approach.
The way we talked about “being with” the refugees was
given fresh meaning by the Central Americans who spoke of accompaniment,
accompañamiento. Little by little we developed our templates
and ways of preparing our programs and our reporting on what was
happening and what we were doing. We built an organisation.
After 25 years, JRS still works with refugees crowded in camps
and lost in cities; with internally displaced persons scrounging
for life in their own countries; in detention centres; among urban
refugees; with all types of people whose dislocation defies categories,
but whom we know are unjustly displaced and therefore fall within
our broad mandate. The JRS services in detention centres such as
in Soi Suan Phlu, the project that Lek Ratana began in 1987 and
Olivier Morin and Dr Dee continued, is now carried on by Paul Pollock
and Vacharee Thanyaananpho today. They still rescue people, one
by one, like the angel stirring the waters of Bethsaida (John 5:4).
Now there is a JRS network around the world monitoring detention.
Different ones among you now visit Baxter and Villawood detention
centres here in Australia. Let us give thanks for the example of
Mary Keely and Joan Kelliher who have been present faithfully for
years in Port Headland camp and on Christmas Island, truly representing
There are Australians abroad with JRS today, for example Bryan Pipins,
and Paul White (formerly of JRS, now with UNHCR) who are in Darfur.
They serve internally displaced persons (IDPs). When JRS began,
internally displaced persons weren’t even a concept in the
lexicon of the international agencies. They existed of course, and
JRS worked with them in Ethiopia in the 1980s for example, or could
well have work with them in other places such as in the Philippines,
where an internal war continues to displace large numbers of people.
Kent Rosenthal is a Jesuit scholastic now working in Ouanaminthe
at the Haitian border with Republica Dominicana. He serves the people
displaced by poverty and who cross the border to survive, or who
are sent back home penniless. There is hardly a category to describe
them, but they are in their tens of thousands, and JRS serves them.
‘Stateless persons’ describes another condition that
we hardly ever encountered, but thanks to the research of Tang Lay
Lee, now can help to bring protection to people who would otherwise
be outside the concern of any country or agency.
Judy MacWilliams, now in Malaysia, accompanies refugees and migrant
workers who suffer with HIV/AIDS. When some of you worked in the
Southeast Asian camps, this virus was not identified. Years later
we learned that Neil Callahan, a talented JRS worker in Phanat Nikhom,
went home ill and died of AIDS in New England. At that time there
was no test or drugs available which, because of expense, would
be used for refugees, so they were generically categorised as having
Other Australians now overseas are placed in projects that years
ago some of you had a hand in designing and opening: in Uganda,
Sudan, Zambia, Angola, in Cambodia of course, and in Thailand.
What did we do, and what does JRS now do? Education at all levels,
counselling, health care clinics, skills training and income generating
projects, radio and other communications, reconciliation, care for
orphans, emergency housing, and then of course, campaigns of various
sorts, such as against land-mines, and against the recruitment of
children as soldiers.
In JRS there is now and has always been the search to balance individual
charism against the need for reliable governance structures. Many
other contrasts need to be balanced and integrated too, such as:
- Relief and emergency work balanced against the encouragement
of self help and development strategies among refugees.
- The desire for immediate action balanced with the efforts to
include and to be informed by research, analysis, and advocacy.
- The proper place for the local church balanced with the role
of the international Jesuit body.
- The roles of religious combined with those of lay persons.
- Professional and reliable competence is often juggled with
availability of volunteers.
- The faith basis of our organisation measured against the secular
orientation of many of our partners.
- Asian or African cultural approaches integrated with Western
and international styles.
We know that JRS personnel started many projects for which we cannot
take credit, but which would never have gone ahead without the help
and push that you people have given.
Now several years later we have the leisure to ask about our regrets.
What would we now do differently? You may have your own reflections,
and it is right that we review our experiences. Some of my regrets
are about practical things. Seeing how radio technology was changing
so much by 2000, I think I would have pushed to have more expertise
in setting up FM radio transmitters in more situations of displacement.
Some governments would not allow it for security reasons, but some
would. An FM transmitter can be carried now in a suitcase, and with
I-pod technology, the broadcasts can be easily arranged. It has
worked superbly in Ngara in Tanzania. We had that opportunity in
East Timor in 1999, and did not take it.
Around each refugee settlement in Africa is a many kilometre de-forested
circle. So I regret that we did not engage more in environmental
and re-forestation projects, especially for Africa. A small team
of experts who could set up tree planting projects was always too
far down my list of priorities. But no visitor to the verdant, lush
Adjumani compound today could believe what a desert it was before
Maureen Lohrey arrived there with her green fingers.
We could always make more of our education experiences, and I am
delighted to know that Lolín Menéndez has edited a
book of these experiences that will soon be available for you. JRS
has much too offer in education, and can set out to prepare people
precisely for this service. Further, JRS could offer even more in
Other points in this examen concern our way of proceeding. When
JRS teams take time to discern their way through an impasse, exciting
and unanticipated insights and unity are the result, but we didn’t
do it enough. Good practice flows from good decisions, and good
decisions flow from good planning, and good planning flows from
good discernment. Further, we felt the lack of any attention to
preparation and de-briefing of our workers, whether internationally
or locally recruited. The reasons are obvious enough, there is such
a constant turn-over of personnel, and the core administration is
naturally focussed on immediate needs. Yet JRS workers come from
a diverse range of countries, cultures, and ways of life. They are
of different ages and experiences, and arrive at different times.
Though the expectation was often expressed, the resources for early
orientation and for de-briefing often seemed inadequate.
This point underlines one of the constant dilemmas of JRS. If it
is to remain a world wide network united in a common spirit, then
it cannot insist on a tight level of organisation right across the
world. JRS opted to be a network. At the centre, the task is to
focus and give inspiration to a clear mission, to gain agreement
on the criteria for choosing where and how to engage, and to insist
on a characteristic JRS style of service. In the regions there needs
to be autonomy and scope for initiative. Of course in emergency
areas, such as Africa, Asia and Bosnia, while the capacity for rapid
decision making is best located close to the refugees, JRS needs
a tight discipline, so that it has consistency and thus a transferable
credibility in action, and so that resources can be mobilised readily.
In other parts such as in Europe, USA, and Australia the links can
afford to be looser, while faithful to the same mission to “accompany,
serve, and defend refugees”.
In the early nineties, JRS clarified its structure of regional
centres (then nine, now ten). In the midst of heightened activity
on many fronts, while JRS was opening or developing emergency programs
right around the world, such as in Rwanda, Burundi, Bosnia, Liberia,
Mozambique, Cambodia, winding down in El Salvador, and opening a
new project in Mexico for the Guatemalans, over this period, a desirable
manner of organising and supporting this network of initiatives
became more clear.
From the very beginning of JRS, in the, founding letter of Fr Pedro
Arrupe on 14 November 1980, some JRS guiding principles had been
made clear. These even originate with Ignatius himself: that we
support the local Church, that we should go where the needs are
greatest, where the more universal good can be achieved, where others
are unwilling or unable to go, that we should be mobile, yet personal,
spiritual and pedagogical in our presence, and that we should prefer
to work with slender rather than extravagant means. Although from
1980 the vision was clear, only by the mid-1990s did JRS focus that
vision into a succinct statement of its threefold mission: to accompany,
to serve, to defend refugees.
We should offer thanks and acknowledge the coordinators of JRS
Australia who have served us well: Celso Romanin, Peter Hosking
and Eve Lester, Marg Burchall, Mary Lou Morehead who died just this
year, Nguyen Van Cao who is now assisting migrant workers in Malaysia.
Also we offer thanks for Tom Steinbugler who has been so immensely
kind to each one of us. To Quentin Dignam and Steve Curtin, and
of course Andre Sugiyopranoto we give immense thanks, and now the
new Asia Pacific director, Bernard Arputhasamy whom we wish well.
To the many sisters we must offer special thanks, especially to
the Mercies, such as Denise Coghlan who has given an Ignatian vision
to the service in Cambodia, and to Maryanne Loughry who gave shape
to the Pedro Arrupe Tutorship at the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford
University and who resourced competent research and solid, cross-regional
formation programs for over eight years. The pioneers were Patricia
Pak Poy, who conceived of the Mercy Refugee Service and Bernie Evens
who was one of the first in the field, followed by Mary Densley,
and Marg Moore. Dain Inglis, an OLSH sister, helped in the Rome
office for years, and is now congregational leader for her sisters
in Africa. In an important project in Africa, the Mary Ward sisters
were able to bring together members of three of their congregations
in one common project, an experiment that foreshadowed the later
amalgamation of several, previously autonomous units.
Rossi Von Der Borch joined the Bangkok office and helped us all
immensely. She is in Melbourne today for her sister’s wedding,
so could not join us. Anthea Webb came to Hong Kong and then to
Rome for JRS and there found Sergio Filippi and went back to him,
to be joined soon enough by Elisabetta and then son Davide. Michael
Mullins and Jack Otto, both here, also helped the International
Office to communicate. Thank you Rossi, Anthea, Jack and Michael.
We feel deeply for Francis and Claudia Leong, who gave leadership
to JRS in Zambia for many years, at the recent sudden death of their
baby daughter Miranda, aged two years and seven months. They are
with us in spirit today and in our constant prayers.
In conclusion, may I make three points. First, we owe a great debt
of gratitude to the refugees because they brought us together. We
are an unlikely group of friends. Yet because of the refugees we
are here rejoicing in one another’s company. Being companions
to them, we become companions to one another.
Second, I recall a saying that I read about poetry: “The
world around us would be desolate were it not for the world within”.
Despite the horror of what we see, we are sustained by the Spirit
at work within each of us, and in the people we serve. Indeed, seeing
the world of suffering through the eyes of our refugee friends,
we have been driven to prayer. “Pray, pray much,” said
Pedro Arrupe in 1981. “Problems such as these are not solved
by human efforts.”
Finally, the best tribute you can pay to the refugees is to continue
to tell of your experiences with them. You carry their stories deep
in your hearts. You may not always find the people to share with,
but do look for them. Relate your experience of the lives of the
refugees to the present time, to what is happening in our own country
now, where the rights of asylum seekers are so constantly abused.
Whenever you have the opportunity, recall the anger and outrage
that you felt when you were abroad, note the occasions when refugees
are denigrated here, and speak in their defence.
Thank you again for your wonderful example, for your friendship
and loyalty over 25 years to the refugees and to JRS, for all that
you brought and continue to offer to the lives of the refugees,
and for all that you learned from them.
Mark Raper SJ AM, now Provincial of the Australian Jesuits, worked
for twenty years with refugees, serving as International Director
of Jesuit Refugee Service from 1990 to 2000. In this role he had
frequent first hand experience of conflict and its results in countries
such as Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Angola, Sri Lanka, El Salvador.
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