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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 world.

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 Timor.

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 of JRS.

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 prayers.

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 accents.

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 voice.

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 us all.

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 TB.

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 skills training.

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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