Jesuit Refugee Service: A reflection on the 30th anniversary of its foundation
14 November 2010

Thirty years after its foundation, JRS still maintains its mission to accompany, serve and advocate. (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)
“Hope increases when we help refugees to have faith in themselves and in their future. It increases when love is put in deeds of education and vocational training which transform past and present hatred into life, with the wisdom that enables reconciliation and offers them the hope of a different future.” Hans Kolvenbach SJ
Rome, 14 November 2010 – Thirty years ago, shocked by the plight of thousands of refugees driven from their homes in Vietnam, Father Pedro Arrupe founded the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), drawing the attention of the Society of Jesus to the enormous spiritual and material needs of refugees worldwide. He envisioned that JRS would coordinate the Society’s response of “human, pedagogical and spiritual”[i] services for the ever-growing crisis of refugees. Recalling St Ignatius’ criteria for apostolic work[ii], Father Arrupe said this would be “a new modern apostolate for the Society as a whole” that would bring much spiritual benefit.

During his 25 years as Superior General, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach repeatedly confirmed Father Arrupe’s vision of JRS “both as an expression of our concern for the poor and as a significant step towards our renewal, personal and corporate, in availability, mobility and universality.”[iii] In stating that “JRS accompanies many of these brothers and sisters of ours, serving them as companions, advocating their cause in an uncaring world,”[iv] General Congregation (GC) 34 reinforced the threefold ministry of JRS that finds its inspiration in the teachings and actions of Jesus. GC 35 reaffirmed the Charter and the Guidelines of JRS, saying that “the needs of migrants, including refugees, internally displaced, and trafficked people, continue to be an apostolic preference of the Society.”[v]Addressing the delegates of GC 35, Pope Benedict XVI spoke warmly of our service of refugees “who are often the poorest among the poor and need not only material help but also the deeper spiritual, human, and psychological proximity especially proper to your service.”[vi]

During this anniversary year, I invite all who have served refugees in JRS—either in the past or the present—to pause and, “filled with profound gratitude,”[vii] to recognise in their experience of JRS a reflection of the God of love who continues to invite us to share His love and hope with the most marginalised people of our world.

This love and hope is reflected in the presence of many women and men from all nations and cultures who work with Jesuits in JRS. From the earliest years, members of other religious congregations, lay men and women have joined JRS. Today approximately 80 Jesuits and over 1,500 lay volunteers, men and women religious, contracted workers—along with thousands of displaced people—work on JRS teams in 200 projects in more than 50 countries. We are deeply grateful that so many have chosen to share the mission of JRS and its “passion to reach out to the men and women of our broken but lovable world.”[viii]

Our world has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. Likewise, JRS has changed, having grown considerably in size, structure and complexity as it responded to the needs of vulnerable refugees throughout the world. For this reason, during the past six months JRS’Regional Directors and Administrative Council members have joined me in a process of reflection on both the major consolations of the past and the challenges of the years to come.

Consolations from Our Past

Accompaniment of refugees, the core of JRS’ ministry. From the very start of JRS in Southeast Asia accompaniment was seen as central to JRS’ mission. JRS team members committed themselves to sharing their lives with refugees and to “breaking bread” with them. We learned that accompaniment demands a personal closeness to refugees that helps them build real communities of solidarity. In this process we also learned that to accompany those who are poor or marginalised is seldom easy, for to enter into solidarity with victims means taking their side against those who exploit them.

Flexibility and mobility: keys to JRS’ service. Over the years refugee situations have often presented numerous challenges that demanded creative and flexible solutions. Despite its many innovative service projects, JRS has also remained true to its call to mobility, responding where the need is greatest, but ending programmes when a refugee problem is largely resolved. Frequently JRS’ exit strategies have involved handing over mature projects to the Society of Jesus in a given region or to the local Church or community.

Decisions based on Ignatian criteria. Decisions to open and close new JRS regions or projects have been based on the criteria for choosing ministries outlined by St Ignatius Loyola in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus: where there is greater need; the search for a more universal good; the greatest possibility of fruitful work[ix]; where there is severe misery and suffering, the presence of the most vulnerable, the most forgotten, ‘invisible’ and abandoned people. Open in its discernment about the people it serves, JRS has progressively reached out to new groups of displaced peoples: the internally displaced, victims of natural disasters, undocumented economic
migrants, detainees and urban refugees.

Advocacy, an integral component of JRS’ mission. Over the years JRS realised that addressing the root causes of human displacement and striving to change unjust policies is fundamental to its mandate. JRS’ recognised advocacy presence in centres of power, such as Geneva, Rome, Brussels, Nairobi, Delhi and Washington, highlights its great potential for international advocacy work. Simply stated, advocacy stresses the rights of refugees as it helps refugees to become their own advocates. JRS advocacy is qualified by key characteristics: it is rooted in its proximity to the refugees, it is based on Jesuit values, it is centred on relationships, and it is based on solid research. In recent years JRS has developed academic and research relationships with a number of universities throughout the world. Its ultimate aim is to strengthen synergies among staff members in the field, researchers, advocates, and communication officers. 

Education, a sign of hope. Over the past three decades JRS has discovered that its educational projects plant seeds of hope in the lives of young refugees who often despair of their future. Capitalising on the educational tradition of the Society, JRS has become known as a humanitarian organisation that specialises in education. Nearly 280,000 children, youth and adults annually benefit from JRS’s primary, secondary, tertiary and informal educational projects. Even in his last days as Superior General, Father Kolvenbach continued to stress the importance of education for refugees, saying “Hope increases when we help refugees to have faith in themselves
and in their future. It increases when love is put in deeds of education and vocational training which transform past and present hatred into life, with the wisdom that enables reconciliation an