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Outreach: sharing the Jesuit Refugee Service mission
Sunday, March 23, 2014

Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Outreach coordinator Erin Stabile speaks with students at Christ the King Preparatory School in Newark, N.J. Christ the King is a Cristo Rey school. (Clare Bonsignore — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

(Washington, D.C.) March 23, 2014 — Our mission at Jesuit Refugee Service/USA is to accompany, serve and advocate for the rights of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. As one of the ten geographic regions of Jesuit Refugee Service, JRS/USA serves as the major refugee outreach arm of U.S. Jesuits and their institutional ministries, mobilizing their response to refugee situations in the U.S. and abroad.

We created an Outreach Program here at JRS/USA in 2010 to further our public outreach by directly engaging students, parishioners and communities in our work, and, via tools and initiatives created for them, to let them experience the difficulties facing refugees and forcibly displaced people. The JRS/USA Outreach Program seeks to inspire the next generation of advocates by empowering students at high schools and colleges across the country to make their voices heard. To accomplish this, we aim to spread awareness and to mobilize energized groups around education, advocacy, volunteering, and fundraising efforts. 

We hope the Outreach Program will more fully involve students and parishioners at Jesuit institutions throughout the United States. By reaching out directly to students and/or parishioners around the country, we hope to spread awareness of the plight of refugees and forcibly displaced people around the world. 

The Fr. Kenneth Gavin Outreach Fund, named in honor of the former Jesuit Refugee Service/USA National Director, funds the Outreach Program. Fr. Gavin is currently the Assistant Director of Jesuit Refugee Service International.

"The JRS Outreach program has been an integral part of JRS/USA’s work. It invites our friends, most of whom live far from difficult reality experienced by refugees, to step into the lives of the displaced people that JRS serves and understand their hopes and joys, their losses and their suffering," said Fr. Gavin. 

A member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps fills the JRS/USA Outreach Coordinator position on a rotating, annual basis. JVC volunteers are recent college graduates who have a commitment to social justice, and spend one to two years living in communities with other JVs, and working for a small stipend in non-profits such as ours or in schools or shelters. 

The initial success of our Outreach program came as students, primarily from Jesuit high schools, colleges and universities connected in a meaningful way with the mission of JRS/USA through education seminars, refugee camp simulations, advocacy visits to local and national representatives, and religious services.

We created several tools and initiatives to help student groups learn about and take action on issues relating to refugees, including Action Kits, a Refugee Camp Simulation, JRS/USA Way of the Cross, and a dramatic play

The Action Kit includes information on how to start a JRS Action Team, with suggested activities, JRS/USA advocacy priorities and a guide to Advocacy 101. Several school groups have used the kit to great effect.

The American African Outreach Society (AAOS) at Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, a Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Action Team, held multiple service opportunities to spread awareness to the Dallas Jesuit community about refugees. A back-to-school drive at the beginning of this school year for Catholic Charities and Refugee Resources provided many refugee students with backpacks filled with the necessary school supplies to start off a successful academic year.

In addition to directly serving local area refugees, AAOS has also worked on expanding awareness about the plight of refugees. A key objective of all JRS/USA Action Teams is to grow the number of people aware of the lives of refugees in their area. AAOS continues to reach this goal, especially with the addition of a Refugee Outreach club at Ursuline Academy, the sister school of Dallas Jesuit.

Part educational, part fundraiser, and part interactive experience, the JRS/USA Refugee Camp-Out allows participants to show solidarity with nearly 43 million displaced persons worldwide and sheds light on the growing displacement crisis. This experience, designed especially with high schools in mind, invites students to spend time in a public space on campus. 

As students at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., entered the Refugee Camp simulation last year, they were given refugee identity cards. Each ID told the story of a refugee from Vietnam, Burma, Sudan, Iraq or Colombia. The IDs explained why the refugees fled their homes, what happened to their family members and how they arrived in a camp.

With their refugee identities, students continued to move throughout the room, stopping along the way to learn how refugees access housing, water, and food in camps across the globe. Students attempted to carry a forty-pound bucket of water and learn statistics about refugees, such as that the average stay in a camp is 17 years. The Rockhurst students compared their daily water usage and calorie intake with that of a refugee.

Most students appeared shocked as they started to fully understand the reality of life for nearly half of the 43 million displaced persons worldwide currently living in camps. The sheer scope of the global refugee crisis and the hardships refugees face on a daily basis to survive in camps stunned students.

In the summer of 2011, JRS/USA explored ways to share with a wider audience the real-life accounts of thousands of refugees and relief workers gifted to the keeping of JRS during our three decades of direct humanitarian service. We sought a way to raise awareness about the lives, challenges, and contributions of refugees and other forcibly displaced people.

The Jesuit High School of Sacramento Drama Department collaborated with us in creating a piece of documentary theatre based on the first-person testimonies compiled over our years of assisting and supporting uprooted people. The play, Imago Dei: Journeys of Courage, Hope & Home, speaks to our mission at Jesuit Refugee Service.

In the fall of 2011, JRS/USA sent the students stories, poems, and prose written by refugees and aid workers. From these resources and their own research, in a mere eight weeks the students created an impactful text that sensitively portrays the stories of refugees and other forcibly displaced people on the move. 

"We realized that the idea of 'us and them' doesn’t exist, that it's all us," said drama department director Ed Trafton. "We cannot and should not attempt to depict a refugee’s story, nothing on a stage can ever come close to the reality of the refugee experience, but we can and should bear simple witness in telling their stories," said Trafton.

Our goal was to create a play that high school and college students, as well as parishioners, might perform to raise awareness of the issues facing refugees and the displaced. Our ultimate hope is that the production of this play on campuses throughout the country will inspire lifelong advocates for refugees and the world’s displaced. The students of the JHS Drama department took on this opportunity to challenge assumptions and change minds through theater, inviting people to stand in the shoes of displaced migrants and refugees.

Last year, students at Spring Hill College performed Imago Dei on their campus in Mobile, Ala. Theater director Fr. Stephen Campbell S.J. noted that over the course of the rehearsals the student actors became more committed to the refugee stories they would be sharing with an audience.

"Going to a Jesuit school, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. Not only in learning, but in taking part, and trying to make the world a better place," said freshman Maggie Baine.

"I wanted to do the play… to make people think; that is something that only a certain number of theater pieces can do," said sophomore Kristin Morrell.

The issues raised by JRS Action Teams, the camp simulation and the play also resonate in the classroom. At Spring Hill, the play was a capstone of sorts to a class on global migration taught by Professor Leigh Ann Litwiller Berte.

"Every topic we’ve covered (in the class I teach) — immigration, refugee and asylum issues, human trafficking —  was woven into this play. We talk about push-pull factors, reasons people have to leave their homes, where they go, why, what the challenges are. Almost all of that is covered within a Jesuit context of service and of action. It was just an ideal way to sort of cap the course," said Berte.

Although encouraged by this initial success, in 2013 JRS/USA sought an opportunity to make an even greater impact with students who may not have the financial means to participate in advocacy and leadership programs but who have the skills and the desire to work with JRS/USA. We found a natural partner for this initiative in the Cristo Rey Network.

The mission of the Cristo Rey Network is to provide quality, Catholic, college preparatory education to young people in urban settings with limited educational opportunities. A partnership with Cristo Rey schools enables JRS/USA to more fully realize our mission, firmly rooted in Catholic, Jesuit principles, to seek the greater glory of God and to serve where there is the most need. 

Launched in September 2013, the Young Advocate Leadership Program (YALP) is a formal, year-long program that provides students in Cristo Rey schools with the opportunity to develop leadership and advocacy skills while engaging with refugee issues. Full participation entails academic and extra-curricular involvement, as well as an in-person conference in Washington, D.C., for one outstanding leader from each participating school. Currently, nine of the 26 Cristo Rey Network schools participate in our program.

The goal of the program is to create lifelong advocates who will use the skills they learn to identify and address social justice issues in their own disadvantaged communities, deepening the impact exponentially. Through collaboration with JRS and each other, schools in the Cristo Rey network will also realize their goal of active participation in their own network—and beyond.

"Forming young people committed to faith and justice is an essential part of our school's mission. JRS has helped, and the work this year will continue to build a growing awareness of refugee and displaced persons issues," said Jim Dippold, the Director of Campus Ministry at Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep in Waukegan, Ill.

From September to December last year, JRS/USA Outreach Coordinator Erin Stabile visited each of the participating schools and introduced the program to students and teachers. In history and theology classes, students participated in a presentation about the mission and founding of JRS and the work of JRS around the world. 

Students were further encouraged to think about displacement issues from the vantage points of theology, history and current events by writing one-page research essays. Outside of the classroom, interested students at all grade levels were invited to form YALP clubs with a focus on a specific issue of displacement with the goal to educate their peers through advocacy and fundraising projects. 

"At each school, I have been invariably impressed with the thoughtful and compassionate discussions that took place in response to the material,” Stabile said. "Cristo Rey students are able to connect with these issues in a very tangible way and I am excited to see the students taking ownership of this cause through their own awareness raising and advocacy projects."

At the conclusion of the school year this Spring, administrators from each school will nominate one student leader to attend an advocacy and leadership conference in Washington, D.C. Students at the conference will partake in advocacy visits on Capitol Hill, in addition to meeting with professional advocates and presenting their own work to the larger group.

The conference will both enrich the educational experiences of the direct participants and empower the students to return to their school communities and foster an environment of discourse related to Catholic social teaching and social structures that affect some of the most vulnerable in our world. 

"I am always amazed at how the Outreach program has enabled so many students, parishioners, and families throughout the U.S. to see in the lives of refugees the very presence of God, who invites us through them to rediscover our common humanity," said Fr. Gavin.

We invite you to learn more about this program, and to become involved yourself.

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