Pope Francis Welcomes JRS, Supports Global Education Initiative for Refugee Children and Youth
16 November 2015|Jacquelyn Pavilon, JRS Acting International Communications Coordinator and Christian Fuchs, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Communications Director
In a private audience with 15 refugees and friends and staff of Jesuit Refugee Service to commemorate the 35th anniversary of JRS on Saturday, 14 November, Pope Francis emphasized the importance of education for refugee children and youth as a means to build peace and foster the development of more resilient and cohesive societies.
The former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Pedro Arrupe S.J., founded JRS in 1980 in response to the then-unprecedented humanitarian crisis of refugees fleeing Vietnam and Cambodia. Today the world is in the grip of another crisis, with more than 60 million people displaced from their homes.
Pope Francis has long urged Catholics to welcome refugees, saying the world is currently suffering from a “globalization of indifference,” ignoring those who cry out for mercy. On Saturday, as a precursor to the Holy Year of Mercy to launch on December 8, the Pope formally recognized and pledged support for the JRS Global Education Initiative, a drive to increase the number of people served by JRS’ educational programs by 100,000 additional refugees by the year 2020.
“Your initiative of ‘Global Education,’ with its motto ‘Mercy in Motion,’ will help you reach many other students who urgently need and education which can keep them safe,” the Pope said.
Jesuit Refugee Service North America Regional Director Armando Borja was particularly moved when the Pope added, “To give a child a seat at school is the finest gift you can give.”
“Pope Francis articulated our work so well,” said Clare Bonsignore, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Development Director. “The number of refugees in the world is so overwhelming, but when we change our lens to consider one child and a seat in a school, it becomes something we can achieve. That’s inspiring. There is something we can do that will help a child’s life tremendously.
“All [JRS’] programs have this ultimate aim: to help refugees grow in self-confidence, to realize their highest inherent potential and be able to defend their rights as individuals and communities,” said Pope Francis.
“Pope Francis’ message was very clear and passionate. He reaffirmed my personal call to see education as a way to keep the flame of hope alive, to believe in the future so that one can see beyond the tragedy of force displacement and allow refugees to make plans for a better life,” said Mr. Borja.
Refugees face a variety of barriers trying to access education, from overcrowding in schools to xenophobia in host communities. Their fundamental right to education is often lost. Among refugee children globally, only 36 percent go to secondary school and less than one percent have the opportunity to pursue a higher education.
For 35 years, JRS has provided quality education as a tool for people to better fulfill their own potential and fully contribute to the growth, strength and stability of their communities. Schools allow those who have been forced to flee their homes to rebuild a shared space, a community, a sense of normality. Pope Francis has historically called for the public to protect refugees and care for the most vulnerable. Access to education can keep children safe and protected from risks, including gender-based violence, recruitment into armed groups, child labor and early marriage.
Jesuit Refugee Service is not ‘celebrating’ 35 years of service, as the global plight of refugees is not a joyous occasion. Rather, after 35 years, we are reaffirming our commitment to our mission and the vision of Fr. Arrupe to accompany, serve and advocate for refugees worldwide.
“Pope Francis also reminded us that the Holy Family themselves were refugees, fleeing to Egypt,” said Ms. Bonsignore. “That’s an important reminder as we approach Advent and Christmas. It calls to mind ‘Whatsoever you do for the least among you, you do for me.’ That Jesus truly was a refugee himself makes these words even truer.”
JRS works in 45 countries, across all faiths and nationalities, to serve the most vulnerable in difficult-to-reach areas. Pope Francis commended the diversity with JRS saying, “the decision to be present in areas of greatest need, in conflict and post-conflict zones, has brought you international recognition for your closeness to people and your ability to learn from this how better to serve…you accept men and women of different religious beliefs who share your mission.”
“[Schools] are places of sharing together with children of other cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds…places in which children can once more feel ‘normal’ and where parents can be happy to send them,” Pope Francis noted.
“JRS/USA will respond to the pope’s call to help refugees to grow in self confidence in order to realize their highest inherent potential by supporting educational programs for those refugees with the greatest need, namely refugee youth, and particularly through secondary education. In the U.S., JRS/USA will embark on a campaign centered on hospitality so that those children that have sought refuge in the United States are embraced in their communities, especially the schools and parishes where they are striving to rebuild their lives,” said Mr. Borja.
Fr. Thomas Smolich S.J., JRS International Director reiterated, “more and more in whatever we do, we see ourselves helping people live as children of God, respecting the many religious traditions of the refugees we serve.” Fr. Smolich is the former President of the Jesuit Conference, and a former Provincial of California.
Pope Francis was presented with a photo book showing with drawings by Syrian children from diverse backgrounds in Lebanon, showing their lives before and after entering into educational programs in JRS centers. JRS also presented the Pope an exercise book with the drawings featured on the cover, the first in a line of school notebooks that will be sold across northern Europe to help support refugee education for children and youth.
Fr. Kenneth Gavin S.J., JRS Assistant International Director, delivered to the Pope a decorative bottle filled with drawings and messages calling for peace in South Sudan. The gift is part of the “Message in a Bottle” project organized by 14 boys in the JRS Amani protection center, which provides a safe haven for unaccompanied boys, in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya. Fr. Gavin is the former director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.
Finally, Fr. Endashaw Debrework S.J., Regional Director of JRS Eastern Africa, gave the booklet of testimonies from 11 refugees served by JRS across Eastern Africa. The booklet is part of a campaign launched by JRS Eastern Africa called Pontifex, Hear Us, in which refugees call on the Pope to show mercy and hear them, as he prepares his journey to the region on 25 November.
“Many of the refugees attending the audience came from faraway places including Somalia, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and others from Ukraine,” said Mr. Borja. “Savon, a refugee who fled from Eastern Africa, noted that the life journey of a refugee is very difficult, but ‘it feels that it lightens up when others care about your plight. It is consoling to think that the Pope is thinking of you.’”
Tatiana and Maria, a mother and daughter from Ukraine, spoke with Ms. Bonsignore. “They didn’t share the details of what caused them to flee or their journey but said repeatedly, ‘it was awful.’”
“Immediately after receiving the Pope’s blessing, Tatiana turned to go back to her seat and was in tears. She was so happy,” Ms. Bonsignore said. “I was in line to go up and she reached out and embraced me. I spoke with them in the courtyard again and they kept saying they couldn’t believe it. Maria gave me several hugs… she was bubbling over with joy”
“Maria has learned English already and is studying Italian, they are both really motivated to make a new life in Italy,” said Ms. Bonsignore.
The Pope concluded his remarks to JRS and the refugees by both offering his prayers, and asking for theirs. “As for me, I assure you of my prayers. I ask you also, please, do not forget to pray for me,” he said.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I am happy to receive you on this, the thirty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of the Jesuit Refugee Service envisaged by Father Pedro Arrupe, then the Superior General of the Society of Jesus. The profound impact made on him by the plight of the South Vietnamese boat people, exposed to pirate attacks and storms in the South China Sea, was what led him to undertake this initiative.
Father Arrupe, who had lived through the atomic bomb explosion at Hiroshima, realized the scope of that tragic exodus of refugees. He saw it as a challenge which the Jesuits could not ignore if they were to remain faithful to their vocation. He wanted the Jesuit Refugee Service to meet both the human and the spiritual needs of refugees, not only their immediate need of food and shelter, but also their need to see their human dignity respected, to be listened to and comforted.
The phenomenon of forced migration has dramatically increased in the meantime. Crowds of refugees are leaving different countries of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, to seek refuge in Europe. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that there are, worldwide, almost sixty million refugees, the highest number since the Second World War. Behind these statistics are people, each of them with a name, a face, a story, an inalienable dignity which is theirs as a child of God.
At present, you are active in ten different regions, with projects in forty-five countries, through which you provide services to refugees and peoples in internal migrations. A group of Jesuits and women religious work alongside many lay associates and a great number of refugees. In all this time, you have remained faithful to the ideal of Father Arrupe and to the three basic goals of your mission: to accompany, to serve and to defend the rights of refugees.
The decision to be present in areas of greatest need, in conflict and post-conflict zones, has brought you international recognition for your closeness to people and your ability to learn from this how better to serve. I think especially of your groups in Syria, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where you accept men and women of different religious beliefs who share your mission.
The Jesuit Refugee Service works to offer hope and prospects to refugees, mainly through the educational services you provide, which reach large numbers of people and is of particular importance. Offering an education is about much more than dispensing concepts. It is something which provides refugees with the wherewithal to progress beyond survival, to keep alive the flame of hope, to believe in the future and to make plans. To give a child a seat at school is the finest gift you can give. All your projects have this ultimate aim: to help refugees to grow in self-confidence, to realize their highest inherent potential and to be able to defend their rights as individuals and communities.
For children forced to emigrate, schools are places of freedom. In the classroom, they are cared for and protected by their teachers. Sadly, we know that even schools are not spared from attacks instigated by those who sow violence. Yet they are places of sharing, together with children of other cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds; places which follow a set pace and a reassuring discipline, places in which children can once more feel “normal” and where parents can be happy to send them.
Education affords young refugees a way to discover their true calling and to develop their potential. Yet all too many refugee children and young people do not receive a quality education. Access to education is limited, especially for girls and in the case of secondary schools. For this reason, during the approaching Jubilee Year of Mercy, you have set the goal of helping another hundred thousand young refugees to receive schooling. Your initiative of “Global Education,” with its motto “Mercy in Motion,” will help you reach many other students who urgently need an education which can help keep them safe. I am grateful to the group of supporters and benefactors and the international development group of the Jesuit Refugee Service who are with us today. Thanks to their energy and support, the Lord’s mercy will reach any number of children and their families in the future.
As you persevere in this work of providing education for refugees, think of the Holy Family, Our Lady, Saint Joseph, and the Child Jesus, who fled to Egypt to escape violence and to find refuge among strangers. Remember too the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7). Take these words with you always, so that they can bring you encouragement and consolation. As for me, I assure you of my prayers. I ask you also, please, do not forget to pray for me.