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‘Shall we take our refugees off their crosses?’
November 29, 2016

‘Shall we take our refugees off their crosses?’
Procession to mark the opening of two schools built by JRS in Markounda, Central African Republic (Peter Balleis, S.J. – Jesuit Refugee Service)
“When families flee, everyone is vulnerable – and particularly children who are ripped out of the education system.” – Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan S.J.
(Washington, D.C.) November XX, 2016 – Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan S.J., who in October took the position of interim executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, recently spoke at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania about the global refugee crisis and the work JRS does around the world, particularly education programs. Fr. O’Donovan, who previously served as JRS/USA’s Director of Mission and is a former president of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., also explained how people can get involved if they want to help JRS in its mission to accompany, serve and advocate on behalf of refugees. The following is the second of a two-part installment of his talk entitled “Mercy in Motion.”


As you can imagine, for a small organization like JRS, the speed with which the global refugee population has grown has pushed us to focus on how we can best serve. We looked closely at the needs of the refugee population and considered what type of assistance we might be uniquely suited to provide. Reflecting on our core strengths as a Jesuit organization, we decided our focus would be education. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to all of you here at the University of Scranton. You know better than most that high quality education is a hallmark of the Society of Jesus.

Why do we see education as such a vital – literally life-saving – intervention for refugees and especially refugee youth.

Let’s start with another statistic.  How long do you think most refugees are displaced? Six months? A year? No. The average length of displacement is 17 years.

When families flee, everyone is vulnerable – and particularly children who are ripped out of the education system. Out of school, refugee children are vulnerable to early marriage, early pregnancy, gender-based violence, child labor and forced labor. Children out of school are also much more vulnerable to what are called “negative coping strategies.” These can include becoming involved in the sex trade, especially the selling or trafficking of young girls. They can include substance abuse and other harmful behavior. Girls out of school are much more susceptible to smugglers and traffickers. Boys out of school are much more susceptible to recruitment by gangs and armed groups.

Other barriers include the distance students must travel to get to and from school, especially if the route is unsafe. Many refugee families can’t afford transportation costs or school fees. In fact, many families send their kids to work to supplement the family income to cover the basic costs of food and shelter. JRS believes that all children have the right to a quality education, and we work to get kids in school. We see education as a form of protection and part of a durable solution to conflict. And notably, refugees themselves cite a lack of access to education as one of the top reasons they decide to leave their homes – right up there with loss of hope, deepening poverty, lack of access to livelihoods, shortfalls in food assistance and health care, and general insecurity.


So what is Jesuit Refugee Service doing to improve access to education? In November 2015, Pope Francis himself embraced a new JRS effort to significantly increase the number of refugees we serve. We are calling it our Global Education Initiative. Through it we aim to expand our educational programming to reach an additional 100,000 students over the next five years. That means by 2020, we hope to educate nearly a quarter-million refugees each year.

JRS offers a variety of education programs to serve the needs of the refugee population. In many places, this means running primary and secondary schools of our own. We do this most often in camps, but also outside of camps in towns and cities where the influx of refugees has overwhelmed public school systems, leaving schools overcrowded and under-resourced.

Since many children have been out of school for years while their families were on the move, we offer “accelerated learning programs” to catch students up to their grade-level so they can enter public schools and succeed. And in places like Syria where many schools are technically open but are severely limping along, or in Lebanon where only the government officially can run schools, JRS offers tutoring programs to make up for the gaps in the education system. 

We hire full-time counselors at nearly all of our education centers, as so many of these kids have experienced some kind of trauma that can hinder their learning. In many places we offer a daily meal free to every student. This helps encourage families to send their kids to our programs – and we hope it reduces the chances that kids are pulled out of school to help put food on the family table. And for the students themselves, a guaranteed meal helps with focus and cognition. When’s the last time you struggled to get through a lecture because you didn’t have time for breakfast?

For adults, we run vocational training to give them the skills needed to be employable in their new surroundings. Our strongest among these programs is teacher training for refugees. Many refugees who complete our training go on to teach dozens, or even hundreds, of refugees themselves.

We also organize recreational activities for youth to give them a safe space to play and to foster healthy socialization, which is so critical in places where the social fabric has broken down.

When we consider that many refugees are displaced for at least 17 years, the value of educating refugees becomes a question of ensuring that a generation of children has a better future. Education can provide the skills and the tools that Syrians will need to rebuild their country when the conflict ends.


I’m sure you’re asking yourselves, what can we do to help? Well, JRS/USA offers several ways to get involved. You’ve already taken advantage of one of those tonight, which is to schedule a visit by a JRS/USA staff person who can share the most up-to-date information on current crises around the world or host an event to raise awareness about current refugee issues.

You also can mobilize your community by organizing a panel discussion or film screening, hosting a refugee camp simulation – as your university did earlier this year – or raising funds to support JRS programs.

Finally, please pay attention to what’s going on with your city, county, state and federal governments regarding refugee issues. And be prepared to let your elected officials know how you feel. If you are indifferent to the suffering of those outside your borders you risk diminishing the very cloth that has made this country so great in the eyes of those whom it has helped. The cost of turning away from pressing global development challenges, over the long term, is far greater than the cost of helping empower the poorest among us to create better lives for themselves, their families and their communities. As they are lifted up, so is our country and the entire global community.

Alleviating poverty and suffering is not only possible, it is the morally right thing to do, and it is vital to our own national interest. Every war and every unstable country, every region stricken by disease or crop failure, every city hit with flooding or famine is a potential source of instability. And in today's interconnected world America cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and hope for the best. Walls and borders – despite what some politicians may say – will not keep us safe.

Every stable country, every nation lifted out of poverty, every region assisted through a time of natural disaster is a potential trade partner, a possible geopolitical ally, a future friend. Leaders ignore such challenges at the risk of spurning opportunity. Some will say that the burden is too great, that we can't afford to help everyone, that the world's greatest problems have always been thus and forever will be so. This is the ultimate in shortsightedness.


The Peruvian sculptor Edilberto Merida (1927-2009) has imagined for our time how Christ suffering on the cross might be seen.  The image is powerful beyond words, and perhaps known to you from the cover of Gustavo Gutierrez’s ground-breaking  “A Theology of Liberation” (ET 1973).  This is the crucified Jesus as a campesino.

Almost two thousand years earlier, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians (6.14) that he was crucified to the world. In fidelity to the mission revealed to him by the Risen Christ, Paul would risk all, as Jesus did, even to death not on a cross of wood but on the world of his mission. Today 65 million refugees and displaced persons are crucified to the camps and cities to which violence has driven them and where they are imprisoned. Shall we let them suffer there, trusting that they will ultimately fall into the hands of a merciful God?  Does salvation mean only what we hope for in eternal life?  Or shall we take our refugees and displaced persons off their crosses, caring more for their salvation than for our own? Isn’t the answer obvious? It must be. For if we come first, then surely we will be last. I ask you – help us take the people from the cross.

To read part one of Fr. Leo’s talk, click here:

JRS/USA is currently accepting applications for the permanent position of Executive Director. For more information click here:

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