Article first seen in INSIDER
Sr. Maryanne Loughry’s wit and candor are equally matched by her generous heart and intellect applied to the care of refugees and displaced persons worldwide.
In early August 2021, we spoke at length to Loughry about her life as an Australian Sister of Mercy and faculty member at the Boston College School of Social Work. Her career in global humanitarian assistance, psychology, and psychosocial support practice has spanned nearly four decades and dozens of countries.
Just two weeks after, however, her skills and experience would be called upon again.
After the collapse of the Afghan government and the fall of Kabul, millions were displaced throughout the country. Tens of thousands of Afghans would make harrowing journeys by flight and land out of the country in order to flee Taliban rule.
At Fort McCoy Air Force Base in Wisconsin, she sprang into action alongside an emergency team formed by the U.S. Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Service. She’d welcome and support newcomers in the midst of a modern tragedy — including one young Afghan man, Farhad Sharifi, to create a new life in Boston.
Our interview, shared now during Catholic Sisters Week, details the lead up to that moment, including her commitment to community psychology in Southeast Asia, reconciliation work with child soldiers in Sierra Leone, and the enduring relationship between JRS and Boston College.
How did you come to work with JRS in the late 1980s?
The Sisters of Mercy had a very close working relationship with the Jesuits in Australia. We have worked for a long time together, including many of us who worked on the Indo-Chinese refugee crisis at that time. We were in Hong Kong, Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand, then later on throughout Africa.
In the Philippines and Hong Kong, I worked in the area of social work and community development with a partner organization CFSI. Then, I was at Oxford for eight years as the Pedro Arrupe tutor in the Refugee Studies Centre. Fast forward, I’m in Boston College where, apart from direct teaching, I offer assistance to both JRS/USA and the JRS International Office.
What did your experience look like across Southeast Asia?
A number of us ended up working with people who were trying to prove they were a refugee going through the asylum process. If they weren’t found to be a refugee, they had to return to Vietnam. I was in Hong Kong in what were called detention centers. The biggest one I worked in had 10,000 people at any one time and they were run by the police and by the correctional services.
We had sisters in the Philippines who were midwives and so they were delivering babies and providing health care. We had a variety of responses. I think at one stage, there were at least 20 of us working with the Jesuits and other religious orders and some laypeople as well. It was a very big project.
How would explain mental health and psychosocial support?
It’s a bit of a spectrum. In the mental health area, it’s what you and I know as mental health and mental illness. When people, as I keep using the term, have been overwhelmed, their own local resources have been overwhelmed, either because of events or their genetics.
Refugees are no different in this population. Some of them have mental illness and this is regardless of the fact that they’re also refugees.
We’re dealing with people who don’t necessarily have a mental illness, but their social setting — like school or church — is completely disrupted. What JRS can do in that space, is help to bring back some of the social supports that are significant enough to strengthen people’s psychological well-being. That can be some of the examples I’ve talked around like sport, community gatherings, getting women together to talk about their experiences, getting young men together, to talk out their experiences, helping widows to have meaning in their life.
Tell us about your approach to psychosocial support and how it’s evolved throughout your career.
Psychology at the time was shifting a little bit from a model where we were looking at the damage done to people because of being refugees or in conflict. We were shifting our thinking to [something different]: a lot of these people are actually still very strong and resilient in spite of their experience. We started to do a lot more work in what we call community-based work.
For example, how to enable them to help themselves, rather than needing to fly in psychiatrists and psychologists because many places have very few mental health professionals themselves. Yet remarkably, even when I was working in detention, people got on with their lives. There were some people who suffered immensely, but a lot of people actually manage their family and their lives.
I started working with others in how to respond, how to train what we called in those days “paraprofessionals.” When JRS Australia went to Timor-Leste and when we went also to Papua New Guinea, we were looking at the capacity of people, the people displaced and how to strengthen them through education, through livelihoods, through opportunities so that they could manage their own families.
It was a slightly different thinking from the past. Now it’s the dominant thinking.
Is there a certain community that stands out where you applied this model?
I went to Sierra Leone, I went to Northern Uganda where there were terrible events of child soldiers. In those areas where the children had been captured and engaged in those atrocities, there weren’t a lot of mental health people or psychologists, so I would talk to the teachers, I’d talk to the mayor, I’d talk to the faith healers and the faith leaders.
We would work together on what leadership the community could deliver with the agencies that were working there, but the agencies were such a small part of what the needs of the community were, so we started to engage with cultural practices.
For example, how to welcome children back into a village appropriately, even though they’d been away and possibly had committed some atrocities. What could heal the community? What could work to have the community welcome these children back?
How do you channel your experiences through teaching at Boston College?
One of the things I do here at BC, is I teach in a Global Practice concentration. We are preparing social workers who are going to work in humanitarian settings. I prepare them using those frameworks I’ve just talked about, so that they also are much more flexible in their approaches and when they go to work with agencies, they can actually bring this input into the agencies that they work with as well.
I’ve been working with the students who’ve become interns, and then have taken on jobs in staff, including with JRS. They’ve then gone to work with other agencies like the International Catholic Migration Commission. When they’ve then worked on JRS projects, I’ve continued to help input and remind them of what they heard in class and then how can we now use that to measure well-being of staff in JRS or well being of staff wherever they are in different parts of the world globally.