The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is the international organization of the Society of Jesus that has the mission to accompany, serve and advocate for refugees and other displaced people around the world. During 2021, thanks to its donors, JRS brought aid to 999,518 people in 57 countries, with 80 million euros spent on programs and services out of 83.3 million raised. We interviewed Father Thomas H. Smolich, who has led JRS since October 2015 and who will pass the baton in the summer to Brother Michael Schöpf, who has served as deputy director for the past two years.
Fr. Smolich, what are the main areas of focus for JRS? Is there any rough estimate of the 2022 results yet?
JRS has a mission to accompany our refugee or displaced sisters and brothers in the human, pedagogical and spiritual dimensions, according to the original vision of our founder, the Servant of God Pedro Arrupe. The priorities of our program, worldwide, are reconciliation, mental health and psychosocial support, education, furnishing needed sustenance, and, finally, advocacy. With regard to education and sustenance, this represents more than 40 percent of those we served, while we were able to offer mental health services to more than 100,000 people. Reconciliation work covered more than 40,000 people, and protection and advocacy work another 120,000. More than 200,000 people received emergency assistance from JRS, mostly in situations of violence such as Myanmar. We do not yet have final figures for 2022, but I think the number of people helped and the types of services offered will be basically the same—with the exception of Ukraine.
Yes, the conflict in Ukraine represents the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II. JRS has been active from the beginning to get close to the people affected. Can you describe your activities on the ground during these 12 months and your goals?
JRS has worked closely with the Society of Jesus to respond to this humanitarian crisis. In 2022 it helped more than 56,000 people, with services ranging from food and emergency shelter to crisis counseling, from education to medical care, from Polish and Romanian classes to childcare programs. We have a presence in Ukraine, and our largest programs are in Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia. But elsewhere in Europe we also collaborate on welcoming and integration initiatives. One of our guests in Ukraine told us: “At first I saw JRS as a big organization with little angels. Now, after spending so many months here, I realize that JRS is a family.” Coordination of our efforts in Ukraine is through the JRS Europe office in Brussels. They have developed One Proposal, a fundraising campaign targeting the situations of greatest need. In this regard we are allocating 12 million euros between now and 2024. We have received support and contributions from the Jesuit network around the world. I take this opportunity to thank our friends for their solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
On the other hand, the situation in Ukraine has further reduced attention to so many other ongoing or chronic humanitarian crises. If you had to name three situations in countries among those where JRS operates that are particularly serious or particularly symbolic, which ones would you cite?
Do I have to limit myself to three? Unfortunately, there are so many to choose from. In any case, I would first mention Myanmar. The government’s brutality toward its own people has resulted in hundreds of thousands of displaced people in the country and more than a million people fleeing. Then I think of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the struggle for control of natural resources has killed millions and continues to force people from their homes. Finally, I mention Latin America. Until a generation ago, most people moved locally, from rural areas to cities. Now every country is affected by flows of people from all over the continent (Venezuela, Haiti and Guatemala, to name just three) and the whole world. We are present in these situations, accompanying both internally displaced people in their own countries, as well as refugees and asylum seekers who have left their homelands.
Do you think it still makes sense to talk about “forgotten wars” or “forgotten crises,” particularly with respect to compromised and chronic situations such as Syria or Yemen? Is this a way of talking about the situation that actually helps draw international public attention?
Our awareness-raising focus for Lent and Easter 2023 was on the “forgotten crises,” those that made headlines at the time but are now, as they say, “out of sight, and out of mind.” The situations I mentioned fall into this category, as do many others. Syria had been forgotten, but the effects of the recent earthquake have temporarily recaptured international attention. How long will this last? For example, the reality of the more than 800,000 Syrian refugees living in neighboring Lebanon – more than 15 percent of the population, many of whom have been in camps for ten years – is old news and is being ignored. Pope Francis has often spoken of the “globalization of indifference,” and these forgotten situations provide evidence of that. Is it helpful to call them “forgotten crises”? I believe in telling the truth. They have been forgotten, and forgetting is human. If we bring them back to the attention of the present, I hope the world will realize that our brothers and sisters are still far from home and that we can change things.
Wars and authoritarian governments produce internal and external refugees, which in turn fuel tensions in host areas and risk triggering new conflicts, whether internal or between neighboring countries. Leaving aside the moral aspects, who benefits from this vicious cycle?
It is really a vicious circle. Politicians often talk about a “refugee crisis.” I never use that expression. What is going on is a “leadership crisis” in response to global forced displacement. Rather than addressing the problems that force people to flee their homes – to name two, the global arms trade that makes wars interminable and impossible to win, and climate change that prevents people from working the land – some political leaders demonize those who seek protection and safety. To whose benefit? The arms dealers and these political leaders, of course. It seems appropriate for me to add that 74 percent of forced migrants are housed in low- and middle-income countries; most go only a short distance and find shelter with neighboring peoples. In proportion to the possibilities, we who have the most are the ones who offer relatively little. Pope Francis has reminded us that migrants and refugees enrich our cultures, and every European leader knows that the continent needs young people to compensate for an aging workforce. Both ethics and economics demand that we welcome. But instead of receiving a true welcome, refugees often live in the shadows, without legal status, exploited for their labor, trafficked for our pleasure. There are over 100 million forced migrants in the world, each of whom deserves dignity and respect. But in a world of 7 billion people, please do not say real solutions cannot be found. The real crisis is the lack of leadership.
In the presentation of Report 2021 you explain that the stories included there tell not just what JRS does, but rather the hope and resilience of the people you have assisted. The idea is to support and activate the resources that people who possess them are able to bring to bear. Can you explain and give us an example of this model of intervention?
One of our most recent programs is called Pathfinder: it helps young refugees transition from school to work, matching their interests with the job market. But sometimes refugees in camps do not have the legal right to work in the countries where they found protection. We are training these young people in digital skills, which they can put to use online anywhere in the world. They often benefit from their multilingualism because they provide services in English and French, and can translate from local to international languages. The online economy provides income, dignity and hope.
In its interventions, JRS invests heavily in psychosocial support and mental health. When we think of solidarity and emergency, we do not immediately think of the need for psychological assistance. You also address this. Why in your Reports, do you emphasize this focus?
I have learned about this need from the brave people we accompany and whom I have been privileged to meet. They are valiant people, full of hope; otherwise they would not have left their homes. Forced displacement is always violent and starts from the very moment people have to leave their homes. More often than not, the violence continues on the journey: robbery and rape are recurrent, kidnapping for ransom and slavery are not uncommon. Most people cannot start a new life unless they face the hardship of displacement, a human reality that touches not only refugees. People do not forget what they have been through but, thanks to our mental health services, they can integrate it into their lives. This is the resilience that we talk about so often. I remember one woman in particular, in Uganda, whose story brought the whole group to tears. The classes, the women’s groups, the spiritual care that JRS Uganda offered her, helped her find a way forward. She rediscovered hope and courage, the same gifts that made her escape possible.
You are often a support for people from persecuted populations, such as the Rohingya and Yazidi, and in the most difficult areas of the planet, from Haiti to Myanmar via Afghanistan. What is your relationship to the risks involved in this service?
I have said it before: forced migration is always violent, and it is probably even more so now than in the past. We have learned to be less naïve and to take the issue of security more seriously. Years ago, religious groups and NGOs operated in a kind of bubble, rarely threatened by surrounding violence. This is no longer the case, so we need to pay more attention to the care of our people. I give the example of Afghanistan. In 2008 we started a collaborative project between the Jesuits in South Asia and JRS that focused on education for women and girls who had been repatriated from other countries. In 2014 our local director, an Indian Jesuit, was kidnapped because he was worth something to the Taliban in economic terms. We worked with an expert who deals with kidnappers and eventually the director was freed. Today that expert is our Global Security Advisor. When the Taliban returned to power in 2021, we were able to evacuate about 100 JRS staff and their families. We did not know what would happen next, but we did not close the door. Now we are back, working in the camps near Kabul. Our security adviser is leading us there, as well as in Syria, Lake Chad, Ukraine and elsewhere.
Humanitarian organizations have been the first line of intervention in many crisis situations for decades now. However, emergencies continue to emerge , and governments, instead of feeling called to work their way out of the emergency, at best fund interventions, but they “delegate” more and more. Does this model work? Does it still make sense?
It is clear that this model does not work, for many reasons. First, global refugee law is based on the situation in post-World War II Europe, and is long outdated. Wealth inequality is another element. Europe pays Turkey to keep Syrians from coming west, and the U.S. helps Mexico keep refugees away so they do not enter the United States. But I think the challenge is fundamentally spiritual. The world seems awash in a variety of nationalisms, all based on fear of the other: ethnicity, religion, skin color, language, and so on. Decisions dictated by fear, especially when this is intentionally exacerbated by political leaders to the point of inducing a crisis, rarely have good outcomes. We want to live in our own little worlds with walls to protect us; we will not and cannot have anything to do with those on the other side of the wall and we become more and more fearful, more anxious. The only way forward is to build bridges, not walls. As Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Despair leads us to close ourselves off. Hope drives us into the arms of others.” Pope Francis’ message to World Migrant and Refugee Day 2021 remains true: “The truth however is that we are all in the same boat and called to work together so that there will be no more walls that separate us, no longer ‘others,’ but only a single ‘we,’ encompassing all of humanity.”
Fr. Smolich, when you take stock of your activities, is there anything you regret? Something you would like to change, do better or stop doing?
During my eight years as international director, I have made mistakes. Those in government positions know that this is part of the game. I hope I have learned to listen better and trust more deeply in the reality that JRS is God’s work, not mine! I am so proud of the work we do in 57 countries. I am very grateful to the nearly 9,000 people who work for JRS around the world. Almost 40 percent of our staff are themselves forced migrants, so their walking with refugees expresses the intent to build community. JRS is known for being close to the people we accompany, and I want that never to be lost. At the same time, the people we serve should have the best we can offer, and that involves learning, improving, and being more and more ready to listen to those we help. This is an area that we need to strengthen.
Finally, is there any episode from the life of Ignatius of Loyola, or any thought of the saint, to which you are particularly attached that can help others understand the spirit that animates your service?
What I have just tried to describe is the Magis, the Ignatian way of always seeking to do God’s will. It is the way JRS expresses the restlessness that Ignatius felt and lived, the desire to serve God through all our brothers and sisters. When Ignatius began his journey to find God in all things, the Society of Jesus was not in his mind. Yet the call he experienced and the needs of the Church and the world propelled him forward. When Pedro Arrupe founded JRS in 1980, he saw Jesuits and volunteers living with Vietnamese refugees in camps, offering hope and solidarity through our presence. I am sure Don Pedro did not imagine that 43 years later there would be a JRS, much less a global ministry! This is God’s work, and this is Magis at work in JRS, toward an ever-wider “We.”