by Fr. Edward W. Schmidt, SJ
In 1979, the Jesuit superior general, Pedro Arrupe, met with assistants in Rome to discuss the people fleeing Vietnam. He was "struck and shocked by the plight of thousands of boat people and refugees," Arrupe later wrote; the next day he cabled Jesuit superiors in Asia and other places where refugees might settle. From this the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) was born.
"It was a classic Arrupe gesture," says Fr. Mark Raper, head of the JRS today. Fr. Arrupe saw the situation of the boat people and responded. But he also saw more: the boat people, the growing number of refugees in Africa--these were part of a defining global reality for the late twentieth century. "It wasn't only their suffering; it was their impact on the imagination of the world that was a big thing for him."
Offers of help poured in: volunteers, media contacts, materials, and money. Fr. Arrupe put the work under Fr. Michael Campbell-Johnston, who gathered data on what was already happening--a great deal, it turned out. Jesuits were working with refugees in some ways in Japan, Thailand, East Timor, Zambia, Taiwan, and Indonesia, and elsewhere.
In 1980, the JRS became responsible for a large refugee camp in Bangkok. Fr. Raper, then the JRS director in Southeast Asia, brought them together to reflect on their work and to develop new strategies. In 1981 the JRS started the Centro Astalli in Rome (see story on pp. 4-5), its first work. Since then, JRS has become an organization with placements in 40 countries and a staff of 400.
The refugees it serves number in the millions, each representing a life disrupted, a dream deferred. For Raper, that human reality makes the JRS an organization never divorced from real people. He manages, lectures, and consults, but he always meets some of the people the JRS serves to put faces on the numbers. Their stories reveal the face of God.
An African man describes the face of simple kindness. In 1996, when a war broke out in Burundi, a million people were swept into the jungle. After getting his wife and children to Tanzania, this man traveled more than 1,200 miles to Zambia. He reached a camp in Lusaka, where officials gave him some rice and oil. He was feeling pretty much a statistic until he met Sister Ann, on the JRS staff, who listened for three hours as he talked about his missing family and other burdens he was carrying inside.
"I was treated like I was important for the first time in this whole journey. She noticed I didn't have shoes and found me a pair," the man told Fr. Raper.
"The man had been treated as worthless," Fr. Raper concludes, "and suddenly he got his sense of worth." His family later joined him; he got a scholarship and is working on a master's degree. He has his life back.
A Vietnamese woman shows the face of forgiveness. She and her husband decided to escape Vietnam; he went ahead to Malaysia and sent word for her to follow with their children. She negotiated with a boat master, but he was not prepared; they ran out of fuel and began drifting. He refused to share water or food; her children and sister died. The survivors washed up on an island and reached a JRS camp in Thailand.
The woman could think only of revenge. Every day she talked with the chaplain, but it was a long time before she could say, " I forgive him." She insisted on public forgiveness: "Everybody knows he's killed my children and sister. I want everyone to know I forgive him."
Catholics were a minority in the camp, but many people came to church. During mass, in front of everybody, the woman said, "I forgive you."
"For this man, it was a release," Fr. Raper reflects. "He was facing everybody. For her too it was the end. For the camp it showed the possibility of forgiveness. That action changed the whole sense of life in that camp."
On August 6, 1981, Fr. Arrupe visited Jesuits working with refugees in Thailand. He had been in Hiroshima on that date 36 years earlier, the day the atomic bomb fell. That event had been a defining moment for an age, one that had affected the imagination of the world. The refugees who looked to him in that Thai camp were a new reality defining a new era.
"I am very happy," Fr. Arrupe told the JRS in Bangkok. "I see a tremendous opening for the Society. This work will be a school in which we learn many things."
In the twenty years since the Rome meeting, the JRS has taught us about suffering brought on by natural and human agents, Africa's famines and Cambodia's land mines. It has taught us about laws and attitudes that compound problems and confound solutions. It has taught us more than we can absorb about human suffering and more than we can understand about hope.
That meeting in Bangkok was Arrupe's last public appearance. On the plane back to Rome he suffered a crippling stroke; the JRS was his last dream. For ten years it has been Raper's work to organize and inspire. The stories that follow, from Italy, the United States, the Balkans, and Cambodia, make the point very clear: it is everybody's challenge.