Above: A graduate of the Jesuit Commons program in Kakuma camp, Kenya. (Peter Balleis / JRS)

Banner: A JRS classroom in Lebanon, where most Syrian refugee children do not have access to public education. (Zerene Haddad / JRS)


Amid Crises, Refugee Families Yearn for an Education — and Find the Jesuits

By William Bole

December 14, 2015 — Pope Francis smiled as he fixed his eyes on the crayon drawings presented to him during a meeting with refugee aid workers and some refugees themselves, last month at the Vatican.

The renderings were by Syrian children who have fled that nation’s civil war together with their families. There were “before” images drawn by the students just as they began learning again recently in classrooms, in Lebanon. These included dark stick figures of men fighting and a drawing of a sad-faced sun being overtaken by clouds. And then there were the colorful “after” images — of smiling teachers, neat desks and blackboards displaying letters of the English alphabet.


Fr. Tom Smolich, SJ, international director of JRS, greets Pope Francis at an audience with JRS on Nov. 14, 2015. (L’Osservatore Romano)

A few of the drawings featured the letters, “JRS,” which stand for Jesuit Refugee Service, an international organization that has set up those classrooms for the children. At that meeting, Pope Francis addressed a 125-member delegation organized by the Rome-based agency — which recently celebrated 35 years of pursuing its mission to “accompany, serve, and advocate” for the rights of refugees. Francis told the group: “To give a child a seat at a school is the finest gift you can give.”

Both the pope and JRS were highlighting an aspect of the global refugee crisis that often goes unnoticed. Usually at some point in their desperate journeys, refugee families find refuge: shelter, food, clothing and other essentials. But large numbers of their children are unable to continue their schooling, due to a lack of such services in refugee camps and urban centers that increasingly draw refugee populations.


A Syrian boy holds up his before and after displacement drawing. (Jacquelyn Pavilon / Jesuit Refugee Service)

In Lebanon, many Syrian refugee children have fallen three or four grade levels behind since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011. Most of them live outside of refugee camps, and they face a daunting array of obstacles to entering the Lebanese public school system. These include language barriers (many courses are taught in French or English), and anti-refugee sentiment in the native population. Nearly 1500 Syrian children are, however, getting help from the institution known worldwide for its high schools and universities — the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits.


For these Syrian children in Lebanon, the JRS school provides a safe space to learn. (Zerene Haddad / JRS)

There and in dozens of other countries, JRS is bringing diverse populations of children and adults back to classrooms both real and virtual. The students range from young Muslim girls in the Middle East to college-age Africans taking online courses through U.S. Jesuit colleges and universities. The Jesuit “schools” in refugee camps are at times strikingly spare — little more than a hut with a thatched roof and logs used as benches.

On December 8, the Rome-based JRS launched a yearlong campaign dubbed “Mercy in Motion,” which dovetails with the 2016 Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis. The campaign will publicize the need to provide education to refugee children and youth and seek to raise $35 million for that purpose. The Jesuit agency is now extending education to 120,000 refugees worldwide, and its goal is to ramp up that number by 100,000 within the next five years.

JRS is paying particular attention to a group that often falls through the cracks of refugee education programs — teenagers. Just a little over a third of refugees under the age of 18 have access to secondary schools, and the teens who are left out constitute one of the most vulnerable refugee groups, according to Father Thomas Smolich, SJ, international director of the Jesuit agency.

Teenagers are exposed to various forms of human trafficking, the Jesuit explained. For example, boys are recruited as child soldiers while girls are married off at a young age. “These kids are in danger,” Fr. Smolich says, “and school is one way of keeping them safe.”


The Jesuit Commons class of 2015 in the Kakuma camp in Kenya. (Angela Wells / JRS)

If secondary education is hard to come by, tertiary education — roughly the equivalent of college — is even rarer among refugees. That level of education is available to less than one percent of the approximately 60 million refugees around the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

From Child Soldiers to College Students 

Trying to help narrow this gap is a relatively new initiative called “Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins,” piloted by JRS in 2010 and now involving various Jesuit universities in the United States. Professors from those universities deliver courses online; JRS academic tutors and coordinators work on the ground with the refugee students. In 2015 there were over 2,500 students in JRS-Jesuit Commons programs. They have come from at least 27 countries ranging from Sudan and Burundi to Sri Lanka and Iraq.


Endalkachew Temesgen Guyassa proudly shows off his diploma from Regis University. (Angela Wells / JRS) 

To some, it may seem as though higher education is a luxury for refugees who are struggling to merely survive. But aid workers say the refugees themselves do not see it that way.

“As a refugee, you’re looking at a future where employment is uncertain and I suppose education is probably the one hope, so that if you educate yourself to a sufficient level you can get a job of a decent standard,” Colette Finneran, a JRS English as a Second Language coordinator in central Africa, said in a recent news dispatch from the agency.

Mary McFarland, international director of Jesuit Commons and a professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, points to the wider, social implications of educating college-age students at this level.

“Some of our students were child soldiers,” she notes. “They now study. And they know education has to reach the youth because if they’re idle, if they have no hope of developing thinking skills, they are at risk. And if they’re at risk, the world is at risk.” In that sense, McFarland observes that these students play the role of peacemakers “because they’ve had the gift of studying with people from many countries, religions and cultures.”


Jesuit Commons international director Mary McFarland congratulates graduates before a commencement ceremony. (Angela Wells / JRS)

More generally, Jesuit leaders are stressing the value of formal education for all those who have fled their homelands, not just children and young adults. For example, mothers and fathers are being trained in how to start and run their own bakeries or other small businesses.

“Ultimately, people on the move go somewhere. And wherever they go, they’re going to need basic skills to live and thrive,” said Fr. Smolich, alluding to a wide range of skills including foreign languages and using programs such as Excel and PowerPoint. “It [refugee education] creates stability. It creates opportunity. It creates hope. And people with hope have different choices, and make different choices.”


Burmese Chin women completed a tailoring course in New Delhi, India, receiving a sewing machine and a new life skill. (JRS International)

During the recent papal audience at the Vatican, Pope Francis was commemorating the JRS anniversary — and he gave a boost to the organization’s new campaign. All of the Jesuit educational efforts among refugees have one ultimate aim, the pope said — “to help refugees grow in self-confidence, to realize their inherent potential and be able to defend their rights as individuals and communities.”


A JRS preschool programs at Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. (Christian Fuchs / Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

Giving another boost — in the United States — is the legendary singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris. Working with JRS/USA, Harris plans to spearhead a series of concerts in the fall of 2016, in support of the JRS refugee education campaign (known formally as the Global Education Initiative). At a December 1 ceremony in Washington, the performing artist also bestowed the agency’s first “Award for Accompaniment” to JRS worker Sister Denise Coghlan, RSM, for her work among refugees in Cambodia over the past 25 years.

Educating for Peace 

Education is a signature ministry of the Jesuit order. But Father Boom Martinez, SJ, JRS’s international education coordinator, explains that the “Jesuit education” known to many in the United States is a radically different proposition in the chaotic and often-violent settings of refugee relief work.


The St Mary Magdalene School is one of three schools JRS/USA built in Thiotte, Haiti, to help communities recover from the 2010 earthquake. The normal routines of school life help children traumatized by disaster recover confidence in a safe environment. (Christian Fuchs / Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

“You’re teaching them the basics, to start with. You’re making sure they could read and write. But even more than that, you’re keeping the children protected,” said Fr. Martinez, referring in part to armed conflicts worldwide that often seem to follow the path of the refugees. “Get the child safe, and only when the child is safe, you could educate that child.”

In a world of growing inter-group tension, perhaps the most ambitious goal is to teach refugee children from disparate backgrounds how to live together and respect one another, according to Fr. Martinez, who previously served in Jesuit high schools in Toledo, Ohio, Los Angeles and San Francisco.


JRS Maban Assistant Education Coordinator Malish Isaac trains teachers in the Gendrassa refugee camp, Maban, South Sudan. (Angela Wells / JRS)

For example, in Lebanon as well as in regions of Africa torn by religious and ethnic violence, Christian and Muslim children sit alongside each other in JRS classrooms. They learn not only the basics but also from a “peace studies” curriculum that teaches lessons about culture, dialogue and mutual understanding.

“They learn how to peacefully coexist with each other,” Fr. Martinez emphasized. “For an enduring solution, you need to educate people.”

One Human Family from Jesuit Refugee Service | USA on Vimeo.

Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.




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