September 30, 2015 — Given the ongoing crisis of people fleeing from war and poverty, Pope Francis asked every parish and religious community in Europe to take in a family of refugees as a concrete sign of hope and God's mercy. “The Gospel calls us, asks us to be near the least and the abandoned,” Pope Francis said. That has been Jesuit Refugee Service’s (JRS) mission for the past 35 years.
Fr. Peter Balleis, SJ, international director of JRS, understands how with the photograph of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned Sept. 2, “the crisis in the Middle East, the drama, has reached the hearts of the people.”
Seeing that boy, "who could be anyone’s grandchild or child, that child who should not have died,” people spontaneously knew “something is wrong here, something is wrong that people take such desperate steps, risking their lives in shaky boats.”
For eight years, Fr. Balleis has captured the beauty, the determination and the exhaustion in the faces of the migrants and refugees he has met around the world as international director of JRS.
In his photographs, he said, he tries to communicate the person he met, making sure they are not just a reflection of the statistics on refugees and migrants around the world.
Fr. Balleis took this photo of a woman in Homs, Syria, in May. For Fr. Balleis, photography is a way to evoke compassion and action on behalf of refugees.
A photograph “is not a number or a problem, but a human person,” he said. “It evokes a level of compassion, of feeling. And what follows is action.”
Like the famous photographs of Aylan, taken on the beach in Turkey, he said, a picture “can evoke compassion and a re-thinking.”
Fr. Thomas H. Smolich, SJ, who will succeed Fr. Balleis as international director Oct. 8, said, “Photos also get to our memories, which is a different place than our intellects. So that boy on the beach touches on the 3-year-olds that we were and the 3-year-olds we know. He’s perfectly dressed and he should be fine. But he’s not.
“The images get us out of our heads and into our hearts,” Fr. Smolich said. “And that’s what the pope is doing, he is inviting us to respond out of a place of faith and a place of love rather than a place of fear.”
After Pope Francis called on every parish in Europe to take in one refugee family, the Vatican announced that both of its parishes — St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Anne’s Church — would do so.
JRS France had already been doing something similar with its “Welcome en France” program, a program that JRS has launched in other countries as well. Families volunteer, with assistance and support from JRS, to take in refugees and asylum seekers for one month. Before the deaths of Aylan and 71 refugees in an abandoned truck in Austria in late August, the program had five inquiries a week from people wanting to help, said Michel Croc of JRS France. “Last week, we received hundreds of calls,” he said Sept. 7.
The JRS project, Fr. Balleis said, was done “on a very humble level. The pope’s appeal is the key here, coming from the top, saying ‘Why don’t each of the 100,000 parishes in Europe’ — I was told there are 100,000 parishes in Europe — ‘take care of one family.’ That’s practical. That’s manageable. It is not impossible.” [Source: Catholic News Service]