November 16, 2015 — Pope Francis held a private audience on November 14 in Rome with refugees, staff and friends of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) to commemorate the organization’s 35th anniversary. In his remarks, the pope focused on the importance of education for refugee youth as a means to build peace and foster the development of more resilient and cohesive societies.
Father Pedro Arrupe, SJ, former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, founded JRS in 1980 in response to the then-unprecedented humanitarian crisis of refugees fleeing Vietnam and Cambodia. Today, the world is in the grip of another crisis, with more than 60 million people displaced from their homes.
For 35 years, JRS has provided quality education as a tool for people to better fulfill their own potential and fully contribute to the growth, strength and stability of their communities. JRS works in 45 countries, across all faiths and nationalities, to serve the most vulnerable in difficult-to-reach areas.
The pope commended the diversity of JRS’ services. “The decision to be present in areas of greatest need, in conflict and post-conflict zones, has brought you international recognition for your closeness to people and your ability to learn from this how better to serve … you accept men and women of different religious beliefs who share your mission.”
Father Thomas Smolich, SJ, JRS International Director, said, “more and more in whatever we do, we see ourselves helping people live as children of God, respecting the many religious traditions of the refugees we serve.”
“In the U.S., JRS/USA will embark on a campaign centered on hospitality so that those children that have sought refuge in the United States are embraced in their communities, especially the schools and parishes where they are striving to rebuild their lives,” said Armando Borja, JRS North America Regional Director.
Pope Francis was presented with a photobook of drawings by Syrian children in Lebanon, showing their lives before and after entering into educational programs in JRS centers. Father Kenneth Gavin, SJ, JRS Assistant International Director, delivered to the pope a decorative bottle filled with drawings and messages calling for peace in South Sudan. The gift is part of the “Message in a Bottle” project organized by 14 boys in the JRS Amani protection center, which provides a safe haven for unaccompanied boys in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
Refugees at the papal audience came from places such as Somalia, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ukraine, according to Borja. Savon, a refugee who fled from Eastern Africa, noted that the life journey of a refugee is very difficult, but “it feels that it lightens up when others care about your plight. It is consoling to think that the pope is thinking of you.”
On Saturday, as a precursor to the Holy Year of Mercy to launch on Dec. 8, the pope also formally recognized and pledged support for the JRS Global Education Initiative, a drive to increase the number of people served by JRS’ educational programs by 100,000 additional refugees by the year 2020. Known as “Mercy in Motion,” the global education initiative “will help you reach many other students who urgently need an education which can keep them safe,” the pope said. “To give a child a seat at school is the finest gift you can give.”
To read the pope’s full address to the JRS audience, click here. The day of the papal audience, Fr. Smolich also addressed the importance of recognizing that recent attacks, such as those carried out in Paris the previous day, should not mean we close our doors to the most vulnerable. [Source: Jesuit Refugee Service/USA]