November 27, 2015 — Canadian Jesuit Father Roland Turenne, now 92 years old, remembers being missioned to lead Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Ethiopia during the 1984 famine. The famine had galvanized world attention, including the laser-like vision of Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe, who had founded JRS in 1980 to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Vietnam by boat.
At a meeting with African Jesuit superiors in Kenya, Fr. Arrupe asked Fr. Turenne, “What are you doing for the refugees in Ethiopia?”
“Father, I’m sorry, but we’re not doing anything,” Fr. Turenne replied. Clearly, that wasn’t the right answer.
Fr. Turenne went to work right away. With a team that included veteran Belgian Jesuit missionaries and a Spanish doctor with the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, he established a base for their operations in Awasa, south of Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa. When a drought hit the region of Tigray, 186 miles north of the capital, the new team drove up in their mobile medical unit.
“We said, ‘Which is the hardest place to access? Which is the worst place, worst affected?’” Fr. Turenne recalled. “Within two weeks we were there feeding.”
What was asked of him in Tigray was more than his organizational efforts or kindness could fix. “I saw people coming on all fours ... They were starving,” said Fr. Turenne, who has now spent a total of 64 years in Ethiopia. “I remember this. It has always remained in my mind. It always remained.”
Hundreds of aid agencies followed JRS into the famine lands, and eventually millions upon millions of dollars followed. Today in Ethiopia, JRS runs a community center for urban refugees in Addis Ababa and has a presence in two of the five refugee camps near Dollo Ado, on the Somalian border. It also provides programs for child refugees separated from their families in the Mai Aini camp near the Sudan border.
At the time when Fr. Arrupe took Fr. Turenne aside for a chat about Ethiopia, Fr. Turenne had already been in Ethiopia for 30 years. He was serving as a geography teacher at a high school while helping out a French Catholic charity and now directs people in the Spiritual Exercises at the Galilee Retreat Centre in Addis Ababa.
Fr. Turenne doesn’t find JRS’ success surprising. He attributes it to the vision of Pedro Arrupe.“When you met with him you had the impression that you were not far from God, I tell you,” said Fr. Turenne. “Compassionate like Christ.” [Sources: The Catholic Register, Jesuits of French Canada]