Fr Jae-wook Lee SJ shares his experience volunteering with JRS in Bangkok and how the real lives of refugees is one of struggle in the urban setting.

Just after my ordination to priesthood, Fr Bambang, the Regional Director of JRS Asia Pacific, sent me an email. But, to my disappointment, I learnt that I would be sent to Bangkok and not to Mae Hong Son, where the refugee camps are situated because I really wanted a more visible, tangible and dynamic place to work for refugees, despite the short six-month duration available for my experience.  In fact, I really wanted to be in the camps precisely because of the short period. Just imagine!  To crisscross the entire refugee camp is befitting of a priest and a Jesuit! I would be so visible for those who are expecting me to do something special.  Bangkok, on the other hand, seemed quite far from the refugee issue.  It is just a big city, famous only for massage, shopping, tropical fruits and delicious food to Koreans.  To such a place, I was sent. Ouch!  I got off on the wrong foot. 

To make matters worse, the role I was to take in Bangkok was like a joke.  Reception manager!  This place seemed to precipitously designed only ‘for me’; it had not existed until I joined.  The ostensible reason was for me, a Jesuit, to become the face of JRS, but the original one was to allow me to join with minimum inconvenience to the team. Double ouch!  Things have gone awry again. 

Now we come to the most interesting part of the story - the reality of mine.  I always want to be a kind, nice and wonderful Jesuit.  Conflictingly, however, my main job at JRS-URP [Jesuit Refugee Service, Urban Refugee Programme] was to say “NO!”  I had to tell our clients “NO” at least over ten times in a day: “I am sorry.  I can understand your difficult situation.  But there is a limit to our abilities.  We cannot help and save everyone.  You don’t meet our criteria.  There are more people with more urgent needs.  I hope you will understand.”  And then they cry on my shoulder full of despair, anger and resentment, saying: “Argh!  You call yourself a Catholic Jesuit priest?  This stuff may be just work for you, but this is life for us!  Okay, I see.  (Your) God bless you!”  In this context, the blessings they gave me were not really blessings of good wish.  Triple ouch!  Things were constantly getting worse!

Now, I have also had a fixed image of refugees.  Whenever I imagined them, the first vision that appeared in my mind was one of fluttering tents in a desert, or bamboo shelters knitted with large stitches in a refugee camp.  I recently added another image of fully packed boats crossing the ocean perilously.  I have never imagined those refugees wearing Nike shirts and sneakers, and using smart phones, before coming to Bangkok.  I did not even think that there would be refugees who looked much better than me (at least by appearances).  The image of ‘refugees’, which I had unwittingly constructed, was distinct.

However, the urban refugees whom I met in Bangkok have completely changed these images of mine.  Their real lives of struggle in the urban setting were totally different from my expectation.  It is even more dangerous, tough and intense. Their miserable situation is really hard to describe.  They are easily forgotten because they are not visible.  They are deeply apprehensive because they are always exposed to the risk of being arrested by immigration authorities.  They are severely vulnerable because it is not easy to get any job and to receive proper wages with their illegal status.  They are firmly excluded from the medical system in one of the most well-known medical tourism cities, Bangkok.  They are pitifully marginalised from the formal and normal education system.  Comparing with even camp refugees, they are a lot poorer.  There is only one reason why there is much less help and interest for those urban refugees.  Because they are invisible and intangible!

Beyond all these difficulties, there is a single dominant challenge for them.  It is ‘uncertainty’.  Roughly speaking, it will take eight years for urban refugees to resettle to a third country from Bangkok in the context of 2016, and the waiting time is increasing.  And resettlement is not the outcome for everyone.  Even though there are no guarantees in life, living in uncertainty is one of the most difficult struggles.  These asylum seekers and refugees in Bangkok are putting their lives on the line fighting against uncertainty.  That is why they are so demanding. Because they are poor and they have no one to lean on. 

Paradoxically, every day here was a day of repentance for me.  The very poor people, asylum seekers and refugees whom I met every day made me repent.  This was not because of the relative comfort I had, but because of their presence itself.  The presence of invisible urban refugees showed the invisible God to me in a visible way.  The holy family, Jesus, Joseph and Mary, who fled into Egypt escaping from persecution in the Bible (Mt 2: 3-22), visited me every day.  The Hebrew who escaped from the slavery and oppression of the Pharaoh (Exodus) asked me for help every day.  The Israeli who were in Exile (BC 587-538) came to me every day.  The orphans and widows, whom Jesus loved deeply, reached out to me every day.  Our invisible God came to me visibly through them, invisible asylum seekers and refugees, every day.  In this sense, urban refugees are the sacrament of God for me.

I was thankful that there was always something new to learn from them.  I, who had studied theology and became a priest, was newly learning from them about what faith is.   I was newly learning from them, the seemingly hopeless, about what hope is.  I was newly learning from those who could not seem to take care of themselves about what love is.  I was newly learning from Muslim refugees who our Christian God is.  I was newly learning from the fragile about what human dignity is.  Above all, I was newly learning from them all about how blessed and graced my life is; the life which seemed like a series of disasters before! Now I hope that when it is my time to leave this world, God will not say to me at the gates, “you do not meet our criteria…”


I thank my friends, those who are forcibly displaced, for bearing with and blessing me, the one who usually had to say ‘no’!

I thank my colleagues at JRS for giving me this wonderful position and opportunities to be accompanied, served, and advocated for!

I thank my companion Jesuit, Fr Bambang for sending me to Bangkok, not to Mae Hong Son!

I thank my God for always transforming my disappointed self into a consoled one!

Fr Jae-wook Lee, SJ

Urban Refugee Programme, JRS Thailand

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