|35 Years of Accompaniment, Service, and Advocacy|
Bangkok, 7 October 2015 – As JRS grows into 35 years of existence, on November 14th, since its first establishment in 1980 by Pedro Arrupe SJ to respond to the problem of boat people in Asia Pacific, I was struck by the refugee crisis in the Strait of Mallaca in May 2015. People were stranded in a boat and floating at sea, begging to disembark and struggling to get food and water dropped by helicopters.
The pictures of boats with people inside crying and looking desperate reopened the memories of the same boat people in 1980s. It still happens in other parts of the world now, such as Lampedusa in 2013 and in Greece or Turkish water this year. It happened, is happening and will happen again as the world we live in continues to see conflict and war. The 2015 statistics of refugees in the world from UNHCR stated 59.5 million worldwide. The same report compares this number as one of a nation which could be the 24 largest nation in the world. Looking back on our history, it seems very hard to be optimistic of finding a solution to our refugee’s problems in this world.
Just recently, we had a discussion about the future of peace in the Philippines. At the end of the discussion the scenario seemed gloomy. The peace agreement reached by the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2013 required entering a legislation process that will allow the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Mindanao area some autonomy on governance in their own areas. However, early this year, the Mamasapano incident which killed 44 Philippine Special Forces Police, turned the tide against peace and it may not result into an agreement of peace between the two parties before the current administration departs.
The Election in May 2016 will come with a new president, a new congress and a new senate who may have a different agenda on the peace process in Mindanao. Peace, which people desire and saw on the horizon, has now started to fade and is losing its grip within Mindanao. While I was reflecting on this pessimistic scenario, I remembered a lady on one of the islands in Mollucas who courageously became a bridge between two conflicting communities of Muslim’s and Christians.
She, a Muslim, missed her Christian relatives as they fleed to a neighboring island. At the heat of the conflict between Christians and Muslims she did not dare show her feelings or express them. After time she encouraged herself to go to the island with the excuse of shopping. It was during a shopping day she met with her Christian relatives and they shared stories. After that she would take the journey to the island of her relative and tell others in her island that she would visit her Christian relatives. It was her courageous act, a bridge in communication, which allowed for stories and news of what was happening on both sides to deescalate the situation. Eventually, the Christian communities were able to return to the island and rebuild their own communities.
Stories like these happen when we dig deep enough to the experiences and life’s of refugees, the poor and the vulnerable. Stories like these remind us that a pessimistic, devastating situation can not conceal the beauty and goodness of human beings.
The stories of brave fishermen in Aceh, or ordinary people in Europe welcoming refugees shows that the pessimistic stories are not able to hide all the truth of solidarity and humanity despite policies that stonewall human interaction.
Jesuit Refugee Service has been working with refugees to confirm this possible hope, share positive stories and allow for human interaction to show solidarity with these groups. The journey of JRS shows how the issues of refugees are really more complicated, problematic and challenging than we realize now or how it was in the past.
JRS tries to keep to task when addressing these challenges and to be responsive to the needs of the people we serve, especially to share the voices of these people. JRS sees that our accompaniment is fundamentally important to keep up with these challenges and always to be inspired by human encounter and interaction with the people we serve.