Today is March 19th 2016- and as I write this I remember, St Joseph, whose Feast we celebrate today- and who is also the Patron of the Society of Jesus. I am thinking of the Joseph, who must have felt real terrible- as he went about looking for a place for Jesus to be born and each time the door was shut because “there was no place in the inn!”. After all, the couple were from ‘another’ place. I see the Joseph who in sheer desperation had to obey the angel in his dream- and overnight take Jesus and Mary and flee into Egypt! A refugee family! They had to run away from the hate and jealousy, the power and the might of the Herod of the day! I pray to the Joseph who leaves no stone unturned- to protect and accompany Jesus and Mary in every way possible!
I write this from Erbil in Kurdistan, North Iraq- where I have been for the last few days in the midst of the refugees, trying to witness and experience first- hand the response of the Jesuit Refugee Service to the tragedy and plight of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons(IDPs) and refugees. I have been listening to heart-rending stories of how Christians had to leave their homes and all their possessions in places like Qarakosh in August 2014 from the incoming ISIS forces- and flee to safer and more secure parts of the country. On the other hand, the Yezidis who are a miniscule minority in their own country are a nowhere people! Nowhere to go-and no one ready to easily accept them. There are also the smaller groups of Muslims –who are condemned to a majoritarian sentiment and rule.
A few days ago I was in Syria- in the heart of a country bombed, battered and bruised by a terrible civil war which began on March 15th 2011.I also stayed in the Jesuit Centre in Homs, where two years ago on April 7th 2014 a great Jesuit Fr Frans Van der Lugt (75 yrs.) was killed by terrorists all because he lived and proclaimed God’s message of love and reconciliation. Syria is in ruins, today! According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “this war has left more than 270,000 people dead; of these 80,000 are civilians including 13,500 children.” Unofficially however, the death toll is far more- with an unknown number killed in detention at the hands of the government, rebels or militants. An estimated one million people have also been wounded; an unbelievable number suffer from trauma and other mental –health illness which any conflict of such an intense nature can generate.
Above all, this civil war has spawned the greatest mass migration after World War II. A United Nations report in January this year said that out of a pre-conflict population of 23 million, 13.5 million Syrians have been forced out of their homes; and an additional 480,000 are still living under siege. Some 4.7 million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and significant numbers to Egypt, Iraq. Though the vast majority have remained in the region, hundreds of thousands have tried to make the perilous journey to Europe, though not all reach the European shores alive. Most of the refugees and the Internally Displaced Persons(IDPs) face acute problems- which include, living in abominable conditions in make –shift housing, poverty, lack of employment and very little access to quality healthcare and education. Besides, several local communities show reluctance to easily accept the refugees/IDPs- and impose severe restrictions on their integration.
The situation of the refugees and IDPs in this part of the world is pathetic and tragic. It has also been the lot of other refugees and IDPs in other parts of the world. Fr Pedro Arrupe (our former Superior General) realized this over thirty-five years ago. In keeping with the vision he had for a world which is more inclusive and all-embracing and which had faith-justice as its cornerstone, Fr. Arrupe launched in November 1980 the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) (www.jrs.net) ‘with the mission to accompany, serve and advocate on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons’. Ever since the JRS has been responding to the cries of millions of people all over the world! Pope Francis has made the concern for refugees as the cornerstone of his Papacy.
Two months ago, I came to Lebanon to work with JRS as a response to a call! I went through a long and difficult process of discernment. The work I was doing in India was, I believe, fairly significant. There were plenty of good and valid reasons for me to stay on. The Lord however was calling me for ‘Universal Mission’; to go out to the frontiers – and I had to say ‘yes’!
At this moment, I am overwhelmed with the reality around me- with the pain and trauma; the suffering and struggle that so many simple men and women have to go through because of ‘man’s inhumanity to man!’;because of the lust for power and domination; the greed for wealth and resources.
Pope Francis (and we celebrate today the third anniversary of his Papacy), in a message to JRS some time ago said, “To serve, to accompany means also to defend; it means to be on the side of the weakest. How many times we raise our voice to defend our rights, but how many times we are indifferent to the rights of others! How many times we don’t know or do not wish to give voice to
those who–like you –have suffered and suffer, those who have seen their rights trampled upon, those who have experienced so much violence that even their desire to have justice has been suffocated! It’s important for the whole Church that the welcome of the poor and the promotion of justice are not entrusted only to “specialists,” but that they are the focus of attention of all the pastoral work, of the formation of future priests and other religious, of the normal commitment of all parishes, movements and ecclesial groups. In particular–and this is important and I say it from my heart–I would also like to invite religious congregations to read seriously and responsibly this sign of the times.”
Yes, as a Jesuit I certainly do believe that I have been called to read seriously and responsibly the signs of the times: to be available to the Universal call of the Society for frontier ministry. In some small way, I am trying to do so today -through the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Middle East and North Africa Region.
- (Fr. Cedric Prakash sj now works with the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region, as Advocacy and Communications Officer, based in Beirut ,Lebanon)