Jesuit Refugee Services

screen-shot-2013-04-05-at-1-51-20-pmMoved by compassion and the situation of the Vietnamese boat people; following his visit to the Asian region, Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ (1907-1991), then Superior General of the Society of Jesus (1965-1983), decided to start some concerted effort by Jesuits to help the displaced people. This decision of Fr Arrupe to respond to the situation of the marginalised, led to the establishment on 14 November 1980 of a mission or an apostolate of the Jesuits which came to be known as Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). JRS was started as a spiritual and practical response to the plight of refugees at that time.

Not only were the gospel values a fundamental influence to the decision of founding JRS but the Social teaching of the church, the Jesuit values or what is known as Ignatian Spirituality had their fair influence in the foundation of this important apostolate.

More than thirty years later, what started as a humble and temporary response to the plight of displaced people is now a semi-autonomous organisation of the Jesuits. JRS carries its mission of accompanying, serving and advocating on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons in over 51 countries, including Islamic and non-Christian countries.

In South Africa JRS started as a result of the invitation by the Southern African Bishops’ Conference. In 1998 the first programme was officially started in Johannesburg and Pretoria. In 1999 it became an implementing partner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It was in 2008, that JRS started its third project in South Africa. The Makhado project in Limpopo was to help the Zimbabweans who had come to the town as a result of the injustices experienced in their country.

As South Africa has no refugee camps, all the refugees here are urban refugees. That means they have to find their own means of survival including accommodation, education for their children or themselves and some form of income or employment.  Consequently they are in a vulnerable situation and in many cases they are exposed to all kinds of abuses especially from unscrupulous and abusive employers.

With the overarching vision of restoring the human dignity of refugees including restoring and nurturing hope, JRS has its main areas of work or services in the field of education, emergency assistance, healthcare, livelihood activities and social services. Some of the education activities include ensuring that Education For All (EFA) works for refugee and asylum seeker children as well. JRS also tries to promote early childhood development (ECD) and to increase personal competencies and self-esteem amongst adult refugees and asylum seekers through English Literacy training.

In the area of health, JRS has done and still continues to do a lot of advocacy work. Raising awareness about the rights of refugees to access health care is a major part of the work. This advocacy work includes assisting refugees to request reclassification to the low paying category as per their rights. The Home-based care team also helps with supply of food and sanitary materials, basic physical care including bathing, palliative care, counseling, referral to hospices, accompaniment to hospitals, transport fees, hospital fees and home care education.

The livelihoods programme offers vocational skills training opportunities for refugees. They are helped to register for courses like welding, hair and beauty, fork lifting, boiler maker, catering, etc. Accreditation of foreign qualifications and translation of their documents, if in foreign languages, also forms part of the livelihoods programme. Greater part of the livelihoods programme is the small business grants that are given to the refugees who have been stringently screened and offered an opportunity to be self reliant through small business opportunities.

In Limpopo despite the small size of the programme, we also have assistance given for burials. The project is however to a great extent an emergency assistance project helping mainly with food parcels, second hand clothing, blankets, rent, etc.  The one other special service in Makhado is the work with Unaccompanied Minors.

All of these programmes have a strong element of advocacy that accompanies them. These services are provided with the hope of creating a path for and encouraging local integration of refugees into host communities as it is essential for their survival. Our goal is to restore human dignity by increasing self-reliance among asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Gauteng and Limpopo leading to viable local integration.