(Vatican Radio) Each day war, violence and persecution force thousands of families to flee their homes. To escape, they leave everything behind – everything except their hopes and dreams for a safer future.
On June 20th the world commemorates the courage, the strength and the resilience of the some 60 million refugees in the world today.
On this special day, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is asking all of us not only to provide refugees with a safe place to stay, but with opportunities to grow and contribute to society.
The very things Pope Francis has called for again and again as he has reached out to refugees in countless occasions and made appeals to world leaders and policy-makers.
The Director of JRS International, Tom Smolich SJ, explains to Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni why this year JRS is using the theme: “Open minds, unlock potential”.
“Open minds, unlock potential: this clearly ties into JRS’ focus on education for refugees and also on our ‘Mercy in Motion’ campaign this year - paralleling the Pope’s Year of Mercy – to open our hearts and invite people to focus on the real needs of refugees” says Fr Tom Smolich.
Smolich says out that JRS firmly believes that education not only is a fundamental human right, it is a basic but precious tool for refugees to be able to contribute to society and fulfill their human potential.
He points out that only about 2% of the money that is set aside for the needs of refugees goes to education.
“How can we expect people to be able to improve their lives? How can we expect people to be able to make a difference wherever they wind up – whether they stay where they are, whether they go back to their homes, whether they are resettled or relocated somewhere else – if they don’t have the education to make the difference?” he asks.
That, he says, is what we are trying to say with this year’s motto: “give people a chance, allow them to learn at least some of what most of us take for granted. You’ll unlock the potential”.
In it, he says is a spiritual potential, a human potential, an economic potential: “there is the grace that comes with being able to do what one is called to do by God”.
As regards JRS’s ongoing ‘Mercy in Motion’ campaign that aims to provide educational services to 100,000 more refugees by the year 2020, Smolich says the it also helping people tie in with the reality of refugees and remind them constantly that this is what Pope Francis means when he tells people to be aware of the situation and welcome refugees and migrants.
He says that 2016 will be remembered as the year in which many came to terms with the fact that the refugee issue is a global one: “how we respond to this global phenomenon is challenge all of us face right now”.
Pope Francis repeats his call to welcome the ‘stranger’ - the refugee – again and again. Smolich acknowledges that although sometimes we may feel overwhelmed, frustrated and feel the need to blame these people for the situation they find themselves in, he says it is important people understand the reasons that cause so many people to have to flee their homes and balance that with the right that everybody has to be recognized their basic human rights of food, clothing, shelter and – at this moment – especially safety.
“I think the Pope is trying to remind us that this is my sister, this is my brother, he/she is entitled to the basic gifts, the basic rights that I have as well” he says.
Regarding Pope Francis’ appeals to policymakers to improve the conditions of people seeking shelter and to safeguard their safety as well as to implement new legislation to integrate them and provide them with the possibility of contributing to society, Smolich says his certainly serve to remind them of “their better selves, those instincts that are deeply within us that say we are all God’s children and that’s the place we need to making decisions out of”.
“Not out of fear, not out anxiety, not out of the disruptive comments that politicians would use to make their own points” he says.
Smolich also comments on Pope Francis’ pastoral approach even when he does something powerfully symbolic like bring refugee families back to Rome with him from the island of Lesbos.
“People accuse him of being political at times, and I want to say ‘political’ is not a bad word. Political is choosing or making actions designed to bring change” he says.
He says the Pope’s going to Lampedusa a while ago, and then to Lesbos says: “my being with these people is something I can do; it is something that you can do as well”.
Smolich says that when the Pope invited Parishes and communities to take in refugee families he did not ask the impossible, “he asked what a good student of the human soul does. He asked for the possible”.
Regarding the significance of the annual World Refugee Day Smolich says that although refugee issues are part of our daily conversation, “it’s one of those things that does focus attention differently” and on how we may be able to respond.
“What we are trying to do is to make sure that it is the one day in which refugees are able to speak, (…) to allow refugees’ voices to be the leaders on June 20th ” he says.
And Smolich concludes inviting everyone to look at the JRS website which not only features testimonies and stories, but provides the opportunity for refugees to actually say what they know from their own experience.
To watch the JRS video "Open Minds, Unlock Potential" click here.
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