This Sunday, 20 June 2021, is World Refugee Day. David Moriarty, Assistant Director of JRS Ireland, reflects below on the impact of the #CHANGE project and how building empathy and understanding is critically relevant to this year’s theme: Together we heal, learn and shine.
#CHANGE: Together we learn
In 2019, the Jesuit Refugee Service launched the three-year #CHANGE Project seeking to challenge the rise of racism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment growing across Europe.
The educational and awareness-raising initiative offers secondary school students insight into the lived experience of forced migrants, fostering critical thinking and encouraging young people to become agents of change for the future. #CHANGE facilitates encounters between students and refugees and encourages them to work together for more inclusive societies.
Over the past two years, #CHANGE has been delivered in 9 EU countries. In Ireland, 19 schools are currently participating with over 2,500 students actively involved.
Human face of forced migration – Changing hearts and minds
Eoghan Keogh, who oversees social justice outreach in Belvedere College SJ, highlights that “CHANGE elicits a sense of compassion. It enables students to understand forced migration is a human problem…not an ‘us and them’ problem. Students don’t remember a huge amount of statistics but CHANGE does have an impact on the heart. When the word refugee is used, they think of them as a person with a story, as someone they can connect with.”
Across the Irish Jesuit schools there has been strong support for #CHANGE. In Crescent College Comprehensive SJ, Grainne Delaney coordinates students engagement with the project; Martina Crawford has taken the lead in Gonzaga College SJ; Jerry Sheehan promoted project activities in Coláiste Iognáid SJ; while #CHANGE was delivered in Clongowes Wood College SJ with the help of Francis Marron.
The message of #CHANGE also resonated strongly with students and teachers in non-Jesuit schools. Discussing the impact of the project in St Raphaela’s Secondary School, one student reflected on the effect of hearing the lived reality of forced displacement: “When Sister Irene [Guia] came in and spoke I was quite taken aback and actually cried…what she said just opened my eyes…I can’t even put into words how much empathy I have for anyone that is going through or has gone through this and I can’t wait to find out how I can help.”
Working together for inclusive societies
A key element of #CHANGE is the moment of encounter between students and refugees, which aims to foster a deeper sense of mutual understanding and connection. Amani, a #CHANGE refugee speaker explains:
“I am very interested in helping the public understand what asylum seekers and refugees are going through in Ireland…to spread the news…correct information. We are part of society and should play a role in helping others understand. Feeling involved is very important…CHANGE is helping me…I feel less isolated…it is nice to share your principles and ideas with others.”
Reflecting on the key role of students participating on the project, Amani continues: “Being a refugee is not an easy feeling…It is very important to share this experience. They [the students] are the leaders of tomorrow. They have to understand what is going on around them…around the world.”
Finally, echoing JRS Ireland’s call for the promotion of a vibrant, inclusive and dynamic society in which all residents belong and are equally valued, regardless of their colour, creed or culture, Amani concludes with a call to support #CHANGE and the principles underpinning the project:
“I encourage everyone to be involved. If you want a healthy society, you have to have diversity, in religion, in colours, in understanding. By knowing each other, you will know they are just like us.”
Eugene Quinn, National Director of JRS Ireland, acknowledged and thanked participating schools, students, teachers, leaders and refugee contributors for engaging so positively and proactively with #CHANGE. He paid tribute to the hard work and dedication of JRS Ireland staff, Hailey O’Shea and David Moriarty, in successfully rolling out the project despite the considerable Covid-19 challenges.
Mr Quinn emphasised “This project has an important role in changing the hearts and minds of the next generation, raising awareness of the lived realities of forced migration, challenging myths and misinformation, celebrating diversity and highlighting the positive contribution forced migrants can make to host communities.”