For the last few weeks Milltown Park has welcomed a Malay-born Jesuit, Fr Bernard Arputhasamy, on medical leave for a back problem. He gives a vivid picture of the sort of work undertaken by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). After studies in accountancy, philosophy and theology, he was appointed director of JRS Asia Pacific, which comprises eight countries. Now he is director of the JRS in Jordan, with offices in Amman and Irbuk. It is stressful. A steady stream of refugees comes to his office, from Syria, Iraq, and many parts of the Middle East and Africa. They have nothing. Their needs are limitless, and it is difficult, but necessary, to have priorities; for instance a particularly vulnerable group would be unprotected single women, especially if they have children.
Bernard grows used to failing, to saying sorry, to being unable to offer material help. Funding is scarce and sometimes dries up altogether. “We cannot do all that is asked of us [‘us’ includes a team of three lay workers]. But we can do some things, and do them well. We give hope and support.”
The main work of his team is visiting people where they are sheltering, discovering their needs, helping where possible, and spending time with them. Some NGOs visit too, but often in a hurry, ticking the boxes, barely sitting down. Bernard sees the main thrust of the JRS as accompaniment and befriending, working in a direct and personal way. The refugees’ response is warm and welcoming.
Of course the job is never finished. The flood of incoming refugees outnumbers those who leave the country. Since last October 10,000 landed in Jordan from Iraq alone. There is increasing tension as ISIS edges closer to Baghdad and Jordan. In this situation nothing is more essential for JRS than a deep spirituality of service.