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Responding to disaster

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Fr Gerry Clarke, as well as being superior of Mulvey Park community, belongs to the Rapid Response Unit of the Jesuit Refugee Service. He has just returned from a briefing in Rome, repeating a curious mantra: Listen to the other… partners, listen to the people and listen to Mozart. Now what does that mean? Gerry explains:

The room is bright even though the blinds are halfway down the long windows. White-hot sunshine pours through the gaps to heat a room resonating to the sound of Mozart from big speakers on the far wall. Such is the scene as I entered the office of Peter Balleis SJ, International Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome. I had a question for him and I was going to record his answer just as I had done for two other staff members previously. How does JRS assess the needs of people who have just suffered a setback through war or natural disaster? You are on the ground, Haiti, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria; you have some money, some know-how. Who do you talk to and where do you start?

According to Peter: you listen to the partners, you listen to the people and then you listen to Mozart. I was puzzled.

Listening to the partners I understand: that’s talking to the UN, NGOs, getting data, reports, maps, studies, all the background information that helps you understand these people and their situation. And listening to the people? I can understand that too: you have to move among the ruins, find the people, enter their makeshift dwellings, their tents, hunker down, talk to them. They know what they need and they’ve already started finding solutions to the problems, so you need to listen to them. But Mozart? What is this Mozart thing? What could be more removed from the realities of a post-disaster scene? Is this escapism or is he simply crazy? “No”, he says, “really I assure you”. You have to find the consolation in your decision to intervene. You have to listen to another voice, the voice that moves you to compassion, the gentle voice that lights the fire to act. And when you hear that voice, then you know what to do.

Perhaps it seems something of a luxury for JRS to wait until it feels inspired to intervene, until we find the right voice or inspiration. Well, consolation is more than a good feeling; it is the beginning and end of our efforts, it’s the mover, the motivator, the fire that kindles the desire to share what we too have experienced: God’s love providing for us, even in disaster. And JRS tends to respond a little later than all the huge aid agencies which do such terrific work after catastrophes. Our teams like to build on relationships and with new companions. This is the spirit of its founder Fr Pedro Arrupe who was moved by the sight of the boatpeople on the South China Sea. And this is the spirit behind the new Rapid Response team which is in preparation at the International Office. JRS wants to capture anew the spirit of compassion and response by setting up a team which will reinforce the existing capacities of Jesuits and partners worldwide. It won’t respond to every crisis but it will assist the Society wherever it needs help to help the needy.

Interviewing Peter is part of my research for a Master’s thesis in humanitarian action at UCD and, as with all the other interviews, this time also I struck gold. Listening to music is a very soothing way to relax after a heavy day in a refugee camp. I think I’ll load some Mozart on my Ipod for the next trip.