Jesuit Refugee Service has a very specific answer to Pope Francis’ call to put mercy on the leading edge of a church reaching out to the peripheries. The answer is education.
With a campaign called “Mercy in Motion,” J.R.S. is trying to raise $35 million this year so that by 2020 it can educate an additional 100,000 refugees per year.
Just 36 percent of the world’s refugee children go to some form of secondary school. Fewer than 1 percent get anything beyond secondary school. In the world’s largest refugee crisis, more than 2.6 million Syrian children are out of school.
Jesuit Refugee Service has more than 150,000 students in its educational programs around the world, but that is not much in a world with 60 million people living as refugees or at risk of becoming refugees. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says 51 percent of the refugees are under the age of 18.
The refugees who will shape the 21st century are everywhere, not just in the Middle East, said Thomas H. Smolich, S.J., international director of J.R.S. “People are realizing now, finally, it really is a global phenomenon,” he said. “This is not about Syria and Europe. This is a whole interconnected reality.”
“Education is the real game changer. If the average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years, what are you going to do with those 17 years?” he asked. “We’re trying to respond to needs—trying to respond as part of the church doing that.... That, to me, makes sense, whether Pope Francis calls a Year of Mercy or not.”
In Syria—where the Jesuits have deep historical ties—J.R.S. finds itself doing education and more. “We’re playing, I think, a very distinctive role in Syria. We’re one of the few N.G.O.’s who are actually in Syria,” he said. “Part of our goal and our way of working is that we don’t see this response [to the refugee crisis] as a sectarian response. We serve Muslims. We serve Christians. Our staffs are made up of Christians and Muslims. Our goal here is that eventually this war will end. Eventually, Christians and Muslims will be working together in Syria again. How do we start laying the seeds for that?”
Every J.R.S. education program includes a psychosocial component because every J.R.S. school is trying to teach traumatized, displaced children. In Lebanon, that requires a social worker in every school and program.
Online courses designed and delivered from the Jesuit network of universities in the United States have enabled J.R.S. to dramatically expand its offerings to post-secondary refugee students, but the critical need is with younger children where a human, interactive process of teaching and learning is more important than content delivery, Father Smolich said.
For refugees who have been treated as objects and obstacles by regimes, armies, border guards and officials, healing begins by humanizing their experience. Father Smolich said he wants refugee schools to be places of human encounter.
“Pope Francis is onto something here. You start with the encounter,” he said. “The church is at the frontiers. We figure out what to do based on that encounter.”
Math class in a refugee camp does not solve all the problems, but it does solve some of them.
“I hope it gives them a sense of stability. I hope it gives them access to jobs. I hope access to some future beyond being moved from camp to camp when the going gets tough,” said Father Smolich.