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Laura Oldfather June 20, 2023
A girl stands outside a makeshift shelter in 2018 at the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. As of mid-2023, Kenya has about 580,000 refugees registered in camps, principally in Kakuma and Dadaab, with another 100,000 in the process of registration. About 800,000 in Kenya have official refugee status. (OSV News photo/Baz Ratner, Reuters)

World Refugee Day, organized by the United Nations, takes place every year on June 20 to call attention to the plight of refugees around the world. Joan Rosenhauer, the executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, joined America on the phone June 14 to discuss J.R.S.’s mission of “accompanying, serving and advocating” for refugees and forcibly displaced peoples. Ms. Rosenhauer has been in this position for five years. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is Jesuit Refugee Service doing for World Refugee Day this year? What are you trying to bring attention to?

World Refugee Day is a really important opportunity for people across the country and across the world to focus on people who have been forced to flee their homes. There are more than 100 million of them around the world. It’s a huge challenge for our world, and it’s a huge population; and Jesuit Refugee Service responds to that reality with a mission that focuses on accompanying, serving and advocating for people who’ve been forced to flee their homes. We serve in nearly 60 countries, and we serve roughly 1.5 million people.

We have a couple of initiatives for World Refugee Day that we hope people will pick up on. One of the initiatives that we have is called the Dear Neighbor Collection, a collection of videos from our Middle East office: stories of amazing refugees who are trying to build a life, trying to build a community, trying to engage in livelihoods, trying to to move toward a future, despite having been displaced for many, many years.

Another initiative that’s going to be launched on World Refugee Day is something we’re calling the Artisans of Peace Campaign. That will be a set of resources that will be shared throughout the year that people can use to educate themselves. They can be used with family members; they can be used with in parishes, in schools, religious ed programs or in other community settings. They will include opportunities for advocacy, because that’s a critical step that people can take in order to ensure that the U.S. is playing the most positive role it can to support refugees and displaced people around the world.

How has the war in Ukraine affected the work of J.R.S.?

The war in Ukraine has had an enormous impact on J.R.S. because we are there in Europe trying to respond to the needs of refugees, and the numbers just exploded and the needs expanded dramatically. We were asked by the Jesuits to provide leadership for the Jesuit response in many of the countries in Europe, especially the countries that immediately border Ukraine. We have been developing programs, and we’ve been making a real effort to hire Ukrainians wherever we can, so that we help support their efforts to engage in a livelihood.

Most Ukrainian refugees are women and children because the men have been staying in order to fight. We are working to make sure that they have a community of support, they have some opportunities to provide education for their children and they have the opportunities to identify the resources that they need to have a house and have food and all of those daily necessities.

Can you give an update about the work that J.R.S. is doing in Syria?

We have been working in Syria since the war broke out. We continue to do a lot of that work, but that means that we were there when the earthquake hit and saw many of the people we were working with and our staff directly impacted. We have been really focusing on meeting immediate needs but also providing services like mental health and psychosocial support because one of the things we heard from our staff was the level of trauma experienced by people when their whole community collapsed and what little they had was lost yet again. It’s a repeating trauma for people.

Refugees from other countries may have gotten more media coverage, but the future for Afghan refugees in the United States is still uncertain. Why has legislative progress been such a challenge?

It’s very disappointing that it’s been such a challenge. It seems that it is a continuation of the developing culture in the U.S., which is that people who have been forced to flee their homes and who come seeking refuge in the U.S. are not as welcomed as they used to be. That’s why the engagement of the people that we work with in the U.S. through our campaigns is so important, because we have to build a culture where people fleeing their home are welcomed and given refuge here in the United States.

I’m sure that there’s an argument to be made that there are other priorities, but the challenge is that we have been a part of creating a real difficulty for these folks because of what happened in Afghanistan. And we need to make sure that they have the opportunity to build a decent life here and continue to have an opportunity to gain a chance at livelihoods and a path to at least permanent status, if not citizenship. The Afghan Adjustment Act is a critical piece of legislation that needs to be passed by Congress, but sadly, it has been very much delayed.

What have you seen since the recent ending of Title 42 in May?

There was a bigger influx of people before Title 42 ended than since it ended. We’re not seeing the massive numbers of people. We continue to see people come in, but most people want to do it legally…. They’re trying to use the app that the U.S. government has set up, and they’re trying to get appointments, and they’re trying to get into the United States and in connection with the asylum process. We’re seeing people continuing to need our support there. We have a Jesuit who provides legal advice to people; we have people who provide mental health and psychosocial support for folks and equip them to manage their stress as they’re becoming a newcomer in some other part of the country.

There are still a lot of people on the Mexican side who are waiting. People are fleeing desperate circumstances, and there’s no U.S. policy around our border that’s going to change that. I’ve talked with people who will describe the desperate circumstances where their daughter was being threatened with abductions from the gangs or becoming what they call a gang wife. And they said: “What else could I do? What would you do?” They fled and they came up to the U.S. and they’re hoping for safety for themselves and their and their children. That continues, but it’s not the massive numbers that we saw just before Title 42 was lifted.

An important Ignatian value is respecting and promoting the dignity of all people. How do you preserve the dignity of migrants in aiding them?

We have a real commitment to another important thing for the Jesuits, which is accompaniment, and it’s very much a consideration in the way that we work with people. We are always thinking about how are we being companions to them as they pursue their future. I think that is a reflection of basic respect for the dignity of every person, that they don’t deserve to be told what they need and given what we think they need. We accompany them, we listen to them, we promote their own agency in building a future, no matter how difficult the circumstances are.

You’ve been with J.R.S. for five years now. In your time working there, what has surprised you?

I don’t know that I would say it’s surprised me, but I will say that something that stands out when people ask me about my experience at J.R.S., the first thing that comes to mind is how remarkably resilient refugees are. I look at the situations that they’re in when I visit them and understand what they’ve been through to get there. And I think to myself that I would probably not be able to handle it as well as they are handling it. I would probably not be able to try to maintain a focus on how to move forward. I would be angrier, and I would be less willing to build a new community. But you see refugees in the settings, really trying to work together to support each other to see hope for the future. And it’s an honor to accompany them in that process.

When you talk about the work of J.R.S., is there a story or a specific experience you find yourself repeating often? Could you share that with us?

I think there are so many examples of people who are in very difficult circumstances and nonetheless find ways to be supportive and provide leadership for their community. One example is from a recent trip to Kenya in a camp called Kakuma, which is one of the largest refugee camps in the world, in a fairly isolated place. Our staff person was a young man who has a degree in physical therapy and could have stayed in Nairobi and had a decent job and led a comfortable life. And he chose to move to this refugee camp, where the conditions are very difficult. You can’t count on electricity, and it’s brutally hot, so you can’t even count on a fan. You can’t count on having access to water on a consistent basis. (We make sure our staff do have water, but it’s always a struggle.)

There’s lots of suffering that you experience, but he chose to be there because he knew that children who are born with disabilities in that camp have very little hope to maximize their ability to lead a productive and full life if they aren’t given therapy right from the beginning. They may never learn to hold their head up if somebody isn’t helping them as an infant to develop those muscles, and their parents don’t know how to do that. He made the choice to make a huge sacrifice to be there. And then he began training people in the community to go to the parents, and parents themselves became volunteers. Refugees themselves began to be helpers in the physical therapy program that helped these children with disabilities.

What goals do you have for the future?

One of our priority program areas is education, understanding that education at the higher levels has to lead to livelihoods. It’s not enough, at the higher levels, to just deliver classes. The classes have to lead people to be able to support themselves, to engage in income-generating activities and what is possible varies depending on where people are. The goal is to constantly improve our ability to provide first-rate education. I just had a conversation with some people who are interested in helping us increase the extent to which, in our primary and secondary education, technology is incorporated. Because that’s what’s happening for students in the U.S. and in Europe. We want refugees to have the same quality education as any students anywhere in the world. That’s what we want to provide for them. It takes a lot, and so it’s a goal. We’re not there yet.

How can people support World Refugee Day?

I would urge people to learn more. We’re going to have a page on World Refugee Day on our website at jrsusa.org that will provide resources so people can learn more about how they can engage in advocacy and other activities. We have a migrant accompaniment network that gives people a chance to volunteer to be a local source of support. There are volunteer ways that people can become involved. They can become involved in advocacy, and we have these sets of resources that can help people to become involved and then share it within their communities.

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