Moved by the situation of the Vietnamese boat people and following his visit to the Asian region, Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ, then Superior General of the Jesuits, decided to start some concerted effort by Jesuits to help the displaced people. This decision led to the establishment of an apostolate which came to be known as the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). The gospel values and the social teaching of the Church played an important role in this decision.
JRS, an international Catholic organisation, carries its mission of accompanying, serving and advocating on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons in over 51 countries, including Islamic and non-Christian countries. It also undertakes services at national and regional levels with the support of an international office in Rome. JRS was officially registered on 19th March 2000 at the Vatican State as a foundation. More than thirty years later, what started as a humble and temporary response to the plight of displaced people, is now a semi-autonomous organisation of the Jesuits.
As South Africa has no camps, all the refugees here are urban refugees. That means they have to find their own means of survival including shelter or accommodation, education for their children or themselves and some form of income or employment. Consequently they are in a vulnerable situation and in many cases they are exposed to all kinds of abuses especially from unscrupulous and abusive employers.
With the over-arching vision of restoring the human dignity of the refugees including restoring and nurturing hope, JRS has its main areas of work or services in the field of education, emergency assistance, healthcare, livelihood activities and social services. In Gauteng where JRS has a bigger project, the three main areas are education, health and livelihood activities. Some of the education activities include ensuring that Education For All (EFA) works for refugee and asylum seeker children as well. This will also include informing parents of the rights and obligations of refugees. JRS offers partial/full school fees in both primary and secondary, school uniform, transport and stationery for the refugee children. JRS also tries to promote early childhood development (ECD) and to increase personal competencies and self-esteem amongst adult refugees and asylum seekers through English Literacy training.
In the area of health, JRS has done and still continues to do a lot of advocacy work. Raising awareness about the rights of refugees to access health care is a major part of the work. It also includes running workshops as we did in Makhado during the month of April. This was after a Zimbabwean was recently left to die on the premises of the hospital in Makhado. JRS does a huge amount of monitoring the access to health care for refugees through visits to hospitals and meeting with hospital officials. This advocacy work includes assisting refugees to request reclassification to the low-paying category as per their rights. The home-based care team also helps with supply of food and sanitary materials, basic physical care including bathing, palliative care, counselling, referral to hospices and accompaniment to hospitals, transport fees, hospital fees and home care education.
In the livelihood programme, refugees are offered opportunities in the vocational skills training field. They are helped to register for six month courses such as welding, hair and beauty, fork-lifting, boilermaking and catering. Accreditation of foreign qualifications and translation of those documents, if in foreign languages, also forms part of the livelihood programme. The greater part of the livelihood programme is the small business grants that are given to the refugees who have been stringently screened and offered an opportunity to be self reliant through small business opportunities.
All of these programmes have a strong element of advocacy that accompanies them. These services are on the one hand provided with the hope of creating a path for and encouraging local integration of refugees into host communities, as that is essential for their survival. On the other hand, they are a way of helping them access the socio-economic assistance and institutions they need.
Our goal is to increase self-reliance among asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Gauteng and Limpopo leading to viable local integration. JRS aims to identify and give capacity for self-sufficiency to these vulnerable groups with a primary focus on new arrivals and those unable to support and maintain themselves.
In the work that JRS does, it is very easy for us to be worried about the many people that we have not been able to help and ignore those many achievements despite the difficult conditions under which we work. The good relationships that JRS has managed over the years to establish with schools, hospitals, and colleges are some of the most important achievements that could be cited. The most important achievement that JRS would like to see is the refugee becoming self-reliant and being able to take care of his or her family. We have seen many reach that level but the one most impressive was when last year, one of the refugees who started with JRS in South Africa, finished and graduated with his PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand. It was an inspiring and encouraging moment for all who knew him from the days when he arrived in South Africa with his family. He is one among many who encourage our teams to continue in spite of the challenges and difficult moments of accompanying refugees.