JRS in the UK
In the UK, JRS works mainly with detainees and destitute asylum seekers. JRS-UK started 20 years ago when Bernard Elliott, a Jesuit Brother, who died in 2012, established a system of support for Vietnamese refugees. This interview, first published in 2005 on the 25th anniversary of JRS International, tells the story.
So Brother, how did you first get involved in JRS?
JRS was formed in the Far East by the Fr. General. I was at the other end, receiving the Vietnamese in London. They were all refugees then, not asylum seekers. This was quite some years before JRS functioned in Europe. A wing at Osterley was given over to the Vietnamese housing (run by Refugee Action). I was in touch with the Vietnamese who worshipped at Maria Assumpta so invited them to Heythrop College (then at Cavendish Square). We played table tennis and badminton! They were very good. A badminton group went to France and won a championship there.
How do you feel JRS has grown in the UK?
Well the whole thing has changed. In 1980 all we were trying to do was settle people in London. The government then (and the whole of Europe) were in favour of people coming. But they had a policy of dispersing families all over England, so you’d have a family put into Blackburn, but a sister into Newcastle. There were terrible divisions.
All over the country?
Yes. The local people were very friendly, but the refugees were always so lonely, surrounded by a different climate and unfamiliar language. So lonely that they came back to London. They were happy to be at Heythrop with people speaking Vietnamese.
You don’t speak any other language, yet seem to get on so well with everyone.
More by luck than anything else, and good will on their part!
Is this idea of accompaniment the most important for you?
Well I wouldn’t say I accompany them; the aim is to help them accompany each other, putting people in touch with each other. That’s certainly valid now as it was in the 1980s. It can be terribly lonely to be a refugee, especially as a single man.
What are your hopes for the future with JRS?
That depends very much on manpower and finance! It’d be very nice to have a real centre for refugees from all countries, providing food and so on. I’d rather have a drop-in centre than accommodation; you’d be able to deal with a lot more people. Also if you have a day centre you can invite volunteers to meet the refugees; it’d be better for integration. A residential place would be by its very nature exclusive.
The Jesuit Refugee Service is an international Catholic organisation set up in 1980 by Fr. Pedro Arrupé SJ, then Father General of the Society of Jesus, as a spiritual and practical response to the plight of refugees at that time. Its mission is to accompany, to serve and to plead the cause of refugees and forcibly displaced people. JRS is now working in over 50 countries worldwide where there are over 20 million refugees worldwide and a further 25 million displaced within their own countries.
Working wherever the needs of displaced people are urgent and unattended by others, JRS offers a human and pastoral service to refugees and the communities who host them through a wide range of rehabilitation and relief activities. Services - pastoral care, education for children and adults, social services, counselling, and health care - are tailored to meet local needs according to available resources.
JRS is grounded in Catholic social teaching and draws on the principles of Ignatian spirituality in discerning with whom we work. All members share a common set of values and principles concerned with justice, the dignity of the person and a responsibility to carry out the social mission of the Church.