This is the last column I shall write in the capacity as director of Jesuit Refugee Service UK. After 15 ½ years I shall be moving on into another role at JRS UK. It has been and continues to be a privilege to work at JRS.
The theme for this year’s World Day of Prayer for Migrants and Refugees (17 Jan) is Migrants and refugees challenge us: the response of the gospel of mercy. The last 15½ years have indeed been challenging. At times it has seemed that the political environment has been downright hostile towards refugees and migrants in the UK. In particular, the use of immigration detention has increased; asylum seekers have lost the right to work after 6 months; legal aid in immigration cases has gone entirely and has been severely curtailed in asylum cases; appeal rights have been restricted; healthcare rights have been reduced and asylum seekers were moved from the normal benefits system to a parallel asylum support regime with mandatory dispersal outside London and the South East of England for accommodation (barring a very few exceptions).
However, in many ways the greatest challenge over the years has been relational and deeply personal. I constantly find myself amazed and, humbled and inspired by the deep rooted faith of the people we accompany at JRS. Their generosity of spirit and openness encourages me to approach them in the same manner. They accompany me as much as I do them, and they are constantly concerned for my welfare.
One of the most poignant examples of this occurred seven years ago, when my husband died suddenly. All of the people attending our day centres at the time sent messages of sympathy and support. Some of them, out of the nothing that they had, brought forth meals, cards, flowers, prayers, expressions of sympathy and walked or bussed across London to deliver them to me. They took time out of their hectic and unpredictable lives to bring me comfort and spend time with me. They had a very real and dynamic sense of what true family and community means – one that is extremely challenging and which truly flows out of mercy.
In his message this year, Pope Francis writes:
“In the first place, versus a gift of God the Father who is revealed in the Son. God’s mercy gives rise to joyful gratitude for the hope which opens up before us in the mystery of our redemption by Christ’s blood. Mercy nourishes and strengthens solidarity towards others as a necessary response to God’s gracious love, “which has been poured into her heart through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5). Each of us is responsible for his or her neighbour: we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they live. Concern for fostering good relationships with others and the ability to overcome prejudice and fear are essential ingredients for promoting the culture of encounter, in which we are not only prepared to give, but also to receive from others. Hospitality, in fact, grows from both giving and receiving.”
I give thanks for all of the refugees I have encountered over the years and also for all of the volunteers, staff members and donors and supporters of our work at JRS. Together we have worked to build an alternative society, which values and accords dignity to every single person and in which we stand with each other in the spirit of solidarity.
This article first appeared in The Universe newspaper.