Over the past six weeks we have had the joy of welcoming two Jesuits in training to JRS, who have been helping us with our emergency response to refugees. It’s been such a pleasure to get to know Sam & Mikhael, and witness their positive energy, dedication and impact on our work. I met with them on Zoom to look back at their time with us, and reflect on encountering God in our work accompanying refugees.
Jo: Tell me a bit about yourselves?
Mikhael: I’m currently a first year novice in the Society of Jesus testing my vocation as a Jesuit brother. My first experiment, or placement, has been here at the Jesuit Refugee centre. Prior to the novitiate I was a member of the SVP, accompanying elderly people, housebound people, & arranging masses & social events for those who were otherwise unable to attend. I was also helping with the chaplaincy at HMP Berwyn in Wrexham.
Sam: I’m a second year novice and I used to work in international development. I spent time in Congo with OXFAM doing advocacy work with internally displaced people. I personally was really excited to be coming to JRS. I actually visited a friend when he was here on experiment before I joined – so I just feel grateful that we’ve been able to have the placement during the pandemic.
Jo: Can you tell me a little more about the sort of work you’ve been doing with us, and how you have found it?
Mikhael: One of the things which I was actually seeking prior to my placement at JRS, was forms of ‘humble tasks’ – things that are essential in serving and assisting people but that perhaps aren’t on the forefront of people’s view. I’ve been doing a lot of that here and I’ve been really glad to do it. I’ve been packing food and toiletries parcels to be delivered to refugee friends, and actually calling the friends of the JRS to arrange deliveries with them and to see if they want things outside the scope of the foodstuffs. So toys, clothing, those little extra touches which I think at times can be important to people. As I’ve gone on, especially with the phone calling, I’ve become more confident in talking to people and you know, asking them how they’re getting on.
Sam: I’ve mostly been packing hygiene packs and emailing donors to thank them.
Jo: What has been your favourite thing about your time at JRS?
Mikhael: I think the whole experience comes together as a one. Packing the food parcels after speaking to people, learning what their likes and their dislikes are, that’s fun because you can tailor it to people individually.
To share an experience I had the other day, which shows how I have been encountering God in the work of the JRS in the little things and in the small moments: I was talking to one of our refugee friends who said that he had been moved from a hotel into an actual house and I was so happy for this guy I had never met before! Because I knew this meant that now he actually has full cooking facilities and I shared in his joy in that moment, over something that perhaps to other people might be really small. I was just really glad that he had more freedom in some way to enjoy something that has been very limited to him for a very long time.
Sam: The vaccination clinics, I think that’s been one of the highlights for me. Also when we’ve been delivering on Fridays to refugee friends. That’s been great – those small interactions with people, they last maybe a couple of minutes, but they’ve just been wonderful. They’ve been like moments of great consolation for me. It’s very small stuff, but it feels like we’re able to do something, and give something concrete. I’m just finding there are all these small moments of joy and consolation.
Jo: Is there anything that has surprised you on this placement?
Mikhael: Yeah, I didn’t expect to have as much interaction with refugee friends which has meant that I’ve actually received something greater than what I was expecting. It’s surprised me in ways how close I’ve been able to get to the people that the JRS accompany and walk alongside them. Really, I didn’t think there would be that much opportunity for that because of the current restrictions, so that has exceeded my expectations.
Sam: The morning team meetings on Zoom at 10am have actually have surprised me because, cumulatively looking back over the past six weeks there’s been something there about feeling part of the team, and feeling part of JRS culture in a way. So even though we haven’t been able to meet many people, they’ve been great moments.
Jo: Most of your ‘experiment’ with us has taken place during Lent and Holy Week. Can you share any of your experiences reflecting on this important Christian period in connection to your encounters with refugees?
Sam: One of the themes of Christianity is obviously the encounter with the Risen Christ and there is something key about that encounter then feeding into other encounters. So although for me, for Lent, I hadn’t given anything up, it feels like God’s given me the kind of Lent that I’ve needed – which has been around encounter with Christ, but that seems to have fed, and been fed by, encountering other people. There’s also the companionship with Mikhael – that we’ve got to know each other a lot better, spending so much time together, and just accepting each other more deeply.
I don’t make the phone calls [to refugee friends] so the main time of encounter for me, is on the Fridays when we’re delivering parcels to refugees. They’re very brief, very small encounters with people, but they do leave me changed by the end of the day. And I feel very grateful for them.
I think the question I’ve been asking myself this Lent is ‘how am I building the kingdom of God, how am I doing things that are building people up?’. So one of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about being at JRS is being part of a community that feels to me like it’s building people up, that the kingdom of God is being built and there’s this mutual love and respect.
Mikhael: Yeah, I have noticed a theme running alongside my work that spills in to my life outside the JRS centre. I feel that God has been moving me more closely to a place of seeing and recognising the humanness of people who really live on the margins of society – refugee friends, the homeless, the destitute – and actually being given the permission to interact with people who live in these places, just as I would interact with my friends.
Before coming to the JRS I felt like I was always being force-fed an image of refugees, of homeless people, as a particular stereotype. I didn’t agree with it, but there’s still that noise in the back of your head.
Since being here, I’ve been able to start to see more of myself in my interactions with refugee friends, and with those who are homeless outside of the JRS. I’ve been able to think along the lines of ‘well, if it were me and I was in that situation, how would I want to be approached?’. I’ve almost been given permission to be who I am with people, regardless of their circumstances – because I’m not talking to an alien from outer space. I’m talking to someone who I could be, and they could be me. So it’s actually been quite liberating and quite freeing, to be allowed to be who I am with them, and they with me.
Jo: And are there any ways in which your encounters with refugees have demonstrated for you an Easter church?
Sam: I mean, for me it comes back to the Gospel. It just feels like there’s something really joyful around this idea of building the kingdom of Christ. So, again at our daily morning meetings on Zoom, there’s a sense of team, and a sense of collaboration and working together for something that goes beyond each person, that is for others, and as a consequence, I think there is joy there. One of my favourite days has been going to Emilie house and simply moving furniture around the rooms, in the hope that the refugee women who move in there will feel comfortable. It feels joyful. And on the other side there feels like a lot of anger and hatred [towards refugees in the media]. It’s a reminder that working for, and with, the marginalised is hard, but it’s joyful, and it’s where happiness is to be found.
Mikhael: I’d say an Easter church is the gift we are given in the resurrection and I guess, through the work that we’ve been doing here, from the very beginning – to what you guys do, day in day out, is in a way, that gift – from the small things to the big things. I guess from my experience, it’s any time that you get that movement to go a little further, or to give a little more of yourself. For example, if you’re packing a food parcel and you know that someone likes something in particular, going out of your way to organise it in such a fashion that it’s somehow tailored just for that person. Or even asking someone how they are. I remember having a conversation with one of the guys who was quite nervous about one of the vaccines, and he said ‘Are there any side effects?’ and I could have just said to him. ‘Oh, no it’s all fine’. But actually I gave him my experience and shared a bit of myself saying when I had the same vaccine I suffered from quite severe side effects, which he was very grateful for.
I think he was quite glad that I just told him the truth about my experience. And I know that in the end he came to JRS and he got his vaccine. So it’s these little things that are gifts, that essentially are part of my representation of the Easter church, but it’s all year round in what the JRS does.
Jo: Is there anything that you feel that you might take with you into the next stages of your life and into the next stages of your journey with the novitiate?
Mikhael: Yes actually I’m going to be personally taking a lot less fear, in terms of knowing that I’m allowed to love in whatever way I am as a person, and how God has made me to be; that it’s okay for me to do that. And coming away from the JRS has allowed me to act and to accompany, but to also allow myself to be accompanied by whoever it is that God allows me to cross paths with. There’s been a couple of occasions especially near the end of this experiment where I’ve seen someone and I just kind of felt a desire to go in and engage with that person, regardless of how many people are around me, regardless of what my mind might say. So there’s a lot of freedom in terms of being who I want to be and I’m going to do what is in my nature to do, and how I’ve been created to do it. And I think that is something that has been pruned a bit, worked out with God since being here, but will also be something that I can take with me and then grow more so later on as well.
Sam: What I marvel at with JRS is that it’s a faith-based organisation but you don’t have to sign a creed to sign a contract. So there’s something quite special for me about how JRS sits with its faith, but also welcomes people of other faiths, and people of no faith. The staff is actually pretty diverse compared to various other organisations. I think it does bring something really important, the fact that people are coming from very different perspectives, both refugee friends and staff. Sarah, [director of JRS] in the meeting we had at the beginning, was talking about how she was proud that each one of the members of staff of JRS could articulate the mission of JRS and what it meant personally for them, so that it wasn’t just something that was imposed, but something that was owned, and I think that’s been my experience and it’s very impressive.
Jo: Any final parting words about your time with us?
Sam: Just that I think it’s been fun for us both, I think we both really enjoyed it. You know, we live in a culture that’s generally so focused on pleasure and personal fulfilment, and so we’ve been spending six weeks doing something that isn’t focused on pleasure and personal fulfilment, but it’s been way more fun than if we’d spent the six weeks focusing on ourselves, so I’m pretty grateful for that.
Thank you Sam, it’s great to hear you have had fun and thank you both for opening up and sharing your time with us!
Donate to our Emergency Response and help us continue to deliver parcels, and offer support to destitute refugees.