Dispatches from Sri Lanka, Day Three – Reflections on Reconciliation

Father Kenneth J. Gavin, S.J., the Regional Director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, is in Sri Lanka this week for a meeting of JRS Regional Directors.

Tuesday, December 1. How could Sri Lanka, a country still reeling after 25 years of civil conflict, be the right place for a workshop on reconciliation? The war here has just ended and its wounds on both sides are still fresh. The simple truth, however, is that Sri Lanka is a fine space — even a kind of sacred space — for the worldwide leadership of Jesuit Refugee Service to gather to discuss how reconciliation reveals the deepest mission of JRS. It is here that we have been invited to step into the heart of God and view through the eyes of the Trinity the broken world in which we live. How does JRS, with its mission to accompany, serve and advocate, help reconcile peoples whose lives have been so thoroughly broken and shattered?

This morning we listened to each other’s stories of both the power and the difficulty of reconciliation in the lives of refugees we have known. Many of them carry with them deep scars inflicted by callous and impersonal national and international responses to displacement that is an everyday occurrence for refugees and migrants. In today’s stories I was particularly moved by the work of JRS chaplains and pastoral visitors who work in detention centers throughout Europe and U.S., caring for the spiritual needs of detained migrants and asylum seekers. It is often there — in prisons and detention facilities — the need for and the call to reconciliation is experienced most deeply.

I will never forget the story of a 22-year old Mexican migrant, Francisco-Javier, who in early 2007 was killed by a U.S. border patrol agent while attempting to cross into southern Arizona from Mexico with his two younger brothers and a sister-in-law.

None of these young people carried a weapon and, in fact, they probably froze in fear when the border patrol apprehended them. No doubt, the arresting agent, too, must have felt threatened by these four young migrants. In his fear, he pulled out his firearm and shot Francisco-Javier.

Two days later, while celebrating Mass at a detention center north of Tucson, I was introduced to Francisco-Javier’s two surviving brothers, who had been detained there at the center. Their pain was still raw and they were clearly deeply concerned about their parents in Mexico, and the wife of one of the brothers who was being detained in the women’s section of the facility.

In difficult moments like these, I ask myself how can we in JRS begin to bring even a small sense of reconciliation and peace into the lives of these broken people? How can JRS help break down barriers of fear that make groups — like migrants and border agents — stand in such great fear of one another?

“There is no story for many refugees,” another regional director declared as he described the situation of an Eritrean woman who had fled her country only to find life more and more unbearable in one refugee situation after another — first a United Nations camp; then a Libyan detention center, then a squalid detention center on Malta. Despite all the physical hardships she had endured, the JRS director felt that her greatest hardship was being forced to live without any ties to a community. Like many refugees, her human dignity itself had been shattered during her years of years. She had become little more than a statistic and, like many men and women in detention, was known not by her name but by her bed number. JRS chaplains, in small but real ways, are a reconciling presence to this woman and to others like her. In accompanying them in small but real ways they proclaim, “You are not forgotten. You belong to us and you are part of our community, part of God’s family.”

It is stories like these that strengthen me when they odds seem so stacked against refugees and migrants in need, when reconciliation seems no more than an impossible dream.

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