People who have been displaced by conflict, often repeatedly, and yet survive have the strength and ability to build a better life for their communities and countries if they can find support and help from someone prepared to listen, said participants in an online discussion.
In anticipation of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, to be celebrated Sept. 27, Jesuit Refugee Service and the women's International Union of Superiors General sponsored a Zoom conference Sept. 23 to listen to a displaced woman in Colombia and to the lessons learned by JRS staff in Congo and in Myanmar.
Cardinal Michael Czerny, undersecretary of the Vatican's Migrants and Refugees Section, introduced the discussion by summarizing Pope Francis' message for the 2020 world day, which was focused specifically on people who are displaced within the boundaries of their own nation after fleeing conflict, persecution or extreme poverty.
Pope Francis, he said, offered "six pairs of verbs that deal with very practical actions" in working with internally displaced people:
-- "You have to know in order to understand."
-- "It is necessary to be close in order to serve."
-- "In order to be reconciled, we need to listen."
-- "In order to grow, it is necessary to share."
-- "We need to be involved in order to promote."
-- "It is necessary to cooperate in order to build."
"It's painful to leave your life behind," Maria Santos Caicedo Arroyo, a community organizer and displaced person in Colombia, told the conference. "It's a painful experience even remembering it; it feels like it just happened today."
Yet, "we are resilient," she said. "It is possible to move forward despite the difficulties we suffer."
Sister Ines Oleaga, a member of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who worked with displaced people in Masisi, Congo, told the conference her three-and-a-half years there "were a gift."
Masisi, she said, was a place of "departure and return, fleeing violence and then coming back to farm" only to have to flee again.
The experience of repeated displacement and ongoing violence means that mistrust of others is "the greatest human and spiritual challenge," she said. "Division is encouraged" as armed groups prowl the countryside, killing or recruiting members.
Rosalyn Kayah, JRS country director for Myanmar, told the conference that even before she was born, her parents were forced to flee their homes because of civil war, and the violence continues to this day.
Many people experience multiple displacements, she said, recounting how "a 65-year-old man told me he had been displaced 11 times."
While diversity should be beautiful, "it depends on how we relate to it and respond to one another," she said. Unfortunately, in Myanmar, that response too often is hostile.
But what she has learned, she said, is that "we all have capacities; we all have something to contribute. We are all human beings, and we all need each other."
All of the speakers shared how their work with internally displaced people was modified over time to respond to the needs the people themselves identified; how much survival in formal or informal camps for displaced people relied on residents welcoming and caring for newcomers; and the central place of basic education and vocational training for promoting self-sufficiency.