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By Therese Fink Meyerhoff
Fr. Jeff Harrison, SJ
Fr. Jeff Harrison, SJ

The two and a half years Fr. Jeffrey Harrison, SJ, spent working with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) taught him a different way of looking at suffering.

“You’re dealing with people who every day are on the edge,” he says. “In America, you hear ‘they don’t feel things the way we do.’ But of course, they feel things. For most of us in the States, if suffering is on a scale of 1 to 10, we live at about a 2, maybe. So, when something does happen – a serious sickness or a death – we go to a 10. Refugees live every day at a 7 or 8. So, when something terrible happens, they don’t have as far to go to reach a 10. They have figured out how to suffer. They’ve learned to live with it.”

Jesuit Refugee Service was established by former Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe in response to the Vietnamese refugee crisis of the 1970s. The international organization has a mission to accompany, serve, and advocate on behalf of refugees and forcibly displaced persons. It provides education as a way to help refugees heal and determine their own future. It works with other organizations to meet the most basic of needs – food, water, fuel and housing, as well as education – for people who have only what they were able to carry with them.

November 14, 2020, marks JRS’s 40th anniversary.

Father Harrison served two “tours” with JRS. He spent most of his first tour (1994-96) in Nairobi, Kenya, in administrative service, but he wanted to work in a refugee camp. He got his wish in 1998, when he was assigned to a camp in Sudan. The country was in the midst of a civil war. Most of the people in the camps were displaced persons, not refugees – Sudanese who fled their homes because they were unsafe. The camp was located near the border with Uganda, in what is now the country of South Sudan. JRS provided education services, while Catholic Relief Services provided food and Norwegian People’s Aid provided healthcare.

“Education was key,” Fr. Harrison said. “We worked with tens of thousands of children. We also did a lot of teacher training, so that the people could take the school with them. We provided certifications and focused on sustainability so that they could do it without us.”

Classes met in clearings with virtually no supplies. Students brought a bowl with them so they could have one meal that day.

They also taught income-generating skills, including bookkeeping and how to sell their crafts or other products.

While he was there to teach, Fr. Harrison will tell you he learned a lot, too. He came away a different person.

“No one really listens to refugees. People would come in and start to tell their stories, and I could tell pretty quickly what they were getting to. We did education. If they came with a problem about their papers I’d say, ‘Let me send you to the people who can help you.’ And they would start all over again. They needed to tell their story, and they needed someone to listen to them. So, I learned to let them tell their story.”

One day Fr. Harrison heard a tale he’ll never forget. A woman came in, and she was talking about her sick baby. JRS didn’t provide medical services, but he knew he had to listen, and then he could give her a referral to a clinic.

“It turns out she was on her way to the clinic when the baby died in her arms,” he said. She happened to be in front of the JRS building. “So, she came in and started talking to me. Then she unwrapped her baby. She’d been holding her dead baby all this time she’d been talking to me.”

Father Harrison took her to the cemetery and paid the fee so this mother could have her child buried.

“You just never knew,” Fr. Harrison said. JRS workers never knew what grief they would be invited to share next. And it turns out that God can be found in shared grief. That’s one of the lessons Fr. Harrison took away from his JRS experience.

The first Christmas Fr. Harrison was in Nairobi, he decided to have a Christmas party, complete with food and gifts. The day of the party, he said a blessing before the meal, then threw it open to others to say something.

“Each and every one of them offered a prayer of thanksgiving,” Fr. Harrison said. “They are going on and on about how good God has been to them. By this time, I knew their stories. This woman didn’t know if her husband was alive or dead; that one lost her child. I knew the horrors they had been through, and yet they were praising God for the goodness in their lives. I almost melted. These people had been through the most horrific things and still were praising God.”

The longer he listened, the more he realized the refugees had a very personal understanding of God. “God wasn’t somewhere up in the sky pulling strings. God was with them on the road when they fled. It was a God of imminence.”

People ask, ‘Why did God do this?’ Father Harrison says, “What refugees taught me is that when it comes to suffering, why is the wrong question. How. How do I suffer? Does my suffering open me up to other people’s suffering, or does it close me off? There, in the camps, suffering united people. That just blew me away.”

It’s now been more than 20 years since Fr. Harrison returned from his service with JRS, but he was changed for good. “I understand things now from the poorest, most oppressed people on earth. It’s a different way of looking at God, and I have to share that view of Christianity with others.”

Read more about the work of JRS. 

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