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Educating Refugees: Proclaiming a Gospel of Hope
01 July 2010

Two boys at the Jesuit Refugee Service education program at St. Vartan in Aleppo, Syria. (Fr. Peter Balleis, S.J. - Jesuit Refugee Service)
About every ten years in recent history Jesuits have held a general meeting in Rome to take stock of themselves and their ministry – and to discern where the Lord’s Spirit is calling them in the years to come. The most recent general congregation of the Society of Jesus, in 2008, highlighted the need for proclaiming a “Gospel of hope” in the darkness of our world:

"To follow Christ bearing his Cross means announcing his Gospel of hope to the many poor who inhabit our world today. . .  Human beings need food, shelter, love, relationship, truth, meaning, promise, hope. Human beings need a future in which they can take hold of their full dignity; indeed they need an absolute future, a 'great hope' that exceeds every particular hope."

Reflections for prayer

Life is, indeed, a struggle for survival for many of our world’s poor. More than one million Iraqis have sought refuge in Syria during the past seven years. Many of these refugees are poor, living anonymously in large cities with little hope for a brighter future. Often Iraqis in Syria are highly educated professionals who had solid jobs and careers back home in Baghdad or Mosul. Now they cannot meet their families’ basic needs. In Syria, these urban refugees can be reasonably sure that they are safe from bombs. But they are also painfully aware that their deprived and uncertain existence in exile presents other risks, especially for their children, many of who are growing up without an education. JRS is working to see that education is available.

Two Iraqi boys pushed open the iron door to the courtyard. “Is this Deir St. Vartan? We heard we can attend courses here, is it true?” Impressed by the spacious classrooms smelling of fresh paint and the friendly welcome, the boys jostled to talk first. Mustafa is lucky: he goes to the local secondary school although he has problems with some subjects. “I can’t follow what the French teacher says. In Baghdad, we didn’t learn French.” Fadi doesn’t go to school because he has no papers to certify that he completed his third year in Mosul. His old school is now a military base.

The Jesuits founded Deir (Convent) St. Vartan, also known as the “Armenian school,” 100 years ago to serve Armenian refugees. In November 2008, after much needed renovations, JRS started after-school and social activities for Iraqi refugees and poor Syrians in one wing of the building. Activities include courses in computer skills and languages, and special tuition to sit for secondary school exams. Within weeks, 250 people enrolled and there are plans to expand.

A week after their first visit, the two boys turn up again, books tucked under their arms. French is in the blue room, where Mustafa joins 22 boys and girls, while Fadi follows Mr. Kamil to the computer room. Fadi sits near Namat, who is sharing a computer with her father. The young girl is thrilled: “My parents kept me indoors after war started in Iraq, they were so afraid. Now, I can learn computer skills.”

Scripture for reading

(Romans 8:18-27)

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.

For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God;

for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope

that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.

We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;

and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees?

But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.

In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.

And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God's will.