Mexico: presence and listening count
05 November 2014

Zerene Haddad (right) chats with Aziza, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon who is in charge of the JRS kindergarten in the village of Kafar Zabad in the Bekaa Valley. (Peter Balleis SJ / Jesuit Refugee Service)
Emphasis is placed on presence, on being with rather than doing for.
Mexico, 5 November 2014 – Our work in the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) demands that we bring professional skills, knowledge and competence to our service with refugees. In addition to technical know-how and solid management skills, however, JRS needs team members who know what it means to accompany others and who put this understanding into action. Anne-Elisabeth de Vuyst stresses in her reflection, Presence and listening count, accompaniment is the "cornerstone" of JRS.

Taking the example of Jesus as a compassionate companion of the poor and marginalised, she offers challenging suggestions on how to grow in accompaniment, such as: learning to listen, being accessible, and learning how to receive as well as to give. She concludes by reflecting on accompaniment among team members of JRS: when a community is born that is able to share the joys and sufferings of refugees, this is JRS at its best.

I left the room where I had just said goodbye to a friend who had died a few days earlier. In my grief, I was not paying much attention to my surroundings. Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone detach herself from a group of friends to join me. We walked together, in silence, the short distance to the house where we were staying.

My friend's simple gesture stayed with me, although it was only years later that I was able to give it the name of 'accompaniment'. The act of walking quietly with me told me I mattered, that my grief was shared. Knowing you are not alone is a transforming experience in that you know, for certain, that you are valued in the eyes of others.

Presence is important. Being aware that others are there, knowing they care, can be our most urgent need at times. Jesus, in the hours before he was arrested and killed, went out to pray. Deeply grieved, even to death (Matthew 26:38), the only thing he asked of Peter and John was that they stay with him and keep watch.

When I joined JRS, I discovered that accompaniment is the cornerstone of the mission. Emphasis is placed on presence, on being with rather than doing for.

Get to know one another. It is important to allow people to get to know us and to be known by us. I was privileged to begin my service with JRS in a Guatemalan refugee camp in Mexico; privileged because the camp, Quetzal Edzna, allowed members of the JRS team to live among the refugees. It was there that the word 'accompaniment' became alive and real for me. Sharing daily life with the refugees, we learned where to fetch water, wood and food and to join in daily chores. Most importantly, mutual trust and respect grew. Sharing the refugees' joys and pains, we became their companions.

Learn to listen. Isaac was an older Guatemalan man who had been in the camp already seven years when we met. Every afternoon he sat under the same tree, sometimes with one or two of his great grandchildren, but more often than not alone. One afternoon I joined him and we sat in silence in the shade. This became a daily ritual: not many words spoken, only a comfortable silence. One afternoon he told me his story. It was a story of pain and betrayal, a story buried deep inside his soul, pursuing him at night, a story he had not yet had the courage to tell. "I tell you," he said, "because you are the only person who did not ask me any questions."

Being with refugees and asylum seekers, including detainees, you learn the importance of listening, an attentive non-judgemental listening, which conveys that the person and his story matter.

Nothing brings us closer to Jesus than learning to listen and to look carefully at the faces of the suffering people we meet. We learn to walk with people as he did on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Walking with the two disciples, Jesus listened quietly to their story, and empathised with them. There was no condemnation, no reprimand. Jesus bided his time and, when the time came, he revealed himself and inspired the disciples to become witnesses of his resurrection. They were then able to return to Jerusalem and announce the good news: We have seen the Lord!

Be accessible. Being a companion means being accessible. St Thomas Aquinas said the "Word became flesh in order to be accessible to us". As Jesus walked the roads of Palestine, he had no bodyguards or servants, only disciples. Disciples, Jesus said, had to receive the kingdom of God as a little child or they would never enter it (Mark 10:15). You can't be a disciple of Christ if children are afraid to play around your door. At the camp, our doors were always open. There was a constant coming and going of people, some in need, others just to say "hello" or to ask, "how are you?" But most memorable were the many children who would put their heads around the door, stare at us and smile. Such visits led to new and lasting bonds of companionship.

Accept Hospitality. Accepting hospitality is a sign of companionship too. Reading the Gospels, we discover that Jesus enjoyed the company of friends and delivered many of his teachings in their presence. He was often seen at parties – at Mary and Martha, at Zaccheus and at Simon.

In a refugee camp, food is not plentiful, and rations are given according to the number of family members. However people who have little often know how to welcome others and celebrate. Clarisse was a Rwandan refugee in a camp in Malawi. She welcomed us warmly into her humble home, a hut with walls made of cinder blocks and the earth offering a natural floor. The roughly planed table was covered with a white tablecloth and decked with an array of colourful flowers. Clarisse shared with us all she had and, we suspected, more than she usually had. She spoke about her journey, which had been filled with challenges beyond our imagination. In spite of the hardship remembered, her voice was filled with a sense of joy and thanksgiving. Our day with Clarisse left us with the feeling that we had received much more from her than we could possibly ever give. Here we were, with all our resources, but that day it was Clarisse who accompanied us.

Become a community. After years of living and working together as a JRS team, a bond is formed and we become a community. Pope John Paul II described this as a "spirituality of communion… an ability to think of our brothers and sisters as those who are a part of me. This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship. A spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother and sister who has received it directly but also as a 'gift for me'. A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to 'make room' for our brothers and sisters, bearing 'each other burdens'."

Live as Jesus lived. Living as Jesus lived is coming to know him personally through experience. It's about a journey of friendship. It's about losing one's life to ultimately gain it. It's about being last and becoming first. It's about seeking and finding. It's about giving and receiving.

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back (Luke 6:38).

The good news is that God calls each one of us to be a companion of Jesus. Our call is to follow where he leads us, in step with him, and with those we serve as he would have served.

Anne-Elisabeth de Vuyst SSMN
JRS Latin America,
JRS Southern Africa and
JRS Europe (1991-2013)