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Mirreille is a refugee from Rwanda that graduated from medical school in China last summer. Now she is working as a doctor assisting fellow refugees in Malawi. (Federica D'Ambrogi/Jesuit Refugee Service)

Vatican City, 10 March 2017 – On International Women’s Day, powerful women from different parts of the world gathered at the Casina Pia IV in the heart of the Vatican for the annual storytelling event Voices of Faith, co-hosted by the Fidel Gotz Foundation and the Jesuit Refugee Service.

This year’s theme was “Stirring the waters: Making the impossible possible” and aimed to showcase the important contributions that women of faith have already made and will continue to make in peacemaking and reconciliation efforts.

Fr Arturo Sosa SJ, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, was invited to give the opening speech at the event. While acknowledging that the fullness of women’s participation in the church has not yet arrived, he insisted on the need for collaboration. “We need to stand and work together as women and men of faith. I cannot put enough emphasis on this need for collaboration, as I believe that only together we can achieve what today seems impossible”, he said.

Women’s stories of achieving the impossible. Dr Mirreille Twayigira was the first speaker to share her story of defying all odds, from fleeing the genocide in Rwanda and the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to graduating from medical school at Shandong University in China. Mirreille navigated across DRC, Zambia and Angola for years before reaching the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi. She started at a JRS founded school and completed secondary school amongst the top six best performers in Malawi, gaining a scholarship from the Chinese government to pursue her education. She graduated in summer 2016 and now work as a doctor assisting fellow refugees. “I knew that my hard work would pay off. Many young refugees only need access to higher education. This is my message today: we need to invest in higher education for refugees.”
Twin sisters from Syria Nagham and Shadan also shared their experience of living in exile. They worked with JRS in Syria during the war, helping children to develop values and life-skills to cope with their feelings and suffering. Once they were forced to flee, they undertook the dangerous journey by boat from Turkey to Greece. They now live in Belgium and are working to replicate the life-skills program.

Founder of Project Futures, an Australian not-for profit organization that works in the Asia-Pacific region to end human trafficking and slavery, Stefanie Lorenzo, shared her experience of engaging with her generation of millennials. “I am here today to encourage young people that want to make a change in this world. Any single action matters”.

Closing the first session, Marguerite Barankitse, founder of Maison Shalom, captured the audience with her courageous story of resilience and love. Marguerite stood against the violence caused by the ethnic division between Tutsis and Hutus in her native Burundi. “Before I am a Tutsi, I am a Christian. I will not allow you to kill those people”, she recalls saying to a mob of local Tutsis going after a group of Hutus that were in hiding. Considered a traitor, she was forced to watch the Tutsis brutally kill the Hutus before her very own eyes. She assisted the orphans of the massacred victims and started working to give children an alternative to hate and revenge. Maggy was only 23 when she adopted her first child, a Hutu and a Protestant. Until now, her foundation Maison Shalom has come to the aid of more than 30,000 orphans and other needy children.

Voices of Faith 2017

Building effective leadership for Peace. During the second part of the event, Kerry Alys Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, moderated a panel of remarkable women coming from Europe, India, and the US.

“One element of female intelligence is compassionate action" pointed out Dr Scilla Elworthy, founder of the Oxford Research Group that for over 30 years is dedicated to researching defense-decision making and developing an effective dialogue between nuclear weapons policy-makers and their critics.

When asked about mentoring young women to ensure they participate in social justice, Sr Simone Campbell, A Sister of Social Service and executive director of Network, stressed the four virtues young women need to make their voices heard: “Joy, like this we see here today; Holy curiosity to listen, ask questions and learn from others; Sacred Gossip, meaning sharing the stories of hope and inspiration you have heard from others and letting them multiply; and finally, doing your part”.

“You have to be courageous when you see injustices. Without stirring the waters, you can’t change anything”, finally concluded Flavia Agnes, whose own experience with domestic violence inspired her to become a women’s rights lawyer and co-founder of the Majlis Legal Centre, which has provided legal services to 50,000 women since 1990.

Before the event came to its conclusion, Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International, presented all the panellist with the Women Sowers of Development Prize 2017. 

Thomas H Smolich SJ, JRS International Director, closed out the event. "Change will not happen unless we imagine it”, he said after thanking all the participants for having the courage to seek the impossible.

- Martina Bezzini, JRS International Communications Coordinator