Danielle Vella serves as the director of reconciliation and social cohesion for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). She has also served as publication coordinator for JRS, editor and writer for the African Jesuit AIDS Network and Canadian Jesuits International, a reporter for Vatican Radio, and a contributor to The Tablet, Times of Malta, and Asia News. She is author of Dying to Live: Stories from Refugees on the Road to Freedom (2020).
The photo was no bigger than the palm of my hand, the formal portrait of an Afghan family of seven. The father took the photo from his wallet with shaking fingers and placed it in my hands together with his wife’s ID card. Only the man and one of his sons, aged eight, had made it to Serbia, where I met them at a transit center for refugees. The rest got lost at the Iranian-Turkish border, a notoriously lethal pass of the journey to seek refuge because of the mountainous terrain, the weather, and the risk of interception by border guards.
The man said, “I was walking across the border with my family when the guards started shooting from both sides. I grabbed my son’s hand and ran, and the others ran somewhere else. The smuggler had a stick and a knife, and he was hitting me so I don’t stop. I don’t know where my family is. Is there anyone who can bring my family back?”
Being totally helpless to do anything was a big blow for me. It was one of countless times when I felt frustration at my powerlessness to act. I met this man in 2016, at a time when more than a million refugees streamed into Europe to claim asylum. Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) tasked me to follow the footsteps of the refugees from a Greek island, where many were arriving from Turkey, to the “promised land” of Germany. I interviewed refugees and shared their stories in weekly articles.
By the end of that mission, I had spiraled downwards into a place of hopelessness and anger. In part, it was the sheer enormity of the crises facing humanity, epitomized by “intractable” conflicts in so many parts of the world and the global statistic of 70 million refugees. But it wasn’t just that. It wasn’t only the horrors that the refugees fled or even the dangers of their journeys to seek safety through so-called “illegal pathways.” In the end, what I could not accept was the crushing of hope felt by so many refugees once they reached a place where they thought they would be safe but where instead they found themselves up against a culture of rejection and disbelief. Too often, sheer relief gave way to anxiety when asylum applications were stalled or rejected, when family reunification was not possible, and when refugees were faced with other outcomes that spelled more loss and uncertainty.
When I witness the despair of the refugees because they are unable to rebuild their lives, be it in the heart of the European Union or in a remote refugee camp in Africa, sometimes my hope dies too, because I see a world that creates and rejects refugees.
I find my way back to renewed service to refugees through my faith, by surrendering to God the stories of those I meet. The refugees are my teachers, as time and again, they impress me with their resilience and trust in God. It is they who give me reason to hope. This is not sentimentalism. It is what I have learned in more than 20 years of working for JRS: I persevere because of the refugees, because I get to know them and their stories, and because I witness their hope. I’ll never forget Jospin, a 16-year-old boy from Cameroon, who walked or cycled alone across six African countries to reach Spain. “I trust myself” is his constant refrain. “I know there is something better waiting for me out there.” I share the story of Jospin and many other refugees in a new book called, Dying to Live: Stories of Refugees on the Road to Freedom. This book makes for tough reading, but ultimately what I discern in the testimonies of the refugees is the triumph of hope.
My radar of hope scans multiple possibilities for change: that violence, poverty, and other causes of flight will diminish; that asylum policies will become more humane and create safer channels for people to access protection; that refugees will be welcomed and able to rebuild their lives. Last but not least, I have great hopes in what our own contribution can achieve.
I keep my hope alive by focusing on what I know, on what I can influence, and on what I can do, every day, to support the refugees I encounter and to invite others of goodwill to build spaces of hospitality and transformation. Triumphs in individual lives and at wider policy levels, however modest they might seem, foster hope. Likewise, whatever we do to help can achieve more than we can ask or imagine. I learnt this from Abdel Mohammed, whose story is also featured in Dying to Live. This young Eritrean refugee says he learned how crucial a “single gesture” could be when a man named Sheikh welcomed him to his home in Libya. Abdel had just crossed the Sahara and was alone and penniless at the time.
To keep hope alive, it is critical to temper expectations, both our own and those of the people whom we serve, because of all the factors outside our control. The mission of JRS places emphasis on accompanying refugees, and this is often about “hoping against hope” with them. Rev. Bill Yeomans, S.J., one of the first Jesuits to serve with JRS in the camps of Asia Pacific back in the 1980s, saw this as the best thing we can do for refugees. Often there is really nothing that we can do except to be there when everything seems hopeless and to honor the sacrifice and resilience of the refugees by refusing, together with them, to give in.
To conclude, I borrow a reflection from former JRS international director Rev. Mark Raper, S.J., about the nature of this hope. It is not about facile optimism that things will get better. Rather it is a hope rooted in faith that “those who sow in tears will reap in joy” (Psalm 126:5).