Among refugees, my heart found a home
24 July 2012

Fr. Gary Smith, S.J. in South Africa, 2009. (photo by Kenneth J. Gavin, S.J. - Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
(Washington, D.C.) July 24, 2012 — Fr. Gary Smith, S.J., author of They Come Back Singing: Finding God with the Refugees1, has served refugees as a member of Jesuit Refugee Service since the year 2000. Fr. Smith, a member of the Society's Oregon Province, began his work with JRS by serving Sudanese refugees in Uganda; most recently he was Pastoral Coordinator at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Here he shares some of his thoughts as he prepared to leave his most recent assignment with JRS last month. 


"One never reaches home," she said. "But where paths that have affinity for each other intersect the whole world looks like home for a time."
From Demian, by Herman Hesse 

On Loss and Blessing

We stood there, the three of us, on a dusty road in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. I was with two Sudanese refugees, tall young men, Peter and Zachariah, leaders in one of the Catholic Chapels in which I serve. I told them that I would be leaving Kakuma and Africa soon. Probably for good. As best as I could, I told them why. They absorbed the news thoughtfully. In their lives the notion of loss and blessing often come together. They told me that they knew I loved their people and that the people loved me, but they understood that this movement in my heart was strong and that my reasons for leaving were sound. In their eyes, all of this was of God. They felt my presence with them has been a blessing from God even as my absence will be a loss. It was one of those unforgettable conversations one has in life; an inner icon to which the heart must return periodically and contemplate.

Arrupe's Vision

In the late nineties, while living in Portland, Oregon, I decided to move from ministry in the streets of the USA to the streets of the world. I pondered once again the vision of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. In the eighties he decided to take the Jesuits in a new direction. It was this: that the Jesuits, in a vast, universal, full-speed-ahead move toward the poor, should embrace the cause of the refugees of the world. He wanted the Society of Jesus to commit itself to accompanying them in whatever way possible. The scope and implications of this proposal were breathtaking. But would Jesuits do it? Would it be possible to summon from the heart of the Society of Jesus the skills and faith which could be systematically hurled into the breaches of human suffering synonymous with the flight and plight of refugees?  

Arrupe never doubted it could be done. A way of proceeding was created: the organization that was born would eventually be a called The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). And then there is this: Arrupe knew that the Society of Jesus is healthiest, at its best, when it is with the poor, with the marginalized. JRS would take the Jesuits and its lay collaborators into the thick of poverty in the battle for the dignity and rights of refugees. With the poor the Society of Jesus would discover once again what it longs to be, would uncover again its deepest desire: taking the risky march into the unknown to be with those who have—at least by the world’s standards—no power, no money and no beauty. In that tentative world the Society of Jesus would follow, imitate and bet its life on the poor Christ.

Beginnings

By 1999, nearly twenty years after the Jesuits established JRS, the world-wide refugee numbers had not diminished, but increased. By millions. I approached JRS. Can you use me? We can; we need someone in East Africa. I talked it over with my Provincial. Go with my blessing he said. I was in.  

I started in the Rhino Camp Refugee Settlements, Northern Uganda, on the West Nile with Sudanese refugees, later moving to Adjumani and Palorinya Refugee Settlements, Uganda, again with Sudanese. From there I went to Makhado, South Africa, on the border of Zimbabwe, attending and serving Zimbabwean refugees.  As this is written, my current assignment is with the JRS project at the Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, a Camp containing refugees from several East Africa countries: Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda among others. More than 90,000 people.

Twelve years have passed. Growth and life. Wear and tear. Success. Failure. I've entered unimaginable worlds of learning and love. In it all I have discovered more deeply the heart of God working in me, in those around me and in the JRS mission. Seems like a wonderful discovery. It is.

Moments

In Uganda, in South Africa, in Kenya, in Sudan; I’ve experienced things hard to believe.  

I've seen destroyed huts and lifeless bodies in Pakelle, murdered by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Held the reassuring hand of 11-year-old Sudanese refugee, Regina, escorting me through the labyrinthine earthen streets of Kakuma.

Wept at the humility of Zimbabwean refugees, offering their morning prayers of thanksgiving. Their sole possession: the clothes on their back.

I've watched Chameleons creeping among the burnt out buildings of Barituku.

Shared with Somali students in Kakuma, of their Islamic faith and their flight from Somalia.

Felt the fear of Nimule Southern Sudanese as we heard the approaching drone of Antonov bombers.

I have known Jesuits—simply the best—who backed me, laughed with me, cried with me, believed in me.

Seen thousands of armed Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) troops moving outside of Moyo. Witnessed babies born on the beds of pick-up trucks and beneath the gigantic leaves of Teak trees.

I've taught refugee catechists and rejoiced as they unlocked the mysteries of Faith to their people. Grasped the fingerless hands of begging lepers in the market place of Arua.

Seen terror on the remembering faces of Rwandan, Burundian and Congolese women.  

I've witnessed the spectacular dance of celebration by the ululating Dinka women of Miriye. 

Gazed at the elephantine Baobab trees, guarding the road from Makhado to Zimbabwe.

Remember the laughter of Atibuni and Asega in Rhino Camp, of Peninah in Kakuma, of Frido and Atimango in Adjumani, and of Thandi and the entire irrepressible JRS team in Makhado.

From dusk to dawn I’ve listened to inconsolable refugee mothers of Yoro mourning their lost children.

Experienced the first malaria attack, an unyielding tsunami breaching my shores. 

I’ve been consoled by the sunsets of Kakuma, the early morning mist rising off the Nile and the Southern Cross glittering in the Johannesburg nights.

I have smelled the roses in a Nairobi morning and the earth after a South African rain.

Turned my face into the warm winds of Kampala blowing off of Lake Victoria.

Listened to the night breezes moving through the Neem trees of Rhino Camp.

Deep in the bush, I’ve taken malarial babies—hours away from death—in my arms and kissed them.

Held the faith-filled hands of blind and crippled Yayo in Magburu as she said goodbye to me.

Comforted Makhado refugee, Mandinyenya, weeping over news of his mother’s death in Zimbabwe.

I’ve celebrated Mass beneath trees in countless villages, in chapels and in small rooms; occasions filled with the transparent faith and passion that inhabits and powers the African Church.

From Johannesburg to Juba I’ve been captured by refugee children, whose happy greetings surely could be heard in the Kingdom of the Deaf and whose smiles could light up my darkness night.

Each day I have been nourished by the faith and wisdom and hope and love of refugees.

Each African morning—thousands of them—I awoke knowing that God waited for me. And desired me.

Many moments expressed; many beyond words: all Way Stations on the road toward what is true and good, and toward the One who authors the miracle of my life and whose mystery is beyond expression.

Finding  Home

There is a rising wrenching sadness in me, though it is clear, for personal reasons, that it is time to go. Leaving refugees is a difficult chalice to drink. But countering the sadness there is—as Peter and Zachariah would say—a blessing from God. I am like the person who ascends the mountain and looks back, with love, down at the country that has been traversed. From the top of the mountain the world looks so different; a person’s perspective changes in twelve years of daily, personal encounters with goodness. There is  loss, but it walks hand in hand with blessing.

One never reaches home, but for a time, while living among the refugees, my heart always found a home.  

Gary Smith, S.J.
Jesuit Refugee Service
Kakuma Refugee Camp, Northern Kenya


1. They Come Back Singing: Finding God with the Refugees can be found on our Recommended Reading page by clicking the 'Shop Amazon' tab.