BY ISN STAFF | February 20, 2012

written by Shaina Aber | Associate Advocacy Director, Jesuit Refugee Service USA

Colombian refugees in Panama who are not lucky enough to find their way to the ghettos of Panama City, and instead cross by land into the Darien Jungle, are confined to the border towns of Jaque, Yape, Puerto Piña, and Boca de Cupe, which have been described as “prison villages” by international observers. (Source: Jesuit Refugee Service USA)

When my educational journey took me to law school nearly a decade ago, I knew I wanted to contribute to the field of human rights law, broadly speaking.  I imagined I would work at the International Criminal Court or one of the War Crimes Tribunals.  But in my second year of law school I was accepted to the asylum law clinic, and met my first refugee client.  He was a bubbly 19-year-old who had been a brilliant engineering student and an activist in an opposition party in his home country.   He was alone and scared, confused by the system, and haunted by months of torture he had experienced at the hands of government authorities before he escaped the home of his birth. I was startled by his vulnerability and his naivety, and touched by his loneliness and sense of loss.  I trembled with indignation at the treatment he had received at the hands of his government; This child, this young man, barely older than my little sister, tortured for his beliefs and jailed for his refusal to stop speaking out against injustice, who had somehow preserved a silly sense of humor despite his trials – I admired him. For a year and a half, and through five different court appearances, I lived and breathed his case.    I cried after our first appearance in court while my client awkwardly patted my arm.  I was certain that I had failed him, that the judge would not grant him asylum and that he would be deported to his death.  At our fifth court appearance, when we won his case, it was my client who cried, “Tears of relief,” he assured me, “But also sadness. I may never see my country again.”

Working with refugees fully captured both my heart and intellect and after law school I took a job as an advocate at Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.    My job is to bring the needs and voices of refugees and the internally displaced to the halls of power in Washington. Refugee stories, stories of people forced to move, to leave behind all that they have known and find a new home, are ubiquitous in human history.  They are both biblical and contemporary. They form some of the most basic fundamental fabric of the story of the founding of our own nation, and they are a vivid representation of the human ability to survive and rebuild even after experiencing the worst brutality our world has to offer.

There is something both inspiring and heart-rending in the struggles of refugees.  Several years ago I interviewed a Colombian refugee in Ecuador, a beautiful young woman who had suffered unspeakable crimes at the hands of a paramilitaries and human traffickers.  She spoke of how her experiences had reinvigorated her spiritual life.  “I was tortured by images of my attackers.  Tortured by the question of why I had lived, when my father, brother, and son had all died. For a year I fell into drinking and crying.  I did not want to live.  I felt dirty.  I felt used, I felt unworthy of love.  It was on a visit to JRS that I met a woman who invited me to attend mass with her.  And I went to the mass, and I felt loved again.  I who had not been to mass since I was a child.  I listened with new ears to the story of the holy family.  And I saw with new eyes that my life may yet have a purpose.”

I was reminded listening to this young woman of a quote from John Steinbeck’s the Grapes of Wrath, a quote that I have seen rings true for many refugees,  “People in flight from terrorstrange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is re-fired forever.” It is in the stories and struggles of refugees – in their ability to renew and reshape their lives after horrendous losses, in their will to survive and forge ahead that I have recognized the presence of the Divine.… An unknowable strength, an indefinable resilience, and an indescribable forgiveness.

Editor’s Note:

Jesuit Refugee Service USA’s work will be featured in two upcoming ISN webinars:

2/23/12 – Imago Dei: Journeys of Courage, Hope & Home

Join JRS/USA to learn more about Imago Dei: Journeys of Courage, Hope & Home, a company-produced piece of documentary theater written and produced by the students of Jesuit High School of Sacramento for JRS/USA. Find out how to bring the full theatrical production and/or dramatic readings of the play to your campus or parish!

3/7/12 – How to Stand with the Displaced of Colombia

For students, staff, and parishioners interested in learning about the Jesuits’ work with displaced people in Colombia, the recent threats to the Colombian Jesuit Provincial, and how to stand in solidarity with the people of Colombia in your school and parish communities!

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