Being with refugees

As JRS staff and volunteers, we are internationally recognised for our closeness to the people we serve – in detention centres, in the heart of cities, in refugee camps, conflict zones, post-war settings and on remote borders.

Being with refugees is the essence of JRS, an enduring ideal of personal and pastoral presence. This was spelled out by JRS pioneers in 1985:

JRS does claim to bring a specific dimension to its work… we try to place special emphasis on being with rather than doing for. We want our presence among refugees to be one of sharing with them, of accompaniment, of walking together along the same path. 

In the mid-90s, the mission of JRS was officially formulated, expressing the ideals that had shaped JRS from the start: to accompany, serve and defend the cause of forcibly displaced people.

What this means is that for JRS, the focus is the refugees, not the services delivered or the political and socio-economic scenarios engulfing them. We believe this perspective gives our work quality and depth. It is by getting to know refugees personally that we can best learn what their needs are and shape projects and advocacy campaigns that respond effectively. 

"Being with" takes on special significance for JRS in Europe, where many asylum seekers and forced migrants are confined to detention centres, frequently for long periods. 

"It's hard to explain how I felt when JRS staff visited me in detention, such a difficult place," said Mohammed Idris, an Eritrean refugee who was detained in Malta. "The fact that someone comes to see you, to speak to you, to ask about your case, your conditions, to give information… makes you happy. You think to yourself, ‘I have a value, they are doing this for me.'"

Once Mohammed was released, he joined JRS as a cultural mediator "to give something back". He quickly realised how many refugees needed to be closely accompanied, especially the more vulnerable. 

This is the reality across Europe. Countless refugees and forced migrants live in anonymity and poverty, even destitution, in unfamiliar urban settings. Many who are already vulnerable become more so; others become vulnerable when they are bereft of all support, weighed down by the pressure of a traumatic past, stressful present and bleak future prospects. JRS offers them a range of services, all rooted in accompaniment. 

However sometimes all we can do is to accompany. JRS Europe Regional Director Michael Schöpf SJ wrote: 

"For me accompaniment is ultimately a form of surrender.  You enter into a relationship with a person, you become friends and share some of his life. It could be a detainee who is there for many months, sometimes years, or a migrant who lives destitute under the bridge, who comes to see you once a week. You try to help in a practical way. But sometimes these situations are so bare – there is so little you can do – that all you can do is to be present. And this draws you into a relationship. Maybe at the beginning you are pushed by the person’s despair, but you can never surrender to despair. The only thing a human being can surrender to is love, to discover how in such a stressful situation there is still a notion of love that you and the person can hold on to, which helps to restore a small piece of lost dignity. And that’s a journey on which you embark with somebody together."

  • JRS UK
  • JRS Portugal
The day centre

The weekly day centre run by JRS UK is a place where destitute asylum seekers without asylum support can come to sit and chat, enjoy a cup of tea or coffee and share a simple sandwich lunch with the team. It is a place to rest and to meet up with friends, familiar and new. JRS staff and volunteers offer a warm welcome and are there to listen. Together they share in troubles and joys, the quotidian and the exceptional; they look to care for each other by providing emotional support. They refer and signpost to other services that offer practical assistance.
Social mentoring

Since 2010, JRS Portugal has illustrated the "accompaniment" part of its mission through a social mentoring project. It pairs migrants with local Portuguese citizens, who provide individualised assistance to integrate into local life. Mentors help migrants gain access to medical care, handle local administrative matters and discover how to live within Portuguese society. Most importantly, the relationship that is formed boosts a migrant's self-esteem and motivation, and empowers them with a sense of autonomy.