It is a privilege to serve refugees

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

Peter Devantara, SJ

I am proud of my work with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Indonesia. At this Society of Jesus apostolate, the meaning of recognizing, loving and following Christ is very real for me.  I do it by accompanying refugees, who are neglected and marginalized by mainstream societal institutions.

To serve refugees is a noble task and makes me feel happy, despite the hard and heavy issues we face on a daily basis. It is noble because JRS treats refugees with dignity and respect, as all human beings should be treated. The bureaucratic system they have to go through in order to become citizens of another country dehumanizes them, reduces them to case numbers, and this is what JRS accompaniment strives to compensate for.

The work is rewarding because the emotional availability of JRS staff is much appreciated by our clients. Goodwill for those less fortunate than one’s self is often blocked by narrow self-interest.  As JRS staff we strive to put ourselves aside and show goodwill to those we serve.

But the work is simultaneously heavy because it is easy to become anxious, sad, depressed, and exhausted when encountering the suffering of others.

In July 2012, I became a part of Pasuruan JRS Team, who regularly visits detainees inBangilImmigrationDetentionCenter(Bangil IDC). Refugees detained in Bangil IDC are locked up in a cell for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with devastating effects on their mental health.

The IDCs are a prison for “illegal immigrants”- a label that discredits refugees who have been forced to flee conflict-ridden countries such asAfghanistan,Iran,Pakistan,Iraq,Sri Lanka,Myanmar,Somalia, andPalestine.

Instead of counting down the days to release, prisoners can only add up the steady days in detention that accumulate. They never know when they will be set free. How can you predict when a war in your country will end? When the UNHCR will finally make a decision that enables you to have a country again, to be allowed to live freely and legally without fear?

Life for those in Indonesia living outside detention centers can be just as emotionally and psychologically draining.

During my time working with the JRS team in Bogor, from August to December 2012, I enjoyed a deep companionship with refugees living in Cisarua. Forbidden to work, refugees outside detention struggle to meet their fundamental survival needs.

They wait only for Refugee Status to be granted by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), but they also crave the freedom to earn a living and contribute to society in the meantime.

“Work dignifies man,” is a common saying in Catholic teachings since Pope Leo XIII (1878 -1903).  For refugees in Indonesia their inability to work further dehumanizes them and forces them unwillingly into the position of unwelcome guests.

The Cisaruan community also lacks the resources to support them. JRS, with its very limited financial means, seeks to fill the cracks through which they could easily fall.

During my time in Cisarua, I accompanied refugees and asylum seekers to hospitals, translated for them with doctors, and helped them to pay for medicines in pharmacies.

With the JRS team in Medan, I worked to kindle a ‘spark of hope’ for detainees who live in Belawan IDC’s overcrowded conditions (it was three times over capacity when I was there). Detainees include women and children as well – this is miserable. We visited detainees and listened to them. We organized several activities to support their physical and mental health.

May everything we have done be a trustworthy sign of God who never forgets them.

There is a true hope within those who believe that God always loves and accompanies us through our deep suffering.

I am amazed by how many people galvanize to support the work of JRS through both external and internal cooperation, so that the social concepts of the Society of Jesus are alive in Indonesia.

Staff and volunteers stay strong in heavy situations that demand courage and faith at every step. This is what I call the work of the Holy Spirit.

May the Holy Spirit continue to accompany us in our work.

Peter Devantara SJ 

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