Interview with Fr Mark Raper SJ: Accompanying refugees

02 February 2017|Sarah Morsheimer, JRS International Communications Assistant 

Fr Mark Raper SJ at an Annual Meeting for the Jesuit Refugee Service in 1996. (Jesuit Refugee Service)

During the 36th General Congregation for the Society of Jesus, JRS had the opportunity to meet with Jesuits that previously worked for JRS. This is the second of a series of articles featuring their experiences in the field. 

Rome, 1 February 2017 – Fr Mark Raper SJ worked for JRS for nearly two decades. He served as the first Regional Director of JRS in the Asia Pacific Region from 1982 to 1989 and then as the International Director of JRS from 1990 to 2000. Fr Mark had the opportunity to travel to many JRS projects around the globe multiple times. His travels gave him insights into the nature of the conflicts at the time, and allowed him time to build relationships with those that JRS serve. Here are three highlights from Fr Mark’s experience accompanying the forcibly displaced.

Indonesia: Forgiveness in times of conflict

At a refugee camp on an island in Indonesia, Fr Mark met a Vietnamese woman who fled the war with her two children. After violence threatened their family, they decided to take the dangerous boat journey to Malaysia. Being pregnant, she stayed behind to deliver the baby while her husband and son left for Malaysia.

Shortly after she had her baby, she paid smugglers to take her, her sister, and two children to join her husband and son. However, only few hours into their journey, the motor on the boat died. They were left drifting with no land in sight. Only the captain of the boat had any food or water and he refused to share with any of the passengers. Hours turned into days and with little food and water, people started to die.

By the time the boat washed up on an island off the coast of Indonesia, both her sister and two daughters were dead.

The survivors were quickly taken in to the refugee camp and given provisions. Living in the same camp as the captain responsible for her sister and daughters’ deaths, the woman was occupied with revenge. She started to seek the counsel of an Italian Jesuit to help her deal with the trauma and feelings of anger. Every day, she told him of a new way that she wanted to kill the captain.

It took her several months to be at peace. At her request, during a mass the captain came up and she forgave him in front of the crowd.

She described to Fr Mark how this one act changed her life. The weight of her anger and guilt disappeared. Instead of spending time thinking about pain and revenge, she spent time living.

“Every refugee has a sense of guilt for what or who you left behind, guilt for what they did to survive” he said.

For the entire community, this act of forgiveness brought a sense of comfort, relief, and reconciliation.

“It was incredibly courageous of her to do what she did. It took a lot of strength but in the end she helped her community to heal. It is this strength that I will never forget.”

Sudan: A life searching for safety 

Fr Mark met Gabriel, a refugee from Sudan, living in Bangkok. Gabriel was a very tall, thin, Dinka man who always sounded excited when he spoke. He had a habit of walking and talking with his hands out wide as he passed by busy stalls, terrifying the street vendors.

He endured incredible hardship on his journey to Thailand from fleeing conflict in Sudan, passing through Egypt, getting caught up in the Iraq-Iran War, and being deported from Singapore.

Once in Thailand, Gabriel could find no options for resettlement. UNHCR gave him three choices: return to Sudan, go back to Kenya, or go to Liberia. Returning to Sudan or Kenya would have been a death sentence, so Gabriel decided to go to Liberia. Before he left Thailand, JRS sent him to English classes and gave him tools to be able to work as a mechanic in Liberia.

With the rise of Charles Taylor around the end of 1989, violence and civil war erupted in Liberia.

Shortly after the conflict became more stable, Fr Mark as International Director, travelled there to oversee the start of a JRS project in Gbargna. The first thing he did upon his arrival was go to the recently re-established UNHCR office to learn of Gabriel’s whereabouts, but there were no records of him. Fr Mark then found a Scottish Salesian father who used to send him letters with updates from Gabriel. There he learned of Gabriel’s death.

The man told him that because of his tall stature, Gabriel had been misidentified as someone from a particular ethnic group in the conflict, and had been shot and killed even while trying to show his UNHCR refugee identity card.

Fr Mark expressed his deep sorrow.

“While Gabriel’s story is so tragic, it is not unique. So many refugees spend years trying to find safety, and some just never find it. But, I will never forget Gabriel and the way he embraced life with excitement and warmth, despite everything.”

Thailand: Start with what seems impossible 

Having served as Regional Director of Asia Pacific, Fr Mark came to know the region, its staff, and its beneficiaries particularly well. He reflected with fondness on the life and work of Fr. Pierre Ceyrac SJ, one of the first Jesuits to respond to Fr. Pedro Arrupe’s call and come to Thailand in 1981 to serve Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees. He described Fr Pierre as “all heart”.

Following Fr Pierre’s example, Fr Mark built close relationships with refugees and came to recognize both the challenges refugees faced and the challenges that came with serving refugees.

“By looking at the picture up close you see individual people instead of getting discouraged by the big picture” he said.

When Fr Mark lived in Thailand, he received a report of a young Vietnamese woman who had left her country by boat along with the millions of other “boat people” at that time, but who had been captured by Thai pirates, brought ashore, and sold into sex slavery. She was held in a brothel in a Thai country town. The JRS team could not imagine how to respond.

Despite initial feelings of helplessness, one of the Thai JRS workers agreed to go to that town discreetly to get information. She confirmed the veracity of the report. Fr Mark’s team then worked with the Thai police, UNHCR, and an Australian Immigration official. Together they were able to free her and get her safely to Australia. After the successful intervention, the JRS team had the contacts and courage to intervene in many other complex cases.

“By starting with one case we were able to go on to help many others. We started with what seemed impossible, learned from it and worked from there.”

A few years later on a trip back to Australia after he had left Thailand and was preparing to leave for his new assignment in Rome, the Vietnamese woman who had been rescued was brought to meet Fr Mark together with her husband and child.

“Seeing her happy, healthy, and with a family made it all worth it” he said.

Today, Fr Mark serves as the President of the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific facilitating the mission of the Society of Jesus in Australia, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam. 

– Sarah Morsheimer, JRS International Communications Assistant 

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