Praying with Refugees in Thailand: Accompaniment is the cornerstone of service

29 February 2016|Thomas H Smolich SJ, JRS International Director

JRS International Director Fr Thomas H Smolich SJ brought excitement and compassion to Burmese refugee students in the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border.

Mae Hong Son, Thailand, 29 February 2016 – My recent visit to the JRS Asia-Pacific Region was my first as International Director; it was my first time to Cambodia and Indonesia, and a 1999 visit to Thailand felt like ancient history when I returned.  I was truly impressed by the care and dedication of JRS team members I met.

While I knew the general contours of JRS’ work in the region, I was also surprised to learn just whom we serve there.  Afghanis are our main focus in Indonesia, there are Eritreans in Cambodia, and it seems like the whole world has come to Thailand:  Karenni and Karen refugees from Myanmar living in camps, Pakistanis and Somalis living in Bangkok. 

As always, hearing the stories of refugees is moving and inspiring.  As the head of JRS, I am privileged to hear stories from around the world, and I am constantly amazed at the faith and fortitude of the people I meet.  In the region, I also learned something about myself. 

I enjoyed speaking with women and men who are optimistic:  people who know the road ahead may be as difficult as the road they have already travelled, and find the hope to move forward.  I met many such people:  an Afghani family hoping to go to the USA; Karenni leaders envisioning a return to Myanmar;  two Pakistani women with faith-filled optimism about the future, even though their waits for interview dates for refugee status were measured in years, not months. 

But not all refugees are as fortunate or optimistic.  I met an Iranian man whose request for refugee status had been denied; the rawness of his worry and confusion was not easy to absorb.  While I met several Afghanis becoming proficient in English who were content to be in Indonesia, I also met a refugee English teacher for whom the road is hard and the extended wait difficult to bear.  I felt what he was going through, and knew we would likely not feature such a moment on our website.  Bottom line: I found myself present to all the stories I heard, and rediscovered the grace of walking through dark spaces. 

In JRS, accompaniment is the touchstone of what we do.  By walking with refugee and displaced women and men, we make connections that nourish us all.  We also learn that each refugee’s story is distinct and not all stories move where or how fast or how easily we would wish.  In this sense, we are accompanying the paschal mystery lived in our time.  While the moment of resurrection is often unknown, we have faith that it will come, be it hard or easy to wait for. 


Especially in this Lenten season, let us pray for all men and women on the move, praying the presence of the One who loves us all will continue to accompany them and us. 

–Rev Thomas H Smolich SJ, JRS International Director


Psalms 137: 1-9

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and weptwhen we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps,

for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.

May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.


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