Peter Balleis, SJ, International Director of JRS, in conversation with Luke Rodrigues, SJ, Jivan correspondent in Rome!
18 March 2015

Peter Balleis, SJ, listening to Chin refugees in Delhi (John Mezsia / Jesuit Refugee Service)
What does JRS do or try to do? This kidnapping poses a deep spiritual challenge. It is something bad and evil. How do we deal with this without becoming bitter or hateful? How do we confront evil? Our way is not that of force and violence because that is not the way of the powerless. The only way to overcome evil is the way of Jesus Christ – the way of the Cross.

India, 18 March 2015 - Courage and Compassion are words that spring to mind when we think of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). This worldwide organization reaches out to more than 900,000 displaced persons and refugees in over 50 countries. 

Peter, you have been with JRS for many years. What inspired you to take up this apostolate?

It was a combination of my own calling and a mission received from Superiors. I joined the Society in 1981 just when Fr Arrupe gave his last address to JRS (shortly before his stroke). My desire was to work in the so-called mission countries. Therefore, I was sent to work in Zimbabwe and then did studies in Kenya and Brazil. Upon returning to Zimbabwe, I was assigned to work with JRS in Mozambique and later on in other African countries. What a steep learning curve that was! During this time, I also functioned as Regional Director of JRS Southern Africa. In 1999, I returned to Germany as Mission Procurator. This new role enabled me to support JRS through fundraising and support for projects. Towards the end of 2007, I was asked to take up this present role and am now in my eighth and last year. Working with JRS gives me a sense of deep fulfilment. It puts me in direct contact with the poor, trying to do something good in difficult situations. I have always felt called to this type of work and my happiness lies in answering that call.

This work would have brought you many moments of joy and sorrow.

Surely. There is a beautiful moment in Angola that remains etched in my memory. We had just started out and there was nobody to turn to for guidance. I was sitting on our doorsteps feeling frustrated and confused. In front of me was an empty school, filled with displaced families. Children were playing in the courtyard. Acting on an impulse (perhaps very naively), I asked the children what they would wish for. In one voice, they replied that they wanted to get back to school. This was a moment of great clarity and consolation. What needed to be done became clear in a flash, and from there we moved on to setting up schools for the refugees. It is important to realize that the answer always comes from the victims.

They know what they want, what they need. Our job is to listen to them. There certainly are many moments of despair especially when a country falls back into war (as happened with Angola). At such times, you feel like giving up, but what keeps you going is the ongoing contact with the people. On the other hand, there were a couple of Regional Directors who soon left JRS. They had buried themselves in administration and had no time for direct contact with the refugees. They worked hard, very hard indeed, but had lost this vital aspect of personal encounter with the people.

What is the inner motivation that inspires all of you to move ahead in such difficult situations?

At this point, my mind turns to Fr. Prem and the work in Afghanistan (See p. 11-14) Our closeness with the people is what keeps us going. Many young people we have worked with have now themselves become educators. It encourages us when our work generates hope and life. This is what Prem loves - and this is what we will keep on doing. We will not give up because some group has been hostile to us. In JRS we are not working with the winners. We are with the losers of history. Somehow, the kidnapping of Fr Prem has drawn us closer to the reality of Afghanistan where people go through much anxiety and uncertainty. When you work with the losers, you must be ready to share their reality. Meanwhile, our team on the ground continues doing all it can for Prem.

This kidnapping poses a deep spiritual challenge. It is something bad and evil. How do we deal with this without becoming bitter or hateful? How do we confront evil? Our way is not that of force and violence because that is not the way of the powerless. The only way to overcome evil is the way of Jesus Christ – the way of the Cross. Our inner motivation finally comes from Christ who calls us to be persons of goodness, integrity and hope.

What does JRS do or try to do?

JRS works with forcibly displaced persons; accompanying them, serving them and advocating for their rights. We strive to overcome divisions and engage with peoples of all faiths and cultures, promoting hope and reconciliation. We dream of a world free from frontiers and forcible displacement. JRS started with East Asia and this region was the focus in the 1980s and early 90s. With the Rwanda crisis in the mid 90s, the focus turned to Africa, and we have put in a lot of work in that region. Since 2008, our attention turned to the Middle East, a region which unfortunately seems to be falling to pieces. In collaboration with the Jesuit Province, we are actively involved in Jordan, Syria and Turkey. This humanitarian crisis has forced JRS to expand its outreach and programmes. These conflict zones are in Islamic countries and a number of our collaborators are Muslims. I always say that we do not do interreligious dialogue but interreligious praxis. This gives a witness that we can live and work together, as opposed to the dominant paradigm of conflict.

In Afghanistan, as in other places, we work hand in hand with the Jesuits of the Assistancy. Together, we try to give the people what they want – in this case, education. The support received from the Xavier’s Colleges in Mumbai and Kolkata, and St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore, has been invaluable. In the changing political circumstances, it is now difficult even for Indians to work in Afghanistan. Fortunately, we have won many friends among the Afghans. We owe it to Prem and others on the ground to keep hope going.

Are there other countries in South Asia where JRS is involved?

Certainly. We have had a long presence in Nepal, working in collaboration with Caritas. After twenty years, it appears that our mission there is at an end and we are handing over completely to local organizations. Nepal has been one of the most successful educational projects of JRS. Hats off to people like Varkey, P.S. Amal and many others! Sri Lanka has seen a lot of suffering and JRS has been present there in the worst moments of conflict. Things are still not good for the victims, but our focus has now shifted from immediate relief to long-term goals. In collaboration with the Jesuit Province, we are investing in educational projects to help people take control of their lives and decide their future. South Asia will always remain a challenging region because there are many conflict lines that could explode at any moment.

Is there anything else you would like to say to the readers of Jivan?

My first word is that of gratitude to the Assistancy for providing brave and enthusiastic Jesuits. I am glad that we will soon receive two scholastics to work in Central Africa. It is important that South Asia (with 23% of all Jesuits) continue to send men to work in other parts of the world. This is a great international experience which will  benefit JRS and the Assistancy as well. Please continue to support us wholeheartedly. JRS is an important part of our mission as Jesuits. Our endeavour is to nourish hope and make God’s love present in the most tragic moments of history.

 Interview courtesy: Jivan Magazine, March 2015

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