To us, it was just a simple meal of boiled chicken, rice, carrots and ikan bilis. To them, it was probably a feast. As part of our mission to serve the refugees, 10 volunteers from the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Singapore were sharing lunch with them at their makeshift camp, somewhere in the jungles of Malaysia. (Yes, there are refugees in Malaysia!)

Fleeing violence and forced evictions by the military junta, over 100,000 Myanmese refugees scrape out an existence working in construction sites, factories or rubber plantations. As they will be persecuted upon return to Myanmar, they should be granted protection under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention.

Unfortunately, Malaysia has not signed the convention and treats the refugees as illegal immigrants, often imprisoning, fining and whipping them. They also have limited access to clean water and medical attention.

The visit was among the events organized by JRS in the run-up to World Refugee Day, which will be celebrated in Singapore on Jun 25. On this day, we invite you to join us in a Mass to pray for the 30 million displaced people around the world who are denied basic rights like food, shelter and medicine.

This year, JRS Singapore has chosen to focus on the theme of "Accompaniment". In a series of visits to jungle camps, urban safe-houses and schools in Malaysia, our volunteers brought smiles, laughter and friendship to the refugees.

At the camps, the Burmese refugees told us about the tragedies in their lives. While they are able to survive, most have left their families, jobs and lives behind.

One refugee from the Chin ethnic group said, "I was a trader. When some soldiers found a Bible on me, they shot my horses and arrested me, thinking I was evangelizing. I escaped to Malaysia, was detained and later released. I am hoping to work and send money home, but life is hard and I miss my wife and two children very much… I hope to see them soon."

Doing humanitarian work, it is often easy to get caught up in providing material assistance – buying rice, sending medicine, collecting old clothes. Even as Christians, we sometimes forget that refugees also have spiritual and social needs.

For many of them, just as important as food and water, is their dignity. They want to be treated as fellow humans. After years of surviving on aid handouts, they may have lost their sense of self-worth.

In the words of Mother Teresa, "We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is really the greatest poverty."

This idea of accompaniment has its roots in Luke 24:13-35, when Jesus walked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He listened to their woes, challenged them to believe in the resurrection, and finally broke bread with them. In fact, "companion" means "one who shares bread" in Latin.

Today, we are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, walking with the refugees and being there for them in their time of struggle. After spending time with the refugees in Malaysia and hearing their stories, volunteer Jeanette Tan said, "Judging by the looks of happiness and appreciation on their faces, in spite of their tiredness and fear, I’m really glad that we had that chance to bring those precious few hours of joy – and hopefully not nuisance! – into their lives."

For her, the most magical experience was participating in praise and worship with the refugees. She recounted, "They started singing "Above All" in Chin (a Myanmese dialect), and those of us who knew the song joined in. It was amazing how we were praising God in different languages … somehow in that moment I felt that we had bridged the language gap between ourselves and the refugees."

Don’t let the refugees become another faceless statistic. Take the trouble to get to know these people, and you will experience God’s love through them – after all, Jesus too was once a refugee. Join us at the World Refugee Day Mass to pray for our suffering brothers and sisters, and learn how you can help in our work to serve these forgotten people. - By Jeremy Lim

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