A Rohingya woman works as a tailor in the refugee camp.

Jared Ng

When the Rohingya crisis made headlines in August last year with reports of some 700,000 refugees fleeing Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh because of a deadly military crackdown, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) swung into action.

Their first task was to make people understand the issues facing the refugees. They organised an exhibition at the Church of St Ignatius to create awareness of the crisis and to pray for a quick resolution.

With no end in sight to the Rohingya crisis, JRS Singapore took further action by sending a team of four volunteers to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in May this year to better understand what the Church was doing to help the refugees and to find out how they could offer support. Besides that, JRS Singapore also worked with St Ignatius Church during their feast day celebrations to raise funds to support the refugees.

JRS is an international Catholic organisation, with offices in 51 countries, with a mission to accompany, serve and advocate on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. Founded in November 1980 as a work of the Society of Jesus, JRS was officially registered on March 19, 2000, at the Vatican State as a foundation. JRS Singapore was formed in 1999 as a response to the East Timor refugee crisis.

Aiding refugees is just one area of work that JRS Singapore is involved in. Other areas are in education, emergency assistance, healthcare, livelihood activities and social services.

study learn centre
The learning centre in Bogor, Indonesia, where lessons are taught by teachers from the refugee community.

For example, in Bangkok, JRS Thailand runs a learning centre for refugees as part of their Urban Education programme. The learning centre provides English and Thai language, as well as vocational training such as basic computer skills, hair dressing and sewing classes.

In the refugee camps in Mae Hong Son (Northern Thailand), JRS Thailand runs a Pastoral Accompaniment programme. A team of Catholic priests and nuns minister to the Catholic refugee community. They celebrate Mass, provide faith formation and administer the sacraments. They also provide pastoral care, counselling and assistance to all refugees in the camps.

Another education initiative is the Befriending Refugees in Indonesia programme. The learning centres in Bogor provide language classes for asylum seekers and refugees. These classes are taught by teachers from the refugee community.

In Singapore, the organisation’s activities include fundraising, organising mission trips and creating awareness about the plight of refugees and displaced persons through exhibitions and talks. Churches such as St Ignatius, Divine Mercy, St Anthony, Novena and the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd have played host to exhibitions, prayers and talks on refugees.

JRS Singapore members, made up of one full-time staff based at Agape Village and about 50 active volunteers, come together monthly for faith formation and to discuss projects.

On their experience working with and assisting refugees, one volunteer, Jeremy Lim, said that JRS “has exposed me to another side of the Church beyond our air-con Masses, quiet devotions and exuberant praise and worship. JRS is the gritty and dirty side of the Church, the image of Christ touching the leper, of the Church as a field hospital for the broken to heal each other’s wounds.”

Another member, Doris Khoo, said “going to the refugee camps not only brings home how blessed we are but gives us an opportunity to reach out to our disadvantaged sisters and brothers. The visits truly allow us to live our

The priority for JRS the next year is to work with its partners in Indonesia and Thailand to improve access and quality of education and improving psychosocial and counselling support for refugees and asylum seekers. On top of this, JRS Singapore plans to continue with its visits to refugee shelters, camps and learning centres as a continued means of maintaining personal interactions with and accompanying refugees.

The JRS Singapore website is http://jrssg.org/.

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Parishioners viewing the exhibition boards on the plight of refugees. Photo: HANNAH NG