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Web Extra: Action Network Focuses Students on Humanitarian Aid


Action Network Focuses Students on Humanitarian Aid

Daniel Villanueva, S.J., describes his work with the Jesuit Refugee Service.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

By John DeSio

Students from Jesuit colleges nationwide gathered at Fordham for a conference on the future of humanitarian work in the Jesuit community.

The event, “Engaging Students in Humanitarian Action,” was sponsored by the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities through its Jesuit Universities Humanitarian Action Network. From June 20-22, roughly 150 students from 20 Jesuit colleges and universities listened to speakers and participated in workshops designed to hone their humanitarian-action skills.

The keynote speaker was Daniel Villanueva, S.J., who discussed his work with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Rome, Liberia and Kenya. More than simply outlining the mission of the JRS, Father Villanueva spoke of his personal journey to the organization and the important work it accomplishes with a small staff and budget.

“This is why I’m here today,” he said, “not to talk about figures of refugees, but to talk about the Jesuit way to approach humanitarian work.”
Father Villanueva said he was inspired to dedicate his life to the Jesuits after he learned about the murder of six Jesuit missionaries in 1989 in El Salvador. Hearing how those men suffered for their beliefs showed him that faith can impact his everyday life.

“It changed my way of understanding religion, and I discovered that faith can have a very important place in my life,” Father Villanueva said. “I realized that life was more than looking for a job or building a house or having a good car.”

He discussed the growth of the JRS since it was founded in 1980 by Pedro Arrupe, S.J., after he witnessed the crisis of refugees in Vietnam. Since then, its mission to provide critical services has expanded to several countries. Despite that growth, the JRS pales in comparison, in both size and scope, to the larger organizations in the field of humanitarian action, Father Villanueva noted. He also pointed out that the JRS does most of its work with refugees who need extra help, especially children, women, the handicapped and the mentally ill.

“These are the most vulnerable populations, the forgotten refugees,” he said.
Some of the major functions of the JRS include building and rebuilding shelters and schools in refugee camps and helping to ensure food equity within these makeshift towns. Father Villanueva estimated that about 500,000 refugees benefit from the actions of the refugee service and its affiliated network. The JRS puts into practice Father Arrupe’s vision of a “faith that does justice,” Father Villanueva said.

He closed his lecture with a realistic discussion of the conditions that surround JRS workers. Refugee camps are not pleasant places, but JRS staffers make it a point of staying within the camps where they can do their best work. Though their housing is better than what the refugees are offered, it is still very poor. This is by design, Father Villanueva added. It lets refugees know that JRS workers are going through the same conditions, if only in a small way.

“If you’re looking for money, JRS is not the way,” he joked at the end of his presentation. “Despite that, we have a pretty good time working with people.”

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