December 6, 2020

Walking along with suffering

I've been volunteering for a couple of years with the Jesuit Refugee Service, which aims to support refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. I'm a volunteer "social visitor." Before the lockdown, that meant regularly travelling out to the Immigration Detention Centres near Heathrow, Europe's largest. (There are two centres, next to each other, called Harmondsworth and Colnbrook.)

Several hundred young men, and a very small number of women, are held here indefinitely, often for several weeks or months, while the courts consider their cases. They are usually alone, with no family or friends to visit them. My job is mostly to just talk with them and treat them as people, not cases to be adjudicated.

During the pandemic, these visits continue, but by phone.

The U.K. is a particularly inhospitable place for refugees, sadly. We're in a period of time where attitudes to outsiders of any kind have hardened and nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise. I feel the work is as important as ever.

This month, I was asked to do the "reflection" for the JRS's monthly newsletter, on the themes of the Advent season and on its mission of accompanying people through this brutal, heartless process. I'll share the thought here, as well.

When I first started visiting detainees in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook about two years ago, my aim was "do something" for those at the bottom of our society -- the people jailed indefinitely by an inhumane, degrading immigration and asylum system. I quickly learned how wrong-headed I was.

The people I met needed solicitors who returned their calls, immigration officials who cared, edible food, a safe environment, the company of their loved ones and medical care. I could provide them with none of these. I met them, after being searched and led through several layers of locked doors and guards, with empty hands and pockets. Even the room we shared (back when we could share a room) offered about as much comfort or warmth as a GP's waiting room. I was not a doer of "something." I was helpless.

Instead, in this helplessness, I learned what the Jesuit Refugee Service meant by accompaniment. To walk along with people who have suffered, are suffering and still have much more suffering ahead of them is not something you do. It's something you are. It's about being, not doing. Just being present. Listening to, and seeing them. Recognising them as fellow human beings. It feels like nothing, because it is. I’m not doing anything. God is. My job is to just be with this person in front of me, who has been through more than I can imagine. God works through that, somehow, through nothing I do or say.

Often, the benefit of visits isn't evident. I leave someone who appears to be just as depressed as when I arrived. But, sometimes, God does give me a glimpse of the fruits. Farhad (1), who I call regularly at the moment, refers to our conversations (which are almost always about nothing) as "talking therapy", while another I met says he was able to sleep best after our visits. Usually when I least expect it, God shows me how He is able to use what I could consider to be nothing. Truly, the yoke is easy.

In this season of Advent, we are asked to think about what we bring to Christ in our midst. The asylum seeker, reviled by so many, blamed for so much, is among today's "least of my brothers", very much like the homeless, refugee family living in a barn at the centre of the Advent season. I have no gold, frankincense or myrrh, but I have something even more. If you doubt the power of just being present to each other -- even just being merely respectful and decent -- imagine what the world would look like if we all did that? It would be heaven on earth, with no more individual effort than a smile, attention and love. No amount of gold could come close.

At the start of this journey, I was driven more by anger at the injustice of it all, and the need to fight back. I'm still angered by the hostile environment and culture of disbelief that makes so many lives miserable. But I'm slowly learning that fighting isn't the answer. Loving is the only response.

[1] not his real name.
Tags: volunteering refugee JRS