Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre Uniya
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Reconciliation and Refugees
“Matters of the Heart: Reconciling ourselves with our World”

XII World Congress
World Association of Alumnae of the Sacred Heart
[Association Mondiale des Anciennes du Sacré Coeur, AMASC]
St Ignatius College, Riverview
16 April 2002
Mark Raper SJ (1)

Somewhere a mother awaits
her man, her son
in the chains of an oppressor
or waits for those who never come
and still endures we know not how…
And yet amid the smoking debris
of a fear-driven world
while man juggles with megaton eggs,
somewhere a woman gives the world
an artist:
a child who sings and dances,
dreams and weaves a poem
round the universe
plunging down the womb
to fire a cell
sinking down a borehole
to probe the spring of life
from where the earth will rise
to meet the sky…
To know our sorrow
is to know our joy -
Somewhere a mother will rejoice.
Es’kia Mphahlele, South Africa

In the bitter Sri Lankan war for a Tamil homeland, a war that appears now, hopefully, to be running its bloody course, the ideal woman is portrayed by the rebel Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam as an aggressive soldier or as a fearless suicide bomber. On the other hand the rare media reports of that war present women as pitiful, poverty stricken, dependent victims. Both these images of course distort the real role of women in refugee situations.
The re-orientation of life amid destruction and death comes from women. “In our experience, their instinct is towards life. When refugees land in a camp, it is usually women who get a fire going”, said Chinappan Amalraj, one of the workers of Jesuit Refugee Service, who serve those people. “I remember visiting an orphanage,” he told me once. “Rebel groups had killed the fathers of the girls there. Some girls knew the father of one of their companions could well have killed their own father. But they all lived together, helping each other.” These women suffer, but they are not simply victims of war. They saw the darkness of war, but they did not succumb. They chose life.

In mid-1981, when I was asked by Fr. Pedro Arrupe to work with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Asia, I met a Cambodian woman called Anne Noeum Yok Tan in Phanat Nikhom camp in Thailand, looking after the orphans.

Ten of Anne Noeum Yok Tan’s twelve children had succumbed to hunger and disease during the Pol Pot regime in the years 1975 to 1979. Her husband, Pierre Chhuom Somchay, a Cambodian Christian, wrote a prayer or poem on the reverse side of the baptismal certificate of each one as they died. Finally he in turn was killed. In November 1979, while fighting was still going on, his wife Anne was able to carry those precious notes, walking twenty days to the border, where she found safety in Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand. On the way she had the joy of finding her two surviving children. Some years later the book was published under the title “Watcher – what of the night” (“Veilleur, ou en est la nuit?”), subtitled “The Little Book of the Dead”.

Anne wrote this in her introduction:

"Ten of my children are dead, and my husband has been killed, but I do not hold it against anyone. I have no spite against anyone at all. Nor did my husband hate the Khmer Rouge. He did not want to avenge himself for the evil they had done. I am like him. If I meet the one who killed my husband, I will not hate him, for I have no hate in my heart: I have accepted to strip myself of everything. In any case, I am not the only one to suffer. It is a whole people, a whole country that suffers as well. But one day, I am sure, Cambodia will once again know happiness."

Some months after meeting Anne Noeum Yok Tan in Thailand, I visited Indonesia's Galang Island, where Vietnamese boat people were being held. Galang’s chaplain at that time was Father Gildo Dominici, an Italian Jesuit and former missionary in Vietnam. When he learned that I could stay a few weeks, he happily left to make his retreat on the same boat on which I had arrived, leaving me as chaplain to a settlement of around 12,000 Vietnamese boat people. Before leaving he introduced me to a woman who then told me her story.

Tuyet, as I will call her, and her husband had prepared a boat for their escape from Vietnam together with their son and daughter, but before the departure date, she discovered that she was pregnant. So they decided that the husband should leave first with their son. When his boat arrived safely in Malaysia he sent word. So after the birth of her second child, a girl, Tuyet prepared to leave on another small boat with her two daughters and her sister. But the boat was not well provisioned and the leader was no sailor. After some days the boat broke down and they drifted without power. Her own stock of water and food was soon exhausted, but the boat leader would not share what he had brought. The woman pleaded for the sake of her children who were melting in the heat. He refused. He kept what supplies he had for his own family. First Tuyet’s older daughter died, then the baby in her arms and ultimately her sister, too, died of thirst and exhaustion.

Eventually the boat touched land and the woman and the boat captain were rescued, revived and brought together to the camp. Although safe, Tuyet carried only one thought in her mind: revenge. How would she kill him, with poison, by paying some thugs, or would she come in the night with a knife to kill the man who had murdered her children and her sister. For weeks she lived in total grief, mad with the desire for revenge. She talked sometimes to Father Gildo, but he saw that she was unable to listen.

Then one day, with a different face, open and determined, Tuyet came to the priest and announced that she would forgive the man. "Very well," said Father Gildo, "in confession the Lord accepts your change of heart." "No", she said, "Everyone knows that he killed my children, and now I want everyone to know that I forgive him." So she brought that man in the middle of a Mass ? though he was no Catholic and Tuyet was only then discovering what faith is. She said, "I forgive you."

It was a liberation for her. And what a liberation for him! Everyone knew him as a killer. And what a change took place in the life of the whole camp. Many people took courage from her action, the spirit of life in that camp changed when she replaced revenge with forgiveness.

God's grace can overcome any evil, we believe. But to be in a situation of evil and see it turned around ? that is a powerful experience, a shock. My encounter with that woman in that first refugee camp was a revelation that sustained me for the next twenty years of my work with refugees throughout the world. You may be pleased to know that Tuyet was later re-united with her husband and son in Sydney, where they still live, and they have had other children.

In Rwanda after the genocide of 1994 I learned about a group of Tutsi widows who used to gather together to help and support one another. In the same community were some Hutu women, also widows, whose husbands had been wa-Tutsi. So the Tutsi widows welcomed these Hutu widows to join their group. These Hutu widows, however, were also helping other Hutu women who were now alone because their husbands were imprisoned, awaiting trial for their roles in the genocide. But their need was obvious to all. So all the women, Tutsi and Hutu joined together to support one another in their common tasks, not the least of which was to prepare and carry food to the prisoners, the Hutu men who may well have killed the husbands of the Hutu women.

From these stories I draw three lessons about reconciliation. The first is that women are natural artisans of peace and stability. Those who plan for peace must listen to the voices of women, particularly the widows and those who have reason to long for peace.

The second is that the world is changed by ordinary people. At the exit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, one finds the words of Margaret Mead to this effect: “Do not be surprised that a handful of ordinary people are asked to change the world. After all that is the only way the world ever did change.”

The third is that reconciliation means building community. There is a striking symmetry between the refugees and your worldwide association of alumnae groups. They are individuals expelled from communities worldwide. You are a worldwide network of communities with the freedom to succour and to welcome.

The century we have just left witnessed two world wars, many genocides and countless conflicts. At the dawn of this new millennium, President Bush offered an all too familiar promise, that he would lead the world to a war that has no end in sight. It is a war against whom and to achieve what we cannot understand, but must trust in our leaders to choose wisely and execute efficiently, when we generally do not trust them to do much simpler things almost every day.

The boast of our post-modern civilisation is freedom. Yet injustice, war and terrorism have become the real coin and currency of human life.

Is there not a better way? Can we not be saved from disillusionment and despair? Can our world overcome its own self-destructive impulses? Can we choose not revenge but civilisation? After all, ‘An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind’, as Gandhi reminded us.

There obviously are better ways, hundreds of them. By choosing to come together as you do this week, a worldwide community of women, a network of many communities of ordinary people, you help us all. You show that reconciliation is possible.

The world has changed a lot for refugees in the 20 years since Anne Noeum Yok Tan and Tuyet were accepted to France and to Australia as refugees.

First, refugees no longer have the value that they once held in the ideological currency of the Cold War era. There are no longer any points to be scored by accepting the victims of communism, or of one’s ideological opponent.

Second, for most industrial countries, global economic restructuring brings constant promises of a higher quality of life, but also perceptions of social breakdown and new fears. Rural communities have suffered and feel neglected, health and education systems are seen to be in crisis, urban crime is said to have grown out of control. In many countries, the major political parties have been losing popularity, while support for minor parties, especially of the Right, has grown. In these situations governments have two options: either show real leadership, or create an external threat and appeal to fear. Many choose the path of fear and present foreigners as a threat.

Third, there is a global refugee crisis. Refugees are everywhere. No nation is untouched by them. But the real crisis consists not just in the huge numbers of refugees, but in this, that certain nation states do not carry their share of responsibilities to make the refugee regime work. The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, to which 143 nation states have so far agreed, was brought into effect 50 years because of the strength of the global public conscience following World War II. The crisis today is that , the same states on which United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) relies to finance its humanitarian work are those very states that are eroding the protection principles on which its work is based. Wealthy and prosperous states are unwilling to reach out to the refugees or to find solutions at the source of refugee flows.

The current High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers put this another way. Many feel compassion towards a refugee when through television we see her suffering in the squalor of a refugee camp. But should that same refugee crawl under the fence of the camp and attempt to enter our societies, she is treated like the modern day version of the plague rat. The refugee has become the symbol, the icon of the division of our world. So it is only right that reconciliation should begin by accompanying, listening to, serving, and defending the rights of refugees.

In Western societies are found the one-fifth of the world’s population that controls and consumes four-fifths of the world’s resources. Our leaders argue that this position must be defended by barbaric laws that punish and deprive of liberty any person or family that seeks asylum, no matter how great their need.

You may respond in dismay, ‘But we cannot look after all the troubles and hungers of the world’. To this we answer, ‘Nor can we refuse solidarity with the rest of the world’. Our task is to imagine how to stand in solidarity. For this we need the example of women, of ordinary people and of communities.

The classic and helpful Christian response is not a sentence or an argument. It is a path, a way, a road, indeed it is the winding way of faith, hope and charity. Our world will be saved not by flight but by engagement; not by isolation but by solidarity; not by egoism, but by service. This is the road of reconciliation. This way cannot just be learned at school, once and for all. It is discerned in life over and over again. It is a journey, an adventure. As Lao Tze says, “The greatest journey begins with the first step”.


(1) Fr. Mark Raper is Director of Uniya, the Jesuit Social Justice Centre in Sydney. Since 1982 he has worked with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), first as its Regional Director for Asia, based in Bangkok, and then from 1990 to 2000, as its International Director, based in Rome. In 2001 he held a visiting chair at the Center for the Study of International Migration in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA.