Year-end letter from JRS International Director: I have no hands but yours

27 December 2020|Rev. Thomas H. Smolich SJ, JRS International Director

School during COVID-19 in Kounoungou refugee camp, Guereda, Chad.
School during COVID-19 in Kounoungou refugee camp, Guereda, Chad.

Dear friends,

My first priestly assignment was to Christ the King, a parish in San Diego, California. Several years before, parishioners had raised money to put a statue of Christ the King near the church entrance. Soon after, vandals broke off his hands. The parishioners left it in place with a plaque at its feet: I have no hands but yours.

Since its founding by Fr Pedro Arrupe in 1980, JRS has sought to be God’s hands in the world, accompanying, serving, and advocating for refugees and other forcibly displaced people. As a Jesuit ministry, we are all about being with people: helping them heal, learn, and determine their own future.

While we were ready to mark 40 years of service in the evolving reality of forced displacement this year, 2020 confronted us with significant challenges to our mission. The COVID-19 crisis triggered an unprecedented demand for innovative solutions, and JRS found itself ready to adjust its work and ensure that the most vulnerable were not left behind.

Thanks to the generous support of our donors and the commitment of our staff, we were able to keep walking with those we serve through this whole year.

We continued to accompany the most vulnerable by offering psychosocial support and counselling by phone and messaging platforms, as well as casework and legal assistance. We distributed food, emergency supplies, and hygiene kits where most needed. During the lockdowns, most of our education and training programmes transitioned to distance learning. In places with limited resources, radio, podcasts, DVDs, and learning packets have also been utilised as effective means of continued learning for marginalised communities.

When all schools were closed in Bamyan, Afghanistan, because of the pandemic, JRS teachers developed new materials and started broadcasting lessons via radio for their students living in remote regions with little access to internet connection and TV networks.

In the Dollo Ado camps of Ethiopia, COVID has increased isolation and tensions among Somali refugees. Our reconciliation workers resolved 148 of 151 conflict cases in collaboration with community committees and associations of women and youth.

In the Bourj Hammoud community of Beirut, an area seriously damaged by the August 4 explosion, JRS has been a presence of accompaniment and education. With the generous help of our supporters, we reached out with emergency supplies and psychosocial assistance for refugees and staff.  Our Franz van der Lugt Centre has been repaired and kindergarteners were recently invited to visit their classroom before beginning remote learning.

Behind each of these stories is the “JRS fabric” that holds them together, the fabric of accompaniment that you make possible.  Each of these stories reveals your hands, embraced by God’s, at work in JRS.

Even in the midst of COVID, there is reason for hope. Let’s stand united as a global community and care for the most vulnerable. We have the power to create a new, more compassionate world in 2021. As Pope Francis reminded us in his letter for JRS’s 40th anniversary, Yours is the vital task of extending the hand of friendship to those who are lonely, separated from their families, or even abandoned, accompanying them and giving them a voice.”

We have no hands but yours.

Know that you are in my prayers, and I wish you blessings of health and hope for the new year.


Rev. Thomas H. Smolich SJ

JRS International Director