40 years of accompaniment: Danielle Vella
19 January 2021
Danielle Vella, based in Malta, has worked for JRS for more than 20 years and currently serves as the Director of Reconciliation & Social Cohesion for JRS, where she leads the organization’s efforts to build bridges, create spaces of hospitality and welcome for refugees and host communities, along with JRS teams around the world. She is also the author of Dying to Live: Stories from Refugees on the Road to Freedom.
Describe your life and what was happening when you first became involved with JRS.
I first got involved over 20 years ago. I was in my mid-20s and I was working as a journalist for a local newspaper. I knew about JRS because my sister was working there. I had also gone to a Jesuit college where I learned a lot about social justice and about being a woman for others, especially people in need.
As a journalist with this local newspaper, I used to do as many interviews with refugees living in Malta with JRS and with volunteers trying to help. Then, an opening came up to apply for the position of communications officer with the Jesuit Refugee Service International Office in Rome. I applied for this job, got it, and the rest is history. That was 20 years ago, and I’m still involved with JRS now.
Tell us about your life today.
I’m still working for JRS. I’m very grateful for this opportunity, especially because JRS has really allowed me to serve the cause of refugees in different ways. I started working out in communications, then I progressed on to really working on the mission and identity of JRS. Most recently, for the last seven years or so, I’ve been focusing on reconciliation and how to make this really an integral part of our mission. The key part of my work in all this has always been to meet refugees, to listen to their stories, and to share those stories.
What difference has JRS made in your life?
JRS has made a huge difference in my life over these 20 years that I have been involved. I am really grateful for the opportunity to be allowed to live out my vocation – to serve people who are marginalized. This has been a really great blessing for me to be allowed to live out my vocation and with an organization that has really allowed me to develop and to grow in different roles. The relationships I have formed over the years with people working for JRS and with refugees who have accompanied me as much as I accompanied them has just brought really untold blessings in my life.
What does accompaniment mean to you?
Accompaniment means to me many things but perhaps most of all, something that tries to bring a measure of quality and neutrality in a relationship, which is traditionally seen as a service provider and beneficiary. It means really being with, not just doing for, or doing for someone in a certain way. It’s not what we do, but it’s how we do it and our quality of presence and relationship.
I really want to emphasize that I have been accompanied as much as I have accompanied. I’m reminded of a story about this. My mother died of cancer. I loved her very, very much. She died 14 years ago now, and when she was diagnosed, I was working in Rome, Italy. I left my job that same day and returned to Malta to be with her when she was receiving her treatment. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. In those months, it was really difficult because even very close friends, I could tell they were avoiding me. I think when you know that somebody is going through such a situation, maybe you don’t know what to say. You feel embarrassed.
I felt it, and at the time I was also going to the immigration detention centre as a volunteer, and there was a young Congolese man. His name was Bennie, short for Bienvenu, which means welcome in French. When I used to go visit him, I was going to cheer him up I thought, and he used to pat the bed next to him and said: “Now come and sit near me and tell me about your mom.” I really felt supported and accompanied by him in those days. This for me really says I think what accompaniment means for me.