Tragedy and hope chronicled in Sydney exhibition

DRC women

An image from JRS’ Sanctuary and Sustenance exhibition

Hospitality needs to be practical in terms of food, shelter and education.

Refugee Week is an opportunity to raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees and celebrate the positive contributions they make to Australian society. The theme for this year’s Refugee Week is “Restoring Hope”. It reminds us that while a refugee’s journey begins with danger, it also begins with hope. The hope to find freedom and safety, for themselves and their families; the hope to start a new life and recover from past trauma.

The theme also calls attention to the role of countries which, through offering protection to refugees and providing opportunities to rebuild their lives, restores hope for a future free from fear, violence and insecurity.

Finally, the theme highlights the situation of refugees whose hopes have not been fulfilled – those who remain in seriously protracted situations, who face ongoing discrimination, violence and uncertainty, with little hope for a resolution in the near future.

To mark Refugee Week, JRS has partnered with the Wayside Chapel to present this photographic exhibition called ‘Sanctuary and Sustenance.’ First shown in Rome last year, this exhibition chronicles the stories and lives of refugees from two countries currently enduring the world’s worst humanitarian disasters: Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The photos in this exhibition demonstrate how hospitality and the bridging of religious and ethnic divides can help refugees become active members of the community.

Today, we would like to focus on hospitality.

Hospitality is a deeply human value, recognising everyone’s individual claim to be welcomed and respected. However, this welcome also needs to be practical – in terms of food, shelter and education.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in March 2011, six-and-a-half million Syrians have been displaced within their country and nearly three million have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries. Those who have not been displaced have also suffered the effects of war; they have lost their jobs and fallen into poverty.

In close cooperation with local Syrian Jesuits, JRS works with networks of volunteers offering food, shelter, psychosocial support and education to those most in need, regardless of ethnic or religious background – a sign of solidarity in an otherwise divided country.

Our teams distribute blankets, medicine and other essential items as well as help refugees find a place to stay. JRS centres offer children a place where they can learn and play in safety. Similar support is being offered to Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo war has raged since 1995. Congo is a place where human rights abuses occur daily, with 2.6 million people internally displaced and a further 460,000 having fled their homes into neighbouring countries. It’s also a place where nearly half of the country’s women have been raped during the conflict.

Education is fundamental for protecting women and helping them gain respect in their communities. Education provides women and girls with the opportunity to read and write, to learn a trade with which they can earn a living, it offers them a protected environment in which they can share their problems, socialise and acquire a new understanding of their role in society. That is why JRS is providing  literacy classes, tailoring courses and human rights training to women and girls displaced in the Congo.

When we advocate for humane asylum policy both in Australia and overseas, it is people like the ones in these photographs who we are speaking on behalf of. It is our hope that this exhibition encourages viewers to consider refugee issues from the perspective of those mired in conflict and despair, and that it prompts discussion about how Australia might develop a more humane response to its own refugee concerns.

This speech was delivered by Oliver White, JRS’ Head of Policy and Advocacy, at the launch of the Sanctuary and Sustenance exhibition during Refugee Week 2014. 

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