Taking the LEAP forward

Our Church commemorated World Day of Migrants and Refugees on 26th September. In light of the challenges facing our vulnerable brothers and sisters, Pope Francis is urging all of us to embrace an ever wider ‘we’, no longer thinking in terms of them and those but only us.

In recent months, the world has been sensitised to a new ‘we’. Following the hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, thousands are in peril. The images of men hanging on to the wheels of aircraft that took off from Kabul airport, of women fleeing an oppressive regime, of traumatised children in displacement camps have permeated the consciousness of many who had previously viewed Afghanistan as a distant, peripheral conflict and refugees as persona non grata. Closer to home, the February military coup in Myanmar has resulted in the killing of over 1,100 civilians and forced displacement of over 200,000 more.

Yet war and persecution are not the only sources for displacement. Increasingly, vulnerable communities are forced to flee as a result of the impacts of climate change which includes drought, and sea-level rise. Yes, conflict and climate impacts are compounding one of the greatest crimes against humanity – the uprooting and forced displacement of over 82 million innocent men, women and children.

Across the globe JRS teams are working hard to address this travesty. In Asia-Pacific, we engage with the at-risk in refugee camps in Mae Hong Son, in border towns like Mae Sot, in urban centres such as Bogor. We want to shine a light on the rights, needs and dreams of refugees and mobilise collective will so that asylum seekers and refugees (ASRs) can not only survive but also thrive.

Caroline presenting the Internship Programme to Catholic Business Network (CBN) members during their annual retreat in 2019, March.

The work of JRS in Singapore and across Asia-Pacific has evolved in recent years. As refugees increasingly remain in their first country of refuge for longer periods, the need to begin rebuilding their lives in these places of asylum becomes essential. Sadly, refugees cannot work legally and whatever savings they bring dwindle precariously. Without the means of livelihood, the future is bleak.

Meagre hopes were dashed when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) declared that most refugees will never be resettled as traditional safe havens such as Australia are closing their doors. Yet on studying the UNHCR’s advisory more closely, we realised that it offers hope – refugees are encouraged to take online courses and expand their skills through internships.

Swiftly, we approached companies that care for the common good, specifically the B Corp community, comprising businesses that are values-aligned with JRS and embody an inclusive spirit. Working with our JRS counterparts in the field, we developed a pilot programme for virtual internships that provided an allowance to refugees.

Our early efforts were promising. With values aligned partners like B Corps, Make the Change and Right People Renewable Energy, who recognise the potential of the ASRs, JRS has placed over 20 refugee interns. Encouraged by this development, and driven to find more sustainable solutions to deepen our impact, we developed LEAP@JRS, an education and community-building initiative focussed on nurturing professional skills in the individual and developing resilience and self-sustainability in the community.

Our first LEAP graduates have called the programme ‘life-changing’ and we are grateful to partners like Success Frontiers who have augmented the digital training with professional development and life skills on decision making, self-management and emotional resilience.

LEAP@JRS’s skills training and the follow-on opportunities are game-changers for ASRs, increasing dignity, building resilience and giving a heightened sense of purpose. Our focus is on systemic interventions and we aim to engage and support over 300 ASRs in this journey. We welcome more volunteers and partners to be part of our eco-system.

On my first trip to Bogor, a young Afghan refugee told me, “People come and we tell our story but our lives never change.” Yes, some problems seem so huge that as individuals we may feel powerless. But with God’s grace, we can all come together to build a world that empowers, not exploits; is inclusive, not intolerant; builds bridges, not walls, and strives as Pope Francis urges, for an ever wider we.

Join us!

Caroline Seow
Chairperson, Jesuit Refugee Service (Singapore)