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The spiritual needs of refugees are often overlooked. But last October, nine refugees came to Villa Saint-Martin to participate, free of charge, in a retreat on loss organized jointly by the Jesuit Refugee Service – Canada and the Ignatian Spirituality Centre of Montreal.

Norbert Piché, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service – Canada, reflects on the preparation and fruits of this retreat and shows that much good can be achieved when we go beyond our usual plans and collaborations.

How did the idea for this retreat for refugees come about?

Norbert Piché, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service – Canada

Last year, while attending a retreat at the Villa, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about how to offer better support to refugees. I had just spent several months reflecting on my spiritual journey and thought it would be good if refugees were able to make their own spiritual journey. We think first and foremost of their physical, material, and psychological needs—and rightly so—but what happens at the spiritual level? Refugees go through a time of upheaval. They have had to flee their homes and move to a new society… How do they live this on a spiritual level? What can we do to support them?

Our team at JRS engaged in a process of discernment and realized that it is indeed important that we do something. I then spoke to Kevin Kelly, SJ, director of the Centre for Ignatian Spirituality in Montreal, and he immediately agreed. He had experienced something similar when he worked in Toronto offering spiritual accompaniment to people who had experienced homelessness. We formed a small committee of members from JRS and the spirituality centre to put in place some guidelines.

We determined that it would be good to start with a one-day retreat with a particular theme. We chose the theme of loss, which obviously is very meaningful for refugees. What have they lost and how do they live with this loss? We also planned to offer spiritual accompaniment to those who wanted it.

My goal is always to keep looking towards God and to recognize that God can always be found.

How did the retreat unfold?

We asked a Syrian woman, Tamam, to make a presentation. It was a beautiful presentation that resonated with the participants: it was real and full of humor. Indeed, Tamam has experienced loss herself, and she has worked with JRS and other refugees.

Afterwards, participants took time to pray in silence to reflect on what Tamam had said and on their own experiences of loss. What did it all mean?

We then had a time of sharing in small groups. Being able to share with others is always valuable: you realize that you are not alone, that the experience of others is similar to yours. That’s the beauty of sharing with others.

Ms. Tamam Nassar. Credit: JRS Canada

A moment of consolation: In my small group, one person had difficulty sharing. The beautiful thing was that the other people allowed him to wait until he was ready. After a while, he felt comfortable enough in the group to express himself.

According to the comments we received, it was a wonderful experience that merits being repeated.

A moment of consolation: In my small group, one person had difficulty sharing. The beautiful thing was that the other people allowed him to wait until he was ready. After a while, he felt comfortable enough in the group to express himself.

How did the refugees experience this Ignatian approach to spirituality?

I think Ignatian spirituality is seeing God in all things. Refugees have experienced and continue to experience things that no one should have to go through. Sometimes it’s hard to see God in these experiences.

There is a picture in my office that really speaks to me: it was drawn by a refugee I knew in Toronto. To me, this image represents a refugee who has gone through many difficulties, including loss. But she is looking up. My goal is always to keep looking towards God and to recognize that God can always be found.

Many refugees manage to find God even in their difficulties. After 27 years of working with refugees, I am amazed and really astounded at what they tell me about their trust in God, despite all that they have been through. To have such unshakeable faith inspires me and shows me that God is always present.

What are the next steps?

I think that if we not only offer this retreat but also continue the ministry of spiritual accompaniment it will allow people to really flourish and grow. As I said, we— including (and especially) refugees—are so much more than just our material and physical needs.

Fr. Boniface. Credit: JRS Canada

The good news is that we have received enough funding from a foundation to continue with this wonderful project during 2022, and the Villa Saint-Martin is ready to continue our fruitful collaboration.

How was the experience of collaboration?

Even before the provincial expressed his desire for greater collaboration between the various sectors of the province, we were in contact with the Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Montreal.

It was very easy to collaborate because we were on the same page, and in our meetings, we agreed on all the main points and steps. Together we realized the importance of spiritual accompaniment for refugees. When we agree on the goal, it is easy to work together, and everything falls into place.

All of a sudden, we had a common project even though we had never collaborated before. I think that this kind of collaboration should happen more often. We become aware that everything is connected and that, for example, refugees need spiritual accompaniment as much as anyone else.

By offering our expertise and seeking that of others, we are able to create something even more beautiful than we had anticipated. This is what happened with the people who participated in the retreat on loss.

Discover another JRS activity: A Journey into Exile.

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