Jesuit Missions 11 Edge Hill ,
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Interview with Tim Smith

  • 23 May 2018

Tim Smith is the Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Southern Africa (JRS SA) and recently visited Jesuit Missions. We took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his role and the work that they do which is supported by Jesuit Missions.

How long have you been working with JRS?

I started my role as regional director of JRS Southern Africa in August 2016. Before this I had experience of being JRS country director of South Africa for two years in 1999 and 2000 when I was a Jesuit priest.

Where does JRS SA operate and where do the refugees come from?

JRS SA operates in Malawi, Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Most of the refugees comes from the great lakes region covering Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and some from Somalia. Many refugees come to South Africa because it is a relatively stable, peaceful and democratic country and it is more reliable than going North where they have to cross the Sahara Desert and then the sea.

Can you tell us more about the refugee camps where JRS operates?

We have refugee camps in Angola, Malawi and Zimbabwe. In March 2017, we had a huge influx of refugees coming across the border into Angola from the Kasai region of DRC due to political and tribal violence. Many people had witnessed very traumatic things, we were being met by people who had had limbs amputated and women who had suffered from terrible abuse. An emergency camp was set up where each family was given a plot of land. There are now around 12, 000 people in this camp and the number is growing.. JRS SA have helped with the construction of houses, distributed emergency food, started teaching Portuguese (the local language in Angola) and provided counselling.

In Malawi, there is Dzaleka refugee camp which is 50km from the capital Lilongwe. It has been there for over 20 years and holds over 35,000 people, mostly from the DRC. It is very developed and is more like a town. We organise all the education in the camp. There are around 5000 students in total across our pre-school, primary and secondary students. We also provide post school courses such as agriculture, carpentry, hairdressing, cosmetics.

In Zimbabwe, there is Tongogara camp in the south east of the country with 12,000 people and has also been there around 20 years. While the primary education here is government funded, the secondary is funded by JRS. We also have a women’s centre and provide skills training similar to that in Malawi. It is very remote and due to Zimbabwe’s unreliable economy, even when people have learned valuable skills they are unlikely to be able to leave the camp and put them into practise.

We operate very differently in South Africa. There aren’t any refugee camps which makes it difficult to know exactly how many people are there, but there are around 800,000 asylum seekers and 200, 000 registered refugees. Economic migrants are different however they sometimes get mixed in as it is easier to say that they are a refugee to gain entry.

What role does Jesuit spirituality play within JRS?

I would say that there is a strong religious aspect within all of our work. Although we work with and welcome people of all faiths and religions we have priests who work in each country and provide pastoral care in all of our camps.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

When you meet people who have gone through the most traumatic experiences and yet still have an amazing strength and hope and go on to do great things such as Mireille who is a refugee who escaped the Rwandan genocide with her family and settled in Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi and went on to graduate in Medicine from a Chinese university. That really is an amazing story.

What do you see for the future of JRS?

We want to extend our education provision in Malawi and Angola. There is never not going to be a need for JRS and the number of refugees globally is continually increasing. Unfortunately the government doesn’t always respond positively or provide for refugees so we need to be there.

In September 2018, Jesuit Misisons is launching a new volunteer programme in partnership with JRS SA where volunteers will work alongside local volunteers for three months as part of a long term project. Find out more and register your interest today.