In the Middle East and North Africa, JRS began its work five years ago in response to the huge number of Iraqi refugees fleeing the conflict in their country. Encouraged by the Jesuit Superior General, Adolfo Nicolás SJ, JRS went to Syria and Jordan in 2008. The following year saw expansion to Turkey, both a destination and major crossroads for refugees hoping to reach Europe or awaiting resettlement. In Turkey, JRS reaches refugees and asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan. Following the violent events in Syria from 2011 onwards, JRS now provides emergency relief to Syrians both inside Syria, and in neighbouring countries, including Lebanon most recently.
As of 2012, the main focus of JRS was to provide relief to Syrians in the form of food, non-food items, educational and psychosocial support as well as some medical support for people suffering from chronic illnesses who can no longer afford medical care. In addition to this, the projects in Amman and Ankara continue to provide educational and psychosocial support to Iraqis, Sudanese, Somalis and other refugees and asylum seekers.
When JRS started out, the first challenge was to find the refugees, many of whom were unregistered and living in isolation, poverty and fear. Contact was possible thanks to local Jesuit communities and Christian Churches, which paved the way for JRS involvement. In Amman, the community at the Jesuit centre – which became the JRS base – was already supporting Iraqi families. In Turkey, the Ankara refugee support group based at Meryem Ana Parish served as a point of entry.
Meeting the scattered urban refugees and learning about their needs, JRS decided to bring them together in community, opening centres in Aleppo, Amman, Ankara and Damascus, places described by the refugees as a "second home". True to its pedagogical tradition, JRS started informal education in the centres – catch-up tuition, language and computer classes.
Another objective of JRS is to reach those refugees who are vulnerable and with scant hope of moving on. There are plenty – the demand for resettlement is great compared to the relatively few places available. Regular home visits enable our teams to discover and to help those in urgent need.
Perhaps the most obvious challenge facing JRS, a faith-based organisation, is that religion plays such a significant role in the Middle East, often as a mark of difference, exploited to spark conflict. Bringing people together is not easy in such a scenario. The JRS teams are composed of people of different faiths, of national staff and international volunteers, who serve all without distinction. An Iraqi woman in Aleppo spoke for many when she said: "After all that happened I never thought we could be together again and yet here we are."
In 2010, Middle East and North Africa became the tenth official JRS region.