He heard the stories of their journeys, running through jungles, filled with terror

October 14, 2022

After serving as a diocesan priest in Karachi, Pakistan, for 14 years, Robbie D’Lima felt a desire to join the Society of Jesus.

Whilst studying at The Biblicum – a Jesuit University in Rome, he followed the Spiritual Exercises which proved a life-changing experience for him. “God was propitious to me in Rome”, he says, “and it ultimately led to a Jesuit vocation.”

Following on a discernment retreat, he entered the Jesuit House in Lahore in 2020 for an introduction into the Jesuit way of life of discernment and apostolate, all in preparation for the novitiate which he began in Birmingham in September 2021. As part of the novitiate, one must undertake six “Experiments”. As one of his, Robbie requested a placement at JRS UK. He had begun to feel moved by the challenging situation facing those forced to migrate – the Lampedusa tragedy in particular - while studying in Rome.

Working at JRS UK, he reflects, was an experience of Communio. Being part of a team working in orchestra-like harmony in response to perhaps the greatest tragedy of our era – the crisis of hostility towards displaced persons and refugees – has been a grace and honour: “I feel grateful to my colleagues for their great generosity of heart towards the organization – often beyond the call of duty. The way they complement each other is phenomenal.”

During his 7-week placement, Robbie appreciated the tedious and unglamorous work that must go into the mix for JRS UK to operate efficiently. He said: “During my brief tenure at JRS UK, any illusions I had of glamour and romanticism of mission were quickly replaced by realism.” The nature of work at JRS means that sometimes there is no short-term gratification for the staff – often apparent failure is all that stares our team members in the face. From keeping the accounts meticulously, to the JRS Legal Team being kept on hold on the phone for hours on end by the Home Office. Receiving refugee friends at the JRS shop, phoning them week after week, standing in the cold and rain at barracks-turned-accommodation centres, essentially quasi-detention, to be available to people who wish to speak to them – much of this is monotonous and gritty.

Robbie’s placement with JRS UK also entailed weekly visits to Napier Barracks in Folkestone. There, along with the Detention Outreach team, he says he “felt the pulse of the crisis and tragedy facing refugees”. At Napier, he came face to face with the names and stories of real people who have suffered the fallout of unjust economic structures and of war. He tells sombrely of many well-educated and talented refugee friends whose futures had been destroyed by wars in their countries. He heard stories of men who had worked as translators and assisted overseas forces during the wars but were then left unsupported when forces withdrew: “Their previous work and association left many at risk. Now they languish in uncertain anxiety at the Barracks, though some are using their skills and expertise to teach English to others or acting as informal interpreters.”

He heard the stories of their journeys, running through jungles, filled with terror. He met one young man who was far advanced in his medical studies, who fled with his medical instruments kit. He dreams of practising medicine: “You only get to be young once”, says Robbie.  But for now, this young man is stranded in a prison-like barracks awaiting a decision on his case at an age when young people should dream dreams.

The diversity within JRS Staff, on various levels, was particularly refreshing for Robbie. He says: “The young staff bring creativity and dynamism to JRS that combines so well with the wisdom of experience that senior staff contribute.” He feels that the multifaith and multicultural backgrounds of JRS UK staff gives them a better perspective in responding to refugee friends who are from varying regions and religions: “the cultural and religious plurality of JRS UK Staff is a striking witness of how diversity and inclusivism contributes positively to an establishment in contrast to the exclusivism and divisiveness of popularist politics. It is a fine witness that the kingdom of God is home for all.”

Witnessing the work of the Destitution Team, Robbie says that at times he could feel the helplessness, fear and despair of those they were serving. People who had “fallen through the cracks” shrewdly designed by our legal system; “sometimes, at JRS, painfully, we don’t have solutions and can humbly only become fellow pilgrims with our refugee friends.”

In conclusion, Robbie says: “JRS UK has been for me a microcosm of Jesuit life. Real life, which is made up of the smallest things, not very gratifying, but necessary, nonetheless. I am honoured and humbled to work with colleagues so professional that I honestly think could have followed lucrative careers elsewhere, yet they have chosen to commit themselves to JRS.”

Whilst he was at JRS, among the many tasks which kept Robbie busy, he sorted out and digitised over 1,200 Gift Aid Declarations - a really useful task! He was a cheerful face welcoming refugee friends at the door, available when needed to cover for the shop, busy at desk work, responding to 100s of emails, answering the phone... He will be missed and remembered.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

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