Reflection on COVID-19: Fr Thomas H. Smolich SJ, JRS International Director

2 April 2020

Dear Friends,

COVID-19 is definitely with us, as is God’s grace. As I speak to our regional directors, I am consoled to learn that the vast majority of our programs continue to serve those we accompany in more limited capacities. All refugee camps and urban areas where we work have closed classrooms and other types of group meetings. This means that most training and educational services are on hold while social distancing measures are in place. UNHCR continues to coordinate and support basic services, and we do what we are able, based on local government safety measures.

The virus has not yet arrived in the refugee camps and urban areas where we work with the same force that it has in China, Europe and the United States. We are not aware of any refugee-specific outbreaks of COVID19. Most African countries closed international travel before significant reports of COVID illness. But it will arrive, and likely be devastating in many cities and camps where JRS is present.

All regional and country offices are physically closed, but continue their work via phone and Internet. One of the key parts of our Institutional Strengthening Process was putting all of JRS on Office 365. The work is 95% complete, and I don’t know how we would stay in touch without it.

There is a quiet heroism right now in JRS, folks in the field and offices doing what they can to stay in touch with those we serve and with each other. Some examples:

  • In Kakuma Camp, Kenya, we continue running shelters for at risk women and children. We are also doing emergency counseling, and visiting special needs schoolchildren who have medication/behavioral issues for which their parents need assistance. Fr Lasantha SJ from Sri Lanka continues his pastoral outreach.
  • In Lebanon, we continue psychosocial accompaniment with camp and urban dwellers using cellphones and WhatsApp. Several schools remain in contact with their students through WhatsApp groups.
  • In Bangkok, we offer emergency funds for food and rent in compliance with government distancing policies. In Mae Hong Son Camp on the Thai/Myanmar border, services have been greatly reduced. Our project director there, Fr Joe Hampson SJ, is using his free time to accompany JRS Asia Pacific staff members in meditation and other Ignatian spirituality practices.
  • In Dzaleka Camp, Malawi, the schools were closed by government order last Thursday. Yet we are continuing our feeding program for the over 4,000 children who would normally be coming to school.

As a JRS global response, we are doing a regional and country assessment of COVID-19 impact in collaboration with the Xavier Network of Jesuit mission offices, with reports due Holy Week. This will give us a first snapshot of where the JRS program needs are greatest—immediately and into the future.

The first responder emergency organizations will cover the big picture short-term. Our job will be to focus on the forgotten and the marginalized as the crisis moves forward. JRS is a “ground up” organization, so the voices of those in the field are critical to maintain and strengthen our programs in light of the virus.

The gospel reading for mass last Sunday was the raising of Lazarus from John’s gospel. Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary figure prominently in the story. We know them from Luke’s gospel, where Martha is busy about many things and Mary sits at the feet of Jesus. During this COVID-19 crisis, we all have our Martha and Mary moments: sometimes filled with nervous energy, sometimes lost in thought and feelings.

But our real COVID story will be Lazarus coming out of the tomb. The burial cloths of social distancing will be undone, and we will come back to a different world, changed ourselves. How will we be changed? How will we see the world?

The answer to that question starts now, by recognizing God’s presence in the moments of grace we experience daily. To quote Pope Francis’ ”Urbe et Orbi” meditation last Friday, We are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented…all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other.

Finding grace in one another, finding ways to share that grace with others in solidarity: this will make us people of hope when we leave the cave of COVID.

Thank you for being part of the JRS family. Know that you are in my thoughts and prayers at this time.


Thomas H Smolich SJ
JRS International Director

(Banner photo: JRS, Melkadida Refugee Camp, Dollo Ado)


Somali refugee women in an adult literacy class at Melkedida Camp, Ethiopia (photo: P. Balleis/JRS).