Br. Michael Schöpf SJ has been appointed Deputy International Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and will begin his new task in Rome on January 1, 2021. He was with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Brussels for ten years, six of them as director, is chairman of the advisory board of MISEREOR, the development cooperation agency of the German Bishops' Conference, and member of the advisory board of JRS Germany. Today he works for Jesuits Worldwide, the German Jesuits' work for international solidarity.

At the beginning of August you were appointed deputy director of the International Jesuit Refugee Service. You will begin your new task in January 2021 in Rome. How do you feel about the new challenge?

It was a great surprise! Something familiar, familiar is coming back, now on a global level. And at the same time I feel the changes of the last years, which also lead me to new challenges: an increased polarization in public opinion or new situations like climate change, which forces people to flee.

What does this appointment mean for you in an international context?

Before the novitiate [the two-year probationary period when I entered the Order] I studied philosophy at the University of Munich. At 26 I went with JRS to Africa, to Kenya and later to Uganda and Rwanda. I found that I felt comfortable in a cultural context that was not mine, and so I decided to continue to look for my way in social and human rights oriented fields of work. With us Jesuits this area is called social apostolate. This path led me to JRS Europe from 2005 to 2014, including 6 years as director based in Brussels. At present I am with the Jesuit Mission and also teach in a master's course in Würzburg in the subject of migration studies. My involvement with Misereor also helps me to see our world as one in which we are all dependent on each other.

The fact that I was chosen for this leadership position challenges me to apply much of what I have learned and experienced in a global context.

What did you take away from your time at JRS in Brussels?

During this time I learned the necessary tools and I know what it means to expand an office, to establish structures for efficient cooperation between countries and to engage in advocacy work for refugees.

It was very important for me to learn what exactly happens in the individual countries in Europe, how the people who came to us live, what is needed and where the problems were. We gathered information and experience in accompanying people, and then developed concrete programmes of support.

For example, we conducted a study on detention pending deportation in cooperation with the University of Vienna. We wanted to show: this is what deportation detention looks like from the perspective of the people concerned. And this must be the starting point for politics if it is to be credible - for us and for the fugitives. We ourselves are only taken seriously if we take other people seriously in their dignity. Of course, we then made concrete proposals for legislation on this basis.

Were there any programs that you introduced with particular commitment?

In some cases we started with very small initiatives. One of our first projects was a training concept for all those who worked in deportation prisons: for police officers, administrative officials, volunteers and church employees together. It was important for us to bring all participants into conversation with each other and to encourage them to change their perspective. Above all, however, it was also important to adopt the perspective of the detainees.

Another problem we tackled at European level was that of so-called destitution. The legal situation gave the refugees neither an opportunity to work nor any social benefits. The lack of a work permit led to various problems for those concerned, such as no health insurance. They could not even take responsibility for their own lives. We noticed these problems and mobilised society in various countries. Through seminars, we have raised awareness of the effects on the lives of those affected and called for a political will to shape the situation.

During your time as director of JRS Europe, were there any transnational programs outside the EU?

The JRS was then active on both sides of the European external borders. One focus of our work was to develop programmes to help people on the external borders who were directly suffering from the effects of European isolation. And for us Europeans, it was about perceiving this reality as it is, not just as I like to imagine it, for my self-protection. As a European region of the JRS, we have been able to work together on the points where we can amplify the voices of those who have fled, also by accompanying people on both sides of the borders and confronting both realities.

What new aspects compared to your work in Europe do you want to bring to the global level?

I stopped working in Brussels 6 years ago. Now that I am returning to the work of JRS, our society is much more polarized. The concerns of refugees are perhaps immediately clearer than before. But also the need for reconciliation with them and with ourselves! For this we need a new perspective on human dignity, theirs and ours. It is time to engage in even more dialogue with the refugees.

During a visit to a deportation prison a few years ago, a wave of aggression struck me. Those who were held and crammed together there also blamed me for their desperate situation, and I found myself a part of the system that kept them there. On leaving the deportation prison I met a young man who behaved differently, sitting alone and withdrawn in a quiet corner. When I approached him, he calmly said that he was preparing for an English lesson which he was about to give to others. "This is how I maintain my dignity in this situation," he explained his commitment to me. "And so I help the others at least a little, because then they might even be able to read the letters of the government that decides their fate." I could see that he had reconciled himself with his situation and that he was able to do something that would bear fruit for others and therefore for him as well. He had succeeded in creating new life. I would also like to contribute to this with my work. This experience made clear to me the power of reconciliation.

What is the prerequisite for reconciliation?

It requires the readiness for genuine encounter. I must be ready to let myself be changed by the encounter. To be ready to see reality from the perspective of the other person. Detention pending deportation is not an unfortunately unavoidable measure to prepare for departure. It is experienced as a fundamental intervention in a person's freedom, which brings his or her life to an indefinite halt. How would I feel if I had fled from violence and then were in prison, not knowing what to do next? How would I look into the eyes of a person who has had exactly this happen in my country? Many of our policies make such people invisible: in prisons, beyond our external borders or through forced poverty. Reconciliation can begin where I am ready to engage with this reality and allow myself to be changed through encounter. I am given a new gift to myself.

What is JRS' place on the international level?

JRS is an organization that can respond to need in many ways. Through concrete projects, through public relations work and also through the experience of reconciliation. We need a strong structure and many partners that enable us to help people in need professionally. Above all, however, we need people who are prepared to accompany fugitives on a daily basis and to allow them to change. This experience is open to everyone, with any religious or ideological background. It is an invitation to enter into a relationship. The JRS lives from these relationships and can only this way be a credible voice in the concert of the many organizations and associations that make up the International Refugee Regime today. People notice immediately whether an aid programme or a political demand comes from this experience.

How will you organise your work in Rome?

My wish is to continue to work together with the teams in Rome and in the field on what the JRS is and where our identity together with the refugees is taking us. For this it is important to constantly question how we can be present in the lives of these people. The current developments present us with new challenges: How can we deal with the consequences of the Corona pandemic in such a way that everyone can find a future perspective, including the refugees? This is about access to health care, education and means of income generation. Specifically, how can we perhaps link the emergency aid that is now needed with microcredit programmes in such a way that people can once again lead independent lives? To do this, we need local partners who have experience with the topic of "livelihoods", and the solutions will be different in each country. I see one of the main tasks of the international office of JRS as being to support the initiatives on the ground and the joint reflection of our experiences, also beyond the technical aspects.

In my previous work at the Center for Global Issues in Munich, I was very much concerned with the issues of value formation and migration. I was a regular visitor to a shared accommodation for refugees. Of course, this often involved everyday conflicts and questions of daily life together. The people had very different ideas about this. This soon led to the question: What is really important to me personally? What is essential and especially valuable for me? A question that for many of us, myself included, is not easy to answer! But in the places where conflicts arise, it becomes clear that something is really at stake, because otherwise I would not insist on my position. Here the central question is: how do we want to live together?

At the global level, we are currently struggling with exactly the same question: how do we want to live together, when we are beginning to realise how closely our destiny and our future are linked worldwide? In the environmental field, in the concern for vital goods, this is perhaps particularly evident. In the shaping of trade policy we are far less prepared to acknowledge that there can only be joint development. And the experience of refugees, their request to us for protection, often painfully points out to us the fundamental contradictions in our actions. This could be the starting point for a common search for life, just as the young man in deportation custody did. This is an invitation to open oneself to life and to allow it to be given beyond one's own limits! This invitation applies to the personal, social and political space.

How will you bring the topic of climate-induced migration to the table?

We can already see today how climate change is increasingly forcing people to adapt or look for a livelihood elsewhere. This reality will certainly become even more important in the future, triggering migration movements within a country or in an international context. It is interesting to see how the many small movements and initiatives from the environmental sector are becoming increasingly networked. It's all about the "tipping point": the point at which the many actors acquire such a weight that they have a global voice and, together, a global influence. Especially as a church organization we can learn a lot from the cooperation with these groups and the networking and perhaps go even more into the public sphere: For we too need the many movements and initiatives that, on a global level, make the situations in which refugees have to live today safer. This is also the aim of the two "Global Compact", the worldwide agreements for the protection of migrants and refugees, which are, however, so far nothing more than voluntary declarations of intent. We still have a lot of progress to make at global level, and the issue of climate-induced migration is one that makes this particularly clear.

What is without alternative for you?

There is no alternative to accompanying refugees, wherever they may be; and our commitment to provide concrete help for refugees and to do so in such a way that their voice and experiences can be heard in as many places as possible.

I think we need a clear orientation for this today, which grows out of freedom: a freedom in which I can search for more life, for others and for myself, because I know that it was given to me myself. Accompanying fugitives can become a source of this freedom and renew it again and again. This freedom also has a direction, because it is and remains a search for life. For an organisation like the JRS, I believe this means that there is a clear anchorage and direction for the teams and the work. At the same time it is about implementing personal change in the encounter with each other, in the common search for life, also as a continuous process. We can only grow together in our humanity.

What inspires you outside of your work?

Cooking! Often something new, but also by recipe, when I expect many guests. It is a nice relaxation because it is very creative. What does it taste like when I do something different? What colours are on the plate? What can I make from what is currently available? It is also a nice opportunity to make others and myself happy. Here, too, you need an idea and a lot of flexibility in the implementation...

Your favourite drink?

Tamarind juice. This is a discovery from my time in Brazil! Wonderfully refreshing.

The interview was conducted by Martina Schneider in August 2020