25 young Jesuits from 17 different European countries – as well as from Vietnam and Tanzania – came together in Lebanon in August.
A report by Moritz Kuhlmann SJ, a participant from the German Province.

“One image is stuck in my head these days: Christ – suffering and yet smiling. It is happening again today: In the refugee camps we witness a broken humanity and right in the middle smiling children and strong women.”

Almost 30 young are sitting together in a big circle and share their experiences. They are participants of “EJIF – European Jesuits in Formation”. In August they spent three weeks in Lebanon – on refugees’ paths. We gathered a few of their impressions:

“And then the women looked at us and said: ‘We told you our life-stories. Are we only objects of study to you? What will you do for us? How can you help us?’ – These questions still shock me. I cannot help them.”

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and the NGO “Bashmeh & Zeitooneh” (“smile and olive”) show us the refugee camps. Lebanon, with a population of six million, has received two million Syrians in the past two years – despite the fact that Lebanon had been occupied by Syria until 2005. How quickly the tides of history can turn! The crisis might be a chance for reconciliation. In the community centers we meet women’s groups: “We don’t depend on anyone anymore, least of all on our men.” Our hosts from JRS and B&Z chuckle proudly: Syrian society has reformed itself in the refugee camps. Women are now ranking first. They are incredibly strong. The true “Arabellion” is happening now, in the UNHCR-tents which save the lives of Syrian families. Many refugees live outside of the camp. “Unlike in Africa you don’t often see the refugees. They live in ramshackle huts in the towns”, says Tony Calleja SJ. In Beiruts district Shatila 50.000 people live on one square kilometer. They are almost exclusively Palestinians who used to live as refugees in Syria and now even had to flee from their camps in Syria. We cannot help them and many of us are struggling the inability to help. And yet we can be witnesses, witnesses of the power of change in the crisis, of the smiles in the suffering.

“I hear the message that is Lebanon as a state: Religions can leave together in peace.” Cardinal Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, Patriarch of the Maronite, a Church united with Rome, to which virtually all of Lebanon’s Christians belong to, reminds us of the words of John Paul II.: “Lebanon is more than a state. It is a message.” The highest offices in the state are – according to the constitution – divided among Sunnis, Shiites and Maronite Christians. The Patriarch proudly tells us about the coexistence of religions in the country. And yet everywhere it is noticeable that every religion has its own life, unmixed. At least they don’t fight each other.

Salim Daccache SJ, Rector of the Université Saint-Joseph (USJ), would like the constitution’s ideal become a reality: “We want to be the place which binds Lebanon’s population together. This is a service to the community as our statues require it.”

37% of USJ’s students and 60% of Lebanon’s population are Muslims. The Jesuits have been in Lebanon since 1640, their main apostolate has always been education. Today, the Université Saint-Joseph and the Collège Notre-Dame de Jamhour bear witness to this tradition.

“I feel referred back to my home province. Many refugees live among us, many Muslims, many needy. Starting a social apostolate for them might even be harder than here. I would like to try it.”

One year ago the Jesuits’ Superior General wrote a letter to all members of the Society of Jesus, asking his brothers to be available for a service in the Middle East – this area being a priority in the Middle East. Many of us have traveled here with the question how they might react to the Superior General’s request: Should I make myself available for the Middle East? The hardship is great. However, the encounter with hardship abroad opens the eyes for hardship back home and lets our hearts burn. We experience a school of the heart.

At the end of our stay in Lebanon we entered into an eight day retreat of Spiritual Exercises in Tanail to deepen this school of the heart. Damian Howard SJ was leading the retreat with very profound, creative and deeply Ignatian inputs. On top of this spiritual guidance through Damian’s “puncta”, each participant was accompanied by a spiritual director.

After the retreat, the group came together and entered into a very serious process of Elections: What will be the main topic of next year’s meeting, where will it take place and whom do we want to take the responsibility for its organizing? Finally also after having consulted with John Dardis SJ we decided to dedicate next year’s EJIF to the topic of vocation. The venue is still uncertain, the new coordination committee will have to decide between London and Rome.

“This EJIF was a life changing experience for me”, someone finally says in our sharing. “Touching the crisis, its desperate needs and its profound hopes and miraculous transformation was a crisis for me, too. My needs and hopes – I feel them being so much more on surface now, so much more known and touchable to me. The transformation will spread: Whom will I touch with my transformed heart?”

German text: Moritz Kuhlmann SJ
Translation: Matthias Schmidt
Images: Pascal Meyer

Read also: 
The kind of peace that fills you up with hope (Giuseppe La Mela - Italy, EUM) - 
Face-to-face with the refugee crisis (Peter O'Sullivan - BRI) - 
I am one of the lucky ones (Arnold Mugliett - Malta, EUM)