Hope and desperation

Bernard Hyacinth Arputhasamy
Fr Bernard was the regional director of JRS Asia Pacific from 2005-2012. Born in Malaysia, he spent two years working with JRS Malaysia and joined the JRS AP team again five years later as regional director.
Friday, April 08, 2011

We were welcomed to Mass with an opening song, “It is a new life in the Lord…” Fr Peter Balleis and I (JRS International Director) were on a field visit to Papua New Guinea, and celebrated the first Sunday of Advent in a small chapel with mostly refugees from West Papua residing in Neogamban, Western Province, Papua New Guinea. The refugees in this church are part of the 10,000 people residing and seeking refuge in this remote border, hidden and forgotten.

The choir sang away with life, filling the chapel with joy and warmly welcoming Fr Peter and I to their humble chapel.

Saint Paul referred to all people as saints. I could understand what he meant at this Mass, when I heard the upbeat music of these saints of God in exile. The singers’ repertoire was in English and Tok Pisin (Pidgin) while the Mass was celebrated in the Malay language. It was a fitting welcome for the first Sunday of Advent, where everyone was awaiting Christ’s birth, full of life, hope and warm hospitality.

I wonder how a people who have suffered so much, people who have been forgotten pawns in the geo-political drama of nations, can sing such beautiful, optimistic songs. 

These refugees know that they did not have a choice to live like this. It was decided for them: Australia, Germany and the Netherlands drew the boundaries of the whole island (West Papua of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea). “This is our land and we are the same people (Melanesian). Suddenly someone from above decided to separate us and now we are without our own land and nation,” said one West Papua refugee, now living on the border in PNG.

Furthermore, this is a classic case of displacing people, which is so often driven by the competition for resources like gold, copper, oil, gas and timber. Multinational corporations (e.g. Free Port Inc. of the US in West Papua for gold mining; Ok Tedi mining company of Canada in PNG) have taken much interest in the natural resources of this island. It is the combination of politics and economics that poses one of the major root causes of displacement of West Papuans.

Some of us may be familiar with the movie “Blood Diamond” and the ensuing brutal conflicts and displacement of peoples  (in Liberia and Sierra Leone). What is left for the people? Do West Papuans have a share in the wealth of the nation? Why is there no corporate social responsibility? Corporations who have plundered the land for resources have destroyed the very fabric of the environment, poisoning the rivers and land—a source of livelihood for the Melanesian peoples.

At the Advent Mass, Fr Masjon, the presider, spoke about the thousands of people fleeing persecution in the Old Testament, fleeing slavery in Egypt and seeking “the promised land.” “You share the same hope for freedom of the people of Israel…” Fr Masjon said in his homily.

For people who have been stuck in PNG for 25 years, I wonder what this “hope for freedom” means that Fr Masjon was referring to.

Throughout the Asia Pacific region refugees are driven to desperation by the conditions in their new host countries. But they are also driven by desperation to escape persecution. They hope with desperation. What does it mean to live every day with desperation and also hope? I don’t claim to understand this; no one can understand this life except he or she who lives it. Protection for refugees is a mirage. Fear is their daily bread; hope in desperation is their cup of suffering. 

Asylum seekers, people held in detention, migrants who are vulnerable and refugees—all have their stories to tell if anyone is willing to listen. Doubtless you will read and hear their voices in these pages. 

I wonder the depth people mine into the recesses of their human dignity to find the hope that is essential to survive — hope for a community shelter, livelihood assistance, education, etc. The “new life” of a child born in exile could once again awaken in us compassion to respond to the cries of hopeful desperation with a welcoming hospitality for people forced to flee for refuge.

We wait for yet another sign of “new life” as we draw near the event of the Resurrection (Easter)—when the Risen Lord appeared from his burial tomb. Perhaps people and nations could remove the fortresses of prejudice and policy that keep people in exile and instil in governments the responsibility to protect refugees who are forced to flee and not hide behind the pretext of national security and sovereignty. It should also instil in multinational corporations a felt sense of responsibility, as opposed to a relentless thirst for profits, for people rooted in their own land. 

Fr Bernard Hyacinth Arputhasamy, SJ

Regional Director JRS Asia Pacific