After welcoming almost 300 Afghan refugees, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Portugal has been working to integrate them to the Portuguese society.
Since the end of August, after the Taliban took over Kabul, Portugal has taken in more than 750 Afghan refugees, most of them people who collaborated with NATO forces – including the Portuguese military – as translators, but also other vulnerable members of Afghan society.
The JRS was responsible for welcoming 279 of those refugees, according to Director André Costa Jorge. The organization worked in partnership with the U.S.-based Romulus T. Weatherman Foundation, which funded rescue operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with the Portuguese authorities.
“Lisbon’s city council has a refugee program, and we work along with it. The council created a new shelter in a hostel and asked us to operate there,” Jorge told Crux.
A first group of refugees arrived at the end of August. A few weeks later, a plane with Afghan women soccer players landed in Lisbon.
“They are young ladies with some degree of involvement with the sport, which had been promoted by the Americans in Afghanistan. Some of them are athletes, but others had a smaller connection with soccer and used it as a way of leaving the country,” Jorge explained.
“For us, that did not matter at all. We know that women can suffer a lot of restrictions under the Taliban, and we welcomed them with the same joy,” he added.
After some time, the JRS team realized that there was a somber atmosphere among the refugees.
“Most young women did not come with their families. Rumor among them had it that they would have to choose only one relative to be rescued from Afghanistan,” Jorge said.
The JRS decided to call a meeting with the Portuguese authorities and a plan to bring the refugees’ families was developed. The organization had a list of people who should be taken out of Afghanistan and once again asked for the support of the Romulus T. Weatherman Foundation. On November 16, that last group of refugees arrived in Portugal and were reunited with their relatives.
Jorge said that now the refugees are more at peace and beginning to make plans again.
“They are learning Portuguese and their professional skills are being mapped, so they will be able to rebuild their careers or start new ones here,” Jorge said.
Catarina Lima, a Projects Coordinator at JRS, explained that many refugees faced traumatic situations during their escape from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Some of them were sheltered with little food for weeks, and fear was omnipresent.
“A psychologist has been giving support to the group, developing coping strategies with them. Some cases require individual attention. But Afghans are pretty resilient,” Lima said.
She said that a member of her team lived in Afghanistan and speaks Dari, something that has been very helpful in their work.
“She taught us about their history and culture. While working with them, we realized that they are able to face terrible difficulties with much strength and even with humor,” she said.
Some families have relatives that have been living for years in European countries like Belgium and Germany. Lima said that some of these relatives traveled to Portugal in order to visit the new arrivals.
There is not a large Afghan community in Portugal, but Syrian refugees and immigrants from other predominantly Muslim countries have been in touch with the refugees. The JRS is part of a refugee’s network which also includes Lisbon’s Islamic community. According to Lima, the Afghan refugees have been mostly discreet regarding their own spirituality.
“I feel that they are looking for a comfortable place in order to freely experience their faith. It is a process that involves a kind of reconciliation with their own religiosity, which they know that is not connected in any level to what the Taliban represents,” she said.
There are still several things that need to be done to help the refugees integrate into Portuguese society, including finding houses or apartments to rent.
“Most landlords do not want to rent a house to refugees or immigrants. They fear they will not pay. We are now running a campaign to raise awareness on that problem,” Jorge said.
The drive is part of a larger effort to establish hospitality communities formed by parishioners, members of ecclesial organizations, and civic activists who can help the Afghans to adapt to their new life in Portugal.
“That is Pope Francis’s call to Europe: Opening new doors, transforming intentions into reality, and practicing hospitality,” Jorge explained.
Last week, the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference issued a statement saying it is engaged in increasing all Church organizations’ “capacity of welcoming” immigrants and refugees and in promoting “more inclusive communities.”
According to Jorge, most bishops are not involved with the immigrant and refugee issues on a daily basis. “We have never seen a bishop come visit the refugees, for instance,” he said. “It is important that they come to meet with them.”
When a parish is actively engaged in helping refugees, the work of JRS and similar organizations gains strength, he said.
“In Ericeira, a coastal city near Lisbon, the local parish is very involved in the work with the welcome center for refugees,” he said.
“That is good for everybody: For the refugees and for the parishioners too. Evangelization begins with ourselves.”