An interview with Alberto Ares SJ. When contemplation meets action

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The Spanish Jesuit Alberto Ares is the director of the Jesuit Refugee Service Europe, based in Brussels. This organization is responsible for coordinating the activities of 23 offices throughout the continent, providing assistance and support to displaced and vulnerable people. Previously, he held the position of director of the University Institute for Migration Studies at the University of Comillas, where he continues to work as a lecturer and researcher.

As the director of JRS Europe, how have you experienced the serious humanitarian crisis unleashed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine? What have been the most significant challenges and achievements?

From my position in Brussels, the war in Ukraine and the humanitarian emergency unleashed – with the displacement of people being the largest in Europe since World War II – have had a major impact on our teams and on Jesuit communities. What has this meant in terms of the development of our work? In Europe, we have initiated a three-year project called One Proposal. It aims to provide a common response to the emergency in Ukraine but also in all neighbouring countries. We also have an integration fund to address the large-scale displacement of Ukrainians in Europe through our 23 national offices. Overall, the response in Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Moldova, and also through other partners, has had a very strong impact at different levels.

On May 16th, the International Day of Living Together in Peace in Europe was celebrated. To what extent are the objectives of this celebration being fulfilled, especially in the work with forced migrants and refugees?

I am convinced that if many of us did not take living in peace and promoting peace seriously, we would not live in a world like this. Some may argue that with all the wars, what I am saying may not be true. But I believe that more and more people want to live in peace and are fighting for that peace. Furthermore, peace is not a thing, it is not an achievement in itself or a destination, but a process and a journey.

What is true is that the social situation we are experiencing in Spain, in some aspects, goes against the promotion of peace as a source of justice and dignity. In what sense do I say this? Politically, in many of our contexts, polarization is increasing. We live in bubbles and see the world from our own bubble. Unfortunately, that increasingly smaller bubble tends to be that of those who have more opportunities to live, develop, have a place to work and reside, and have the documents that allow us to move from one country to another. We often view the world from our bubbles, and as a Jesuit once said half in jest, half seriously, we like to argue but only with those who think like us. Thus, when we enter the public arena and the social world, we have great difficulty in engaging in dialogue. And in the case of migration and refuge, the difficulty is significant in seeing these situations as opportunities for growth, wealth, and not just hostility and a threat to security.

Considering the difficulties and traumas faced by migrant people when leaving their homes, how can we promote a culture of hospitality and create reception processes that take into account the specific needs of each individual or family, fostering their integration and recognizing their dignity?

This is a great question, perhaps the million-dollar question. How can we live together or how to live together in our diverse and plural societies? Perhaps if we observe the causes of migratory flows, we can distinguish the aspects to consider.

In this sense, at the origin, I believe it is fundamental to have international cooperation policies that truly promote justice, dignity, development, and the non-exploitation or pollution of the places of origin of many of the migrating people. Unfortunately, cooperation policies, even with the common asylum and refuge framework in Europe, are marked by conditionality and the existence of certain quotas.

There are also elements to consider in destination countries. Just a few days ago, we saw hundreds of people dying on the shores of the Mediterranean, in Greece, Italy, and other parts of the world. In this case, an element to consider has to do with international law and the place that people occupy in cooperation policies with transit countries: are migrant people at the centre or is security? Sometimes, even within the European Union, and we see it in the progress of the discussion on the new European Pact on Migration and Asylum, the proposed measures are focused on preventing people from reaching our territory, strengthening repatriations, promoting, and pushing for border externalization, increased investment in security, etc.

And in destination countries, in our European societies, there is a fundamental element: integration. In this case, since the 2008 crisis, there has been a dismantling of the social protection system, with an impact on the most vulnerable people. A precariat has been generated among a segment of the population that not only excludes immigrant populations but also many other people residing in the working-class neighbourhoods of our cities. The social unrest caused requires policies that not only address diversity but also have a more generalist character.

Certainly, within the general framework, with the Global Compact for Migration or the European Pact, there have been advancements, but they do not have full reach. I hope that the current wave of security and fear, even though it may not subside, will find its place within a framework that – like the university studies we have carried out in Spain in the last three years on integration issues – demonstrates the benefits and richness that immigration brings to our society.

In what ways do you believe young people can mobilize to achieve significant social transformation in relation to refugee integration?

I believe that young people can play a significant role in achieving meaningful social transformation regarding the integration of refugees. Young people are the present and future of our society, and there are numerous examples that demonstrate their importance. They have been actively involved in environmental movements, the 15M movement in Spain, the Arab Spring, and many other social movements.

However, it is true that many educational systems still rely on models that do not always foster a critical awareness of the situations we are facing. Therefore, there is a great need for our educational systems to include programs or subjects that not only help develop concepts and skills but also promote critical awareness focused on social transformation. In other words, young people need tools to critically investigate and initiate transformative movements.

For example, through the UChange project, we have reached around 40,000 students in Europe across more than 300 educational institutions, aiming to bridge the gap between students and raising awareness. We have sought to foster a critical stance towards migration and refuge by inviting migrants and refugees to share their experiences in classrooms. We have also had students act as ambassadors, expanding the program alongside refugees. Additionally, in collaboration with the Institute for Migration Studies at the University of Comillas in Madrid, the project has been evaluated, and educational materials have been created to be incorporated into teachers’ curricula.

Recently, we participated in the European Youth Event in Strasbourg, where we conducted a workshop on this program, focusing on change. This highlights the active involvement of young people in driving social change and promoting integration among refugees.

In an article you published in May 2022 titled “Time to Choose: The Two Banners”, you mentioned the existence of two possible paths in the face of insecurity: the upward path and the downward path. What do you consider the importance of promoting the downward path, based on solidarity and the pursuit of the common good, to address current challenges such as the migration crisis?

Both paths are a result of the experience nurtured by Ignatian spirituality. In fact, in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, there is a meditation called “The Two Standards”.

I believe that to understand the downward path, it is good to understand the upward path. There is a path where accumulation, possession, and the desire to have, which sometimes arises from within us, generate dynamics of fearing to lose what we have. This often happens in our current societies, where we believe we are good because we possess resources, thinking that we know and can do everything, feeding our pride. Simplifying greatly, this attitude also connects with the positions we sometimes take in wars and conflicts, in polarizations. “I have the truth, and it is the only truth.” But these are dynamics that ultimately fuel competition and insecurity, causing us to isolate ourselves and live as isolated islands.

On the other hand, there is another dynamic where each person possesses what they need, not much more, where they are capable of sharing and valuing, and where the fear of losing what is possessed is lessened. A person has a greater ability to encounter others, to leave the door open. And freedom is greater. It is a freedom that helps us look at the present and the future with more hope and the ability to trust.

These types of dynamics help us look at reality from the perspective of others: I have my difficulties, but others do too. And it is in that space of sharing our weaknesses and fragilities where the miracle of hope and happiness sometimes occurs, generating dynamics of greater well-being.

How can we apply the teachings of St. Ignatius of Loyola to manage insecurity both at an individual and societal level in the current context of crisis and geopolitical changes?

Through a change in thinking. If I had to point out two elements of Ignatian spirituality that can help us in the context we live in, I would start with being contemplative in action. Regardless of whether we are believers or not, one difficulty we have in our world is the ability to look at our day-to-day lives with a little perspective. In general, we go through the day rushing and with very little capacity to reflect on what we have experienced. So, Ignatius’ proposal helps us to be reflective while carrying out a particular action. His invitation is to go through the reality we live in order to see what elements and situations help us find meaning. It is the ability to look with different eyes; eyes that help us find meaning in what we do.

Another fundamental element of Ignatian spirituality is discernment. It is perhaps a word that sounds somewhat strange to someone who is not familiar with it. But discerning, fundamentally, means having a methodology to read the context of lived reality. It is about seeing what is happening in our hearts, in our minds, and in our life circumstances. It is a reading at different levels that enables discernment or a valuable perspective.

How do you cultivate a spiritual dimension in your daily life?

For me, the spiritual dimension is vital to find meaning in life, in my own life. A fundamental element for me is nature. It helps me connect with God. It’s a freer and more open dimension, much of what the experience of being on a journey, of walking, of being a pilgrim is about. I was born in a small town, I am from a rural area, and nature helps me feel my roots and give thanks. And I believe this is the first element of any spiritual life, being able to connect with that source of grace, of light that one lives within.

Spirituality is also present in other elements. The conflicts that exist in personal relationships and routines, although sometimes it may be more challenging to identify spirituality in these aspects. It is also present in encounters with friends, in having a quiet moment of prayer. But it is also closely linked to being connected in day-to-day life, in projects, professional encounters, and even, as I mentioned, in disagreements.

What advice would you give to the young people who are part of the European Leadership Programme? How can we learn to discern our present, take action, and forge a future more committed to humanity?

An important element, based on my own experience in life, is to never lose sight of contact with reality. Because from our positions and studies, sometimes without realizing it, we can get deeply immersed in books and theories. If one truly wants to be connected with life and provide a more authentic response, we must maintain contact with reality. Wherever we are, and in whatever situation we find ourselves, only we can discern what we are experiencing. If we only live it through the screen of a tablet and have no significant contact with people, our experience will be limited.

Another piece of advice is to exercise the ability to discern, learning to see reality through different eyes, not just the eyes of market laws and consumerism, but also considering the rich heritage of people who have thought and experienced before us. In this regard, I recall “Letter to María”, a text written a few years ago by the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez Reverte, which was an invitation to a young person to look, to open their gaze, to open their heart.

Lastly, I believe we need to be authentic. To be authentic and persistent in our hopes, in our dreams. Because sometimes discouragement prevails, pushing us towards other places, doing what is easy or nothing at all. Sometimes, without realizing it, all of this can undermine our hearts. That’s why we need to look with enthusiasm and hope, and we must take our dreams and be capable of pursuing them, even if it’s difficult.

By Teresa Pallarés Ramos, Spring 2023 ELP fellow