Through field placements, faculty research, and alumni employment, Boston College School of Social Work (BCSSW) students, faculty, and alumni have been on the front lines of Jesuit Refugee Service’s (JRS) campaign to accompany, serve, and advocate on behalf of the displaced around the world.
It’s a sizable population. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people—refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people—worldwide.
From Syria to Mexico to Myanmar, JRS staff provide not only pastoral visits but also interpreters, legal aid, psychosocial help, education, health care, and other essential services to reduce suffering and ease the trauma of the refugee experience.
And for more than a decade, the Boston College School of Social Work has been part of that mission. It’s a relationship that starts with two faculty members: Maryanne Loughry and Tom Crea.
Loughry has been a visiting professor at BCSSW since 2007. A Sister of Mercy as well as a psychologist, she is presently chair of the JRS Staff Care Advisory Board. (With its headquarters in Rome, JRS encompasses 10 field offices serving hundreds of thousands of refugees in more than 50 countries around the globe, including Loughry’s homeland of Australia.) Loughry also holds a research appointment at the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre and advises the Australian government on asylum and detention matters.
“It’s finding a model for working with large numbers of people to address their psychosocial issues,” Loughry says of her work. “I’ve spent a lot of time doing trainings and working with paraprofessionals” as well as working with refugees, not to mention teaching students and mentoring recent graduates.
One of Loughry’s most notable courses at BCSSW is Services to Migrants: A Border Perspective, in which she brings students to the US-Mexico border to explore at firsthand the tension between “the right to migrate and the protective stance of sovereign nations,” as Loughry describes it.
The very ease with which Loughry can fly over from Sydney or Rome to Boston or Arizona for a few weeks contrasts sharply with the plight of the Central American migrants she meets in detention centers, she says, pointing up an inequality in terms of freedom of movement. “I can get a visa relatively easily because of the good fortune of where I was born,” says Loughry, “but most people can’t migrate so easily, yet they’re aware of what other countries have to offer.”
Whether fleeing violence or poverty or both, migrants have the potential “to make a phenomenal contribution to society,” Loughry says, “but you wouldn’t pick that up looking at the media....The current rhetoric [paints] migrants as a threat instead of a resource.”
Crea is an associate professor, assistant dean for Global Programs, and chair of the Global Practice concentration. In that capacity, he has overseen more than 30 BCSSW Global Practice students with JRS field placements over the past 11 years, including in Nigeria, Kenya, and Malta. The students have provided therapy for trauma survivors in Malawi, taught job skills to asylum seekers in South Africa, and helped resettle refugees in Portugal, among other activities, including research and policy work.
“This is not a theoretical undertaking,” says Crea. “You’re in the middle of it, on the front lines with JRS, in the midst of these humanitarian crises. Being pushed into a situation like that not only expands the students’ sense of compassion but also expands their professional skill set.”
Twelve of those students have stayed on to work for the organization full time after graduating. At present, four BCSSW alumni work for JRS in child protection, psychosocial services, mental health, and policy analysis.
In the past year and a half, that informal pathway has become formal under the moniker of the Young Professionals Program. Students work as interns for four to six months, then as full-time staff for a year. “We’re training and sending students to become fully functional professionals,” says Crea. “That’s unique in social work schools.”
The focus of the first BCSSW Young Professionals to work with JRS has been staff well-being. As Loughry explains, “In order to do good casework, good social work, we need to be in good form ourselves.” To prevent burnout and boost retention, JRS, with help from Crea and Loughry, has launched an assessment of staff needs across the group’s regions.
Stewart Simms ’17 and Melissa Hallisey ’18 are central to this effort. Through the Young Professionals Program, both started as interns on the staff care initiative and have continued working on it as full-timers. They’ve traveled across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, conducting surveys and interviews to learn what JRS workers need in order to do their jobs better.
“This is a crucial and yet very challenging piece of working with refugees,” says Hallisey. “Supporting people so they can support others.”
That support is especially critical, says Loughry, because many of the JRS workers are themselves former refugees. “We need to help them keep a bit of distance,” Loughry says, “and not get too caught up in the stories of the people they’re helping.”
The skills Hallisey gained in her MSW training at BC have been “directly applicable to what I’m doing now,” she says. “Everything from the data analysis I learned from Professor Crea to how to write a policy brief for Dr. Loughry’s course. Those are skills I’ve used over and over and over again in just the six months I’ve been working full time with JRS.”
Beyond the coursework, says Loughry, “I think the BC students bring a human rights perspective and also a sense of justice” to their JRS placements. “One thing JRS does that is very compatible with BC is that we aim to work with the most vulnerable. It’s a natural fit. [The students] already have that orientation as well as an understanding of the Jesuit concept of accompaniment.”
As to why aspiring social workers should consider working with refugees, Loughry says: “It’s a demanding area, but one where there’s a lot of opportunity. And as our world becomes more and more global, it’s a space where social workers can make a real difference.”