Seeking Refuge was created out of conversations. Hundreds of conversations, throughout the past year with those of you here today.
Our forum is at once unusual and straight forward: it convenes people from just about every caring constituency that responds to forced migration. Together we are experts and witnesses, scholars, professionals from faith-based and secular agencies, government and inter-agency officials, grassroots religious leaders, human rights advocates, philanthropists, journalists, students—and refugees. We represent existing and potential partnerships between religious and secular bodies.
This gathering arises from a friendship between Princeton University’s Office of Religious Life (ORL) and the Community of Sant’Egidio. The ORL understands religious life to include intellectual, moral, and civic life. As a religious office within a secular institution, the ORLengages in service because we understand that universities are a place to model different ways of living religiously. The office connected Princeton students with the Community of Sant’Egidio to volunteer through a summer seminar in Rome four years ago.
Today the Community of Sant’Egidio is a global Catholic lay movement present in over seventy countries, but it began fifty years ago as a group of high school students in Rome dedicated to friendship, prayer, and responding to the world around them. The community’s ability to broker international peace agreements while preserving personal encounter and vocational orientation at the heart of their work made a strong impression on the Princeton students who volunteered with the community in Rome. That summer, much of their shared service was with refugees. The students began asking questions about poverty and peacemaking. This led to a conference exploring these themes at Princeton in 2014, in which listening and friendship were emphasized to powerful effect.
The ORL has once again been moved by the Sant’Egidio way of engaging refugees: responding as friends and neighbors while working with governments to provide humanitarian assistance and visas for hundreds of families. Last year, the community facilitated Pope Francis’s extraordinary effort to accompany twelve Syrian refugees out of a refugee camp on Lesbos and help them make new lives in Rome. In the past year the ORL has created mentorship opportunities with refugee youth, engaging undergraduates to think about forced migration and making space for discussion and welcome within the university network and wider community.
Seeking Refuge thus reflects the shared principles of its cohosts, consisting of intimate roundtable sessions, panel discussions, and an interfaith concluding ceremony, all grounded in friendship. It convenes a range of participants whose moral, religious, vocational, and professional identities are defined in response to the tragedy of forced migration. The community gathered here is diverse, but can, we think, agree that forced migration is a singular problem we face.
Our terrain is shifting. Who is vulnerable and who is responsible, and who therefore becomes vulnerable, is shifting.
Our hope is to reflect, think creatively, make and renew friendships, and draw attention to communities who care and respond at a time when the act of caring itself is called into question. Professionals and volunteers are here to listen and to share their expertise. Religious communities and faith-based organizations likewise accompany us. The overwhelming interest from students who wish to learn and to act is unique on this campus.
At its best, a university gathers diverse actors in reflection and action. The structure of this program follows from this aspiration. Morning sessions will address questions such as personal and global responsibility, the role of faith, and the responsibilities of the institutions at play in responding to forced migration. Afternoon sessions will work on creating sanctuary, exploring vocation, and encouraging interfaith collaboration and friendship.
We welcome you to Seeking Refuge and invite you to start a conversation with your neighbor.
Claudio Mario Betti