By Fannie Dionne
The call to religious life is not the only vocation to which one can aspire. For Norbert Piché, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service – Canada, his vocation is to accompany, and be accompanied by, persons who are refugees. His story is one of great trust in God and of working to defend and accompany people who have been marginalized, as Jesus taught.
How did you hear about the Jesuits?
I used to be a teacher in Manitoba. But I knew that it wasn’t my calling, and so, I started to look elsewhere. I talked to my parish priest about it. He gave me the book Opportunities to Serve, with descriptions of various missionary works, as well as a brochure that was about the Jesuit Volunteers. What I read in the brochure was exactly what I was looking for: work, social justice, and a simple life in community within a faith context.
I sent in my application, and even before I knew whether or not I had been accepted, I submitted a request for a leave of absence without pay and put my house up for rent. But since the brochure I had read wasn’t current, my application turned out to be late, and the director told me that he didn’t know whether or not he would be able to accept me. After I hung up, I called my sister in tears. A few days later, the director called me back to say that I had a spot. What he told me later was that there was actually no place available, but he thought, “If this young man can trust in God, so can I.”
And how did you come to work with refugees?
I started to volunteer with refugees in 1994 in Toronto at Romero House, a shelter for asylum seekers. It somehow became a vocation for me.
The first family I met was from Rwanda. It was during the genocide. The parents, who had three children, told me about their experience. What struck me was that during their escape through the jungle, the woman gave birth to their last child. They named her Ingabire, which in Kinyarwanda means “gift of God.”
It was striking that they could be aware of the closeness of God even in such a situation. After hearing that, I asked myself: Would it be possible for me to consider each and every refugee who I meet to be a gift from God and not a problem?
After hearing that, I asked myself: Would it be possible for me to consider each and every refugee who I meet to be a gift from God and not a problem?
You have accompanied refugees, but have you also been accompanied by them?
Refugees are people who have lost a lot. Here, they have to rebuild their lives and it is not always easy. To be able to be with them during this time is a privilege. It teaches me how human beings can be both resilient and fragile at the same time, and how much we need each other. And it’s not just the refugee who needs the citizen. It goes in the opposite direction as well because it shows us our own humanity. How all of a sudden — bang! — our lives can easily change.
I’ll tell you a story. At one time in Romero House, the refugees who came from French-speaking Africa started calling me “le grand brûlé.” I didn’t understand why. One man told me that when a black person is burned, his skin becomes whiter. I realized that they considered me part of their community. If I’m able to live with them, share their story, and spend time in community, then I am accompanied by them as well. By listening to them, their stories become part of me, too. I am no longer the Norbert Piché I was before. Accompaniment is about being mutually enriched.
By listening to them, their stories become part of me, too. I am no longer the Norbert Piché I was before. Accompaniment is about being mutually enriched.
And ultimately you became director of the Jesuit Refugee Service?
Yes, at one point I heard that the position of director of the Jesuit Refugee Service was opening up here in Montreal. I thought it was very interesting because, first of all, it meant working with the Jesuits, and secondly, it meant working with refugees.
For me, being director of the Jesuit Refugee Service is putting into practice Ignatian spirituality, discernment, and seeing where God is present in the midst of everything, in my own life and also in the lives of refugees.
You have recently set up a project for the spiritual accompaniment of refugees—why?
During the beginning of the pandemic, I went on a retreat that led me quite far on my personal journey.
The idea of spiritual accompaniment for refugees came from the desire to understand each other better, to discover where God is in our lives despite the losses we may experience. The refugee goes through an incredible upheaval, having had to flee from home, arriving in a new society. . . How does one live this on a spiritual level? We started with a one-day retreat in a retreat centre, and we will soon continue this journey in a parish.
How can we preserve a sense of hope when we, as a society, often erect walls rather than welcome people?
When I was a volunteer in 1995, the Conservative government decided to cut social assistance by 20%, which greatly affected refugees. The minister responsible had said that people on welfare could simply eat more tuna fish.
At Romero House, we decided to hold a 24-hour vigil from Thursday to Good Friday in front of the legislative building in Toronto. We bought cans of tuna, opened them, made tuna rolls, and nailed the empty cans to a cross. We made the national news during the day. But by midnight, we were practically the only ones there. I asked the Jesuit priest who accompanied us: “Nobody sees us! What are we doing here?” And what he said has stayed with me till now: “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do. Not because it’s necessarily going to change something, but we do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
And that’s what keeps me going. We welcome everyone — whether it’s people who cross Roxham Road or the Mediterranean. We welcome them because it’s the right thing to do. Until things change, we will continue to do the right thing, as Jesus taught us.
“We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do. Not because it’s necessarily going to change something, but we do it because it’s the right thing to do.”