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A Path to Global Citizenry

In the Jesuit tradition, it is said we are ‘men and women for others.’ More than an inspiring phrase, for Jill Drzewiecki ’99 it’s lived out daily in her mission. From the international office in Rome, Jill and her coworkers at the Jesuit Refugee Service assist forcibly displaced populations in 57 countries.

When she started with JRS in 2016 as a gender-responsive education specialist, roughly 50 percent of refugee youth had access to primary education. That number dropped to 25 percent of youth who had access to secondary and only 1 percent to higher education. And of those with access, few were girls.

“Schools are safe places to students in conflict-affected regions and long-term investments in peaceable communities,” Drzewiecki says. The benefits are transformational: better health outcomes, more income and more stable environments for future generations. Drzewiecki feels fortunate to be able to give back at a time when the pope is a Jesuit and is an outspoken advocate for welcoming refugees, especially welcoming them into classrooms: “The pope said: ‘To give a child a seat at a school is the best gift you can give.’ ”

Lasting trauma for refugees

For many, it’s not just a lost year or two while they resettle. “The average length of displacement for refugees is between 20 and 25 years,” she says. Only about 4 percent of global humanitarian funding goes toward education. But she is seeing signs of improvement: now 68 percent have access to primary education.

Growing up a small-town Wisconsin resident, Drzewiecki didn’t have the words to articulate what she does now: “I come from a community of blue-collar workers. … Nobody talked about working with international organizations or humanitarian or development work.

“I had Dr. [Gratzia] Villarroel (Political Science) for my advisor and my first class, my International Studies 100 class … led to my world opening up a little bit.” Drzewiecki interned for a semester in Bogota, Colombia, helping street children, an experience she describes as transformative and traumatic at the same time.

She then completed a master’s in environmental education, worked with Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots program and, a few stops later, landed in Rome working at a refugee center. She recalls: “That kind of blew my mind open because I had been so involved in Latin America and the undocumented immigrant in the United States and day-to-day-to-day, [and now] I was in a sea of people to meet basic needs. … I loved it but it was challenging to be on the front lines of things.”

“Being part of the solution, I don’t find it depressing. I don’t find it debilitating. I find it energizing,” she says. “There’s so much human potential that’s lost, people missing years of education or people being traumatized ... by the daily stressors of being in exile. … I think about wanting people to live their fullest lives.”

Drzewiecki forecasts a more permanent return one day to Wisconsin to apply the skills she’s obtained and molded to make lasting change for refugees and their host communities.

“My hope is that I can come back and in a helpful way be part of creating welcoming communities for refugees,” she says. “It makes for much richer communities … and an opportunity to innovate in our communities.”

She sees a great challenge for refugees in the lack of understanding from the communities they move to and a tendency for the vast majority of us to get wrapped up in our day-to-day lives. “There are a lot of really good people and there are some good initiatives, like the Norbertines welcoming people, but it needs to be all hands-on-deck,” she says. “There are a lot of opportunities … even if that’s just having a meal with someone once a week and practice their English or help someone ride the bus. … But getting people over that first hump is hard.”

June 30, 2022