At the heart of this book the reader discovers a story of our common humanity. From 1992 to 1994 James Martin—”Brother Jim” as he came to be called—lived and worked in Kenya with refugees from all over East Africa. As a Jesuit-in-training, he had been sent (and had chosen) to spend these two years working with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), bringing his own business background and expertise as valuable skills. It was indeed an important skill, leading to the development of self-sustainable refugee businesses and the Mikono Centre for the marketing and sale of handmade goods, a source of income for the refugees. In the process both his head and heart are changed by the many people, especially the refugees, with whom he lived those two years. But that simple outline misses the real power and enjoyment of reading this well-written book.
James Martin, an editor at America magazine, is already well known for his many writings including his autobiography In Good Company and the New York Times best-selling The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. He has appeared frequently on NPR, PBS and other major networks, and has written for — and The Huffington Post. (Not to mention occasional appearances as “the chaplain” on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report.) He brings an engaging style to his writing along with a down-to-earth openness and vulnerability. In This Our Exile he manages to act as both tour guide and spiritual seeker, bringing us into the sights, sounds and smells of East Africa and the lives of the refugees he came to know and love. These lives, “a full measure of sorrows and joys,” led him “to confront the basic human questions of what it means to suffer pain and to experience happiness.” As the refugees invited him into their lives, he “came to know more fully what it means to love and be loved.”
Being a missionary might conjure up images of the Great White Father bringing God to the poor “unbelievers,” but James Martin finds that it is much more a matter of finding God already present there among the refugees. This is the vision of the Jesuit Refugee Service also, committed to accompaniment, service, and advocacy on behalf of refugees throughout the world. Founded in 1980 by the Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe, JRS has as its overarching vision “to nurture hope,” focusing especially on “those groups or areas that receive little publicity or help from elsewhere.” This is certainly the experience James Martin brings to the reader. While the book is not about JRS, the spirit of JRS forms the background for these stories of the refugees—accompaniment, service and advocacy. (The reader might want to visit the Jesuit Refugee Service website for more information: www.jrs.net/.)
Above all, this is a book of stories, the stories of refugees and aid workers in East Africa—primarily Nairobi, Kenya. We have the privilege to meet Gaudiosa Ruzage, Mama Mzee, Uta Fagan, Sister Luise, Benjamin, Marie Bugwiza, Kabina Sockor and many others. Through them we come to know a bit of the culture, traditions, language of East Africa, but above all we enter into “the heart of the matter:” the joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures in our common humanity. Tears and laughter are found in the most difficult circumstances: John Mutaburunga’s drought-starved cattle, Benjamin’s “some little money,” Kabina Sockor saying with tears “You are my brother.” These are moving stories told through the words of a trustworthy seeker. First published in 1999, this book is here reissued by Orbis Books with a New Afterword: Twenty Years Later by James Martin. The millions of refugees throughout our world, too often out-of-sight and out-of-mind, deserve to be brought out into the light. James Martin’s remarkable book does just this for the thousands living in East African refugee camps, and through them the lives of all.