On a mission of mercy
College of Arts and Sciences
At home in Rome, dancer and mathematician Jacquelyn Pavilon found her true calling in providing support to refugees
By Alexandra Jonker
During her time at Loyola, Jacquelyn Pavilon (JFRC Spring ’10, BA ’12, BS ’12) explored a wide range of interests. She interned with a refugee center in Rome, served as the U.S. liaison to a Ugandan children’s rights group, studied math, and practiced dance. After earning a dual degree in mathematics and global and global and international studies and political science with a dance minor, Pavilon hoped to continue working abroad but instead took a job as a mathematician for a gaming company in Chicago. The job provided security and a steady income, but Pavilon told herself it was only temporary.
Eventually an opportunity in Rome came calling, and Pavilon jumped at the chance to return to the Eternal City. She joined the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), where she’s now helping to run a $35 million campaign to provide education to refugees.
In this interview with Loyola magazine, she discusses life in Rome, her passion for service, and her personal meeting with the pope.
How did you get interested in working with refugees?
When I was a student at the John Felice Rome Center, I took a human rights course and my service learning placement was at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center. My first day on the job, an Iraqi man came up to me, handed me his documents, and said, “Please help me, I need asylum.” It was the most moving experience to work with him on his asylum process.
I always wanted to work in international human rights but I didn’t know particularly what I’d do. When I studied abroad and did that internship, I knew I wanted to work specifically with refugees.
How did you go from being a mathematician to working at JRS?
I was graduating in a terrible economy. My best friend and I applied for the same job at JRS upon graduation and we were the last two candidates. In the meantime, I had been recruited to work as a casino mathematician, which is something I never thought I wanted but it was a really good job opportunity. The JRS ultimately offered my friend the position.
I told myself I would work for the casinos for two years maximum. Two years later my friend was finishing her contract at JRS and they were looking for her replacement. I reapplied and was offered the job as international communications assistant. Due to some staff transitions, I was eventually offered the job as the international communications coordinator, which is the head of communications for the international organization.
What is the JRS currently doing to help refugees?
We work in 45 countries, and our mission is to not only serve but also accompany and advocate for refugees worldwide. Our primary services are in education and psychosocial support, although because of the crisis in the Middle East we are doing a lot of emergency work as well as providing food and non-food items.
Right now, we are running a campaign called “Mercy in Motion” to provide educational services to an additional 100,000 refugees worldwide, which was actually a brainchild of Pope Francis.
How did you get to meet the pope?
This giant campaign was brought to our organization, and as a precursor to the launch, we had a private audience with the pope for our staff, some of our donors, and some refugees with whom we work. He spoke about the importance of education for refugees and how to show mercy in a concrete way.
I had just a few months prior been working in Lebanon with the Syrian refugees. I had a collection of photos of Syrian refugee children holding drawings of before, when they were in the war in Syria, and after, when they are at our educational center in Lebanon. I presented the pope with a book of these photographs and asked if he would pray for Christians and Muslims together in a very interfaith way.
Do you still find time to dance?
I actually still dance a lot. I train at an underground studio two stories beneath platform 24 of the train station called Termini Underground. I train with a lot of hip hop dancers there, and I’m really involved in the underground community.
What is it like to live in Rome?
I love Rome. It has a lot of history and layers and complexities that are interesting, and I have a great life here.