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A culture of encounter and dialogue: the only way forward in Syria

"We want to be men and women of peace, and we want in our society, torn apart by divisions and conflict, that peace break out!"

With these words Pope Francis recently captured both the tragedy of the war in Syria and the profound longing of Syrians for peace. This echoes the same clear message that JRS workers, their families and local Syrian communities wish to send to the international community. In support of Pope Francis' plea for international solidarity in pursuing peace in Syria, Jesuit Refugee Service urges the international community to:

• prioritize diplomatic efforts and apply pressure on the Syrian government and the Free Syrian Army forces to agree upon an immediate ceasefire and cooperate to reach a negotiated solution to the conflict. This process must include the meaningful participation of Syrian civil society groups across social, religious and ethnic divides.

• put pressure on belligerents to refrain in so far as possible from disrupting humanitarian operations and/ or harming personnel and to allow unimpeded access to Syrians in need of assistance.

• substantially increase financial and technical support for grassroots humanitarian initiatives targeting the most vulnerable Syrians in full accordance with humanitarian principles;

• support host countries in assisting and protecting Syrian refugees and cooperate with authorities to counter increasing discrimination and xenophobia.

In response to the ongoing violent conflict, which has caused the death of more than 100,000 people and displaced almost seven million Syrians, tens of thousands of Syrians across religious, ethnic and economic divides have been working continuously for harmony as they reach out to build "a culture of encounter and dialogue."

Even though the number of displaced has almost reached that of the population of New York City, Syrian civil society — an overwhelming silent majority who have not resorted to violence — continues working to put the Pope's words into action by engaging and supporting grassroots humanitarian initiatives.

JRS projects in Syria help civil society to resist the logic of war and survive the violence threatens to overwhelm and destroy communities. Families are repeatedly displaced both due to generalized violence and as result of being deliberately targeted. The conflict has also caused the near collapse of the economy as well as a brain drain and the mass exodus of many middle-class families. Within the country there has been a dramatic reduction of services and a continued increase in poverty. This poverty cuts across the many cultural, religious and ethnic communities in Syria. For this reason, JRS serves all marginalized groups — be they Sunnis, Shi'a (including Alawites) and Christians. In this way, inter-religious dialogue remains part-and-parcel of JRS daily activities.

The work of JRS is guided by the humanitarian principles of humanity, independence, impartiality and neutrality. JRS is inspired by the core values of compassion, justice, participation, solidarity, hospitality, dignity and hope.

JRS in Syria is focusing mainly on two fronts: emergency relief to those in greatest need and educational activities that enhance reconciliation and co-existence amongst people of different socio-economic and faith backgrounds.

Currently, our emergency relief consists of food support, provision of hygiene kits and non-food items, basic healthcare, shelter management and rent support. Fundamental to the mission of JRS in Syria is the educational and psychosocial support that is offered to 9,800 children and women. In total, some 300,000 people are helped by JRS in Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and the coastal areas of Syria.

In addition to building strong relationships based on trust and fairness, JRS has its particular way of working with families. Accompaniment — one of the pillars of JRS work — is embodied in regular family visits, which are at the heart of every JRS project across the region. Through these visits, JRS is able to identify the needs of families, and more importantly, to address these needs through accompaniment.

While coordination between JRS, Jesuit networks, hundreds of committed volunteers, and other Christian and Muslim entities helps civilians receive much needed support, this assistance it is not sufficient to meet the rising needs. Generally, the international community has not adequately supported Syrian civil society initiatives, a situation that needs to be rectified.

Syrians from the south to the north of the country join Jesuit Refugee Service in calling for an immediate ceasefire. Rather than adding fuel to an already raging fire, something even the most targeted military intervention would do, the immediate focus should be on reducing suffering and restoring security. All foreign belligerent forces need to be withdrawn from Syria and steps must be taken to create the conditions for a negotiated settlement whereby real and inclusive peace can be reached.

This is a peace where all Syrian voices and interests are listened to and the rights of all minorities are protected. JRS joins Pope Francis in the strong belief that "peace is a good which overcomes every barrier because it belongs to all of humanity."


Jesuit Refugee Service is an international Catholic organization with a mission to accompany, serve and advocate on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. JRS programs are found in 50 countries, providing assistance to: refugees in camps and cities, individuals displaced within their own countries, asylum seekers in cities, and to those held in detention centers. The main areas of work are in the field of education, emergency assistance, healthcare, livelihood activities and social services. At the end of 2012, more than 600,000 individuals were direct beneficiaries of JRS projects.