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Former Jesuit Refugee Service Aleppo project director Fr Mourad Abou Seif S.J. discusses his interfaith work environment in the midst of a crisis. (Oscar Spooner — Jesuit Refugee Service)

(Brussels) May 8, 2015 — Prior to the outbreak of conflict in Syria, Jesuit Refugee Service managed a number of small projects assisting Iraqi refugees living in Aleppo, Damascus and Homs. The JRS centers were places where people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds came together. While Syrian communities  of different faiths peacefully coexisted, for many there was a sense of distance between them, an invisible barrier. When violence erupted in Syria in 2011, these JRS centers would experience profound transformations.

Overwhelmed by the extent of the crisis, communities of volunteers from across the ethnic and religious divide would be drawn together; not only serving but sharing, conversing and interacting in ways they had not in the past. JRS Europe Communications Officer Oscar Spooner discusses this interfaith working environment with Mourad Abou Seif, a Syrian Jesuit and the JRS project director in Aleppo from 2009 to 2014.

What was the JRS project like when you arrived in Aleppo?

In the beginning, we had a very small team, mainly serving Iraqi refugees. When I arrived in 2009, more and more Muslim members began joining our team, but our team was still mainly Christian.

Before conflict broke out in Aleppo in July 2012, we had started to receive displaced people from other cities. We had no funds to help them, but we opened up to the possibility of having young people to work with us. They were university students and young workers. They gathered together in small groups, and they gave themselves the name 'Family Volunteers.’ They were lay people of all descriptions: Muslims, Christians, Kurds, Armenians and so on. I invited them to come to our center, St Vartan.

How many of these volunteers were there?

We started with 30, but within two months we had over 100.

What happened when the violence started in Aleppo?

We had thousands of people in gardens of the St Vartan because they had fled their homes. Their homes had either been destroyed or were in areas of Aleppo affected by violence. So our team rushed to help them. We opened up the schools to offer them housing. The schools had been empty because it was summer, and the governor agreed to open them for these people. In two weeks we found ourselves responsible for 11 schools, each one housing between 300 and 400 people.

How did you organize the activities of JRS in Aleppo?

We organized our activities together with other agencies from the city and with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). With SARC, we divided the city into sectors; each organization was responsible for the people arriving into its sectors.

Between 2013 and 2014, the number of families coming to our center for food baskets increased from 1,000 to 12,000 a month – that is around 60,000 people in total.

How was it for you as the director?

Even though JRS staff were mostly serving Muslims, the team was mostly Christian. Receiving people [volunteers] we didn't know, many of whom were Muslim, was a big change for us. Sometimes I was a little anxious about interaction between the older [mainly Christian] volunteers and the newer arrivals [mainly Muslim]. 

Soon enough, though, everything fell into place as our Muslim volunteers began looking at the JRS center as their own home.

I overheard one of our Muslim volunteers talking to his friends working at another agency, a Muslim agency. The JRS volunteer said something like "in my home, we do it differently, because our relationship is different." I found this amazing. To have a Muslim guy say that a church organization was 'his home' was inspiring. After that, I changed; I opened up, giving them [Muslim] the possibility and the freedom to do things. 

What did the family volunteers do? How did you all work together?

We had emergency, recreational activities, education and healthcare teams. We had groups going to visit people in our centers and in the streets; they welcomed people and talked with them.

Every night, teams would gather together in the club and share, play and talk. Sometimes we also cried because we had seen something very awful or difficult. We shared things, and discussed our differences as Christians and Muslims. This sharing had created a bond between people. They discovered each other in a different way; they learned to love each other.

So before the conflict there wasn't a lot of interaction between Christians and Muslims?

Yes, there was, but it wasn't at that level. We met each other in school, in university or at work, but we hadn't lived through such an experience together.

What would you say to Europeans about the conflict in Syria?

What is happening in Syria now is the result of many years of injustice and ignorance about one another. That's why people are now afraid of each other, because they don't really know each other. This injustice has led to a lot of pent up aggression.

In Syria, we are far from Europe, yet at the same time very close to Europeans. They talk now here in Europe of 2,000 people a day crossing borders irregularly: refugees from the Middle East crossing from Turkey into Greece and other European countries.

If the conflict continues like this, it will be a disaster for everybody. The conflict has produced a lot of violence, many extremists, and really the new generation in Syria is in danger. We have to do something.

There are a lot of young people working now for peace in Syria, but if the conflict continues, we will lose more and more of these people.

Do you have any particularly special memories, good or bad, of your work in Aleppo?

I have a lot of good memories, not easy, but good. Sometimes we had very difficult experiences; seeing people without food, help, hope is very hard and difficult to bear. But at the same time, seeing that our relationship is doing good, giving people a little bit of hope, diminishing their suffering, that gave me a meaning to my vocation, to my being human, to my life.

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