(London and Washington, D.C.) December 15, 2013 — Jesuit Refugee Service in Syria is focusing mainly on two fronts: emergency relief to those in greatest need and educational activities. Both of these efforts enhance reconciliation and co-existence amongst people of different socio-economic and faith backgrounds.
Currently, our emergency relief consists of food support, the 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 200,000 people are helped by JRS in Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and the coastal areas of Syria.
Courageous efforts to reach those in peril within Syria by JRS staff and other Christian, Islamic and secular organizations unfortunately are insufficient to meet the huge and ever increasing needs. The international community has not adequately supported Syrian civil society. This situation must change.
The Syrian tragedy has been deepening for almost three years. What started as a call for reforms by some Syrians has escalated into a full-scale conflict. Today the conflict involves radical, extremist elements and foreign involvement on both sides. Meanwhile the broader international community has not yet succeeded in creating the necessary conditions to halt the tide of bloodshed despite the desperate pleas of a majority of Syrians for an end to the conflict.
One third of the Syrian population is now in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Those forcibly displaced either within the country or across the borders total nearly eight million people. It is as if all New Yorkers had to empty their city in order to seek safety and security.
Another two and a half million people — those who could not or would not flee — are living below the poverty line; they cannot afford enough food for their families and are unable to buy lifesaving medicines, only available on the black market at exorbitant prices. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are also confined to neighborhoods controlled by government forces and besieged by opposition groups. Hundreds of thousands of people living in opposition-controlled areas live each day in fear of sudden shelling or airplane bombings at the hands of the regime.
"I have been working with JRS for about nine months now, making home visits. We have seven teams that visit families every day. They assess the needs of each family, and we are able to discern which families are in most need of help, or if they need specific assistance," a JRS volunteer in Syria told us.
"I find the most stressful thing is that when you leave the house in the morning, you don't know if you'll ever see the others again. We can't go out at night, we are always trapped inside. It's suffocating."
Another JRS colleague said "no one is safe anymore anywhere in Syria." Holding a picture of the schoolyard full of children playing and having fun, he said "a month ago, mortar shells hit our playground, fortunately it was almost empty, children were in class, but one girl was hit in her head by shrapnel and she is now in a coma." The girl has since passed away.
Pawns on the chessboard
Jesuit Refugee Service sees millions of Syrians being used by their own countrymen who are engaged in the civil war as pawns on a chessboard. This tragic game cannot continue. Many state that a military solution is not possible, but in reality too little effort is being made to prove this statement wrong; instead of working for peace, "friends" from abroad supply the fighters on both sides with money, training and weapons.
We seek to flip that chessboard upside down. We need to help the majority of Syrians to voice their demand for peace and we need to do it now.
"There aren't really any safe areas anymore, a mortar can land anytime, anywhere," said Nader, a Jesuit Refugee Service staff member based in Damascus.
But life goes on, we do what we can, when we can; death has become our daily reality. Every morning when I leave my house, it could be the last time I see my daughter."
"After so much continuing violence, Syrians are really tired — frustrated and tired. We need more international presence to help us, and we need those fighting each other to recall the existence of a minimum of human ethics and respect for basic humanity. We feel abandoned," said Fr Nawras Sammour S.J., JRS Middle East Director, during a recent trip to the U.S.
Pressed by the continued deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Syria and the disconcerting diplomatic stalemate, JRS is advocating for peace in this war-weary country, challenging primary decision-making centers in North America, Europe and elsewhere to pay attention, and to make a difference. JRS advocacy is driven by a clear message: promoting a negotiated solution that includes an immediate stop to the war, which has not only displaced millions of people, but has already resulted in the death of more than 110,000.
Our advocacy is rooted in our presence on the ground. The Jesuits, together with JRS staff and volunteers from diverse faith and ethnic backgrounds, are working tirelessly to deliver food and other aid, healthcare, educational and psychosocial support to more than 200,000 people inside Syria and to 115,000 more in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. JRS services seek to serve those who are in need, regardless of creed, and lend credibility to the advocacy we undertake in their name and voice.
"It is not because there is the judgment of God or of history that we should stop the violence and hatred, but because my existence has no meaning without the existence of my neighbor, regardless of his nationality, religious belief or ethnicity," said Fr Ziad Hilal S.J. He spoke during a recent ceremony recognizing the work of his community of three Jesuits in Homs; the Stephanus Foundation of Frankfurt recognized their role in defending the human rights of civilians in Homs and encouraging reconciliation through education.
This firm belief in real and inclusive peace is the cornerstone of our advocacy, whose aim is to engage the international community to work towards key goals. Our priority is to promote diplomatic efforts and to apply pressure on the Syrian government and opposition groups to agree upon an immediate ceasefire and to reach a negotiated solution.
Any process must include the meaningful participation of civil society groups across social, religious and ethnic divides, to ensure that the freedom of all, including minorities, is safeguarded. Only such a scenario will guarantee real and inclusive peace.
The game of violence must end
JRS continues to urge the international community to ensure the safety of humanitarian operations and personnel. A recently adopted UN Security Council Presidential Statement on Syria is the first such agreement reached by this body in nearly three years and should be urgently implemented. In the statement, the UN calls on the Syrian government to immediately allow cross-border aid delivery and calls on all warring parties to agree on humanitarian pauses in the fighting, including along key routes for relief convoys.
JRS is also appealing for much greater financial and technical support for grassroots humanitarian initiatives, because these stand the best chance of reaching some of the most vulnerable internally displaced Syrians.
JRS urges more support for neighboring countries and nations that have generously opened their borders but that as a result have been overwhelmed by the massive refugee flow so as to help both refugees and the host populations and to counter the threat of rising xenophobia.
Specific issues include keeping borders open, ensuring refugee camps meet international standards, increasing access to registration, particularly for those not living in camps, and paying attention to other refugees like Iraqis, Sudanese and Somalis. An urgent concern voiced by JRS teams on the ground is protecting refugees, especially the most vulnerable, from exploitation and abuse.
Although the situation in Syria remains difficult and peace may appear to be a distant dream this is all the more reason for working harder than ever to attain it. Explaining how the JRS teams manage to continue serving amid so much violence and despair, Fr. Nawras recalled the words of martyred Salvadoran Jesuit Ignacio EllacurÌa: As Christians, we cannot say nothing can be done; on the contrary, there is everything to be done.
JRS projects in Syria help civil society to resist the logic of war and survive the violence that threatens to overwhelm and destroy communities. Families are repeatedly displaced both due to generalized violence and as a 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. Although the conflict is non-sectarian, the participation of radical elements now threatens the heretofore-peaceful coexistence of Syria's diverse ethnic and religious communities.
Within the country there has been a dramatic reduction of services and a continued increase in poverty. This poverty cuts across the diverse cultural, religious and ethnic communities in Syria. For this reason, JRS serves all marginalized groups — Sunni, Shiía (including Alawites) and Christians. In this way, inter-religious dialogue remains part-and-parcel of JRS daily activities.
The advocacy of JRS represents our workers and volunteers in Syria, their families and communities and all Syrians who want peace. "We are trying to be the voice of the silent majority of Syrians who desire real change, which is achieved through the creation of an inclusive, unified and just country for all men and women, without distinction or discrimination," said Fr Nawras.
The mission of JRS is to accompany, serve and advocate for the rights of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. To accompany means to be a companion. We are companions of Jesus, so we wish to be companions of those with whom he preferred to be associated, the poor and the outcast. JRS serves refugees and displaced persons regardless of their race, ethnic origin, or religious beliefs. JRS advocates for just and generous policies and programs for the benefit of victims of forced displacement, so that those made vulnerable by exile or internal displacement can receive support and protection and a durable solution to their plight can be achieved.
The advocacy of JRS is an instrument that will help fulfill the aspirations of our Syrian brothers and sisters. Let's flip the chessboard, let's join efforts to become a voice for dialogue and reconciliation and be heard, loud and clear.
"JRS gives me hope. It gives all of us hope. We listen, we care about individuals and we can still give people our time — and that has value. We do more than just give people things, and that's the difference between us and others," said a volunteer for JRS in Syria.
Jesuit Refugee Service urges the international community to:
• prioritize diplomatic efforts and apply pressure on the Syrian government and the opposition 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.