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A week after surviving hurricane, Puerto Ricans beg for help

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More than a week after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, much of the island remained without communication and in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

A woman carries bottles of water and food during a distribution of relief items Sept. 24 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, days after Hurricane Maria. (CNS photo/Alvin Baez, Reuters)

News programs have been broadcasting about long lines of travelers, who have little food or water, and are desperate to get off the island at the San Juan airport to no avail. 

But the scene of destruction outside the airport is even more stark: An island whose dense tropical landscape, along with its infrastructure, towns and cities, has been greatly stripped by winds that reached 155 mph.

Catholic Church groups have mobilized to send help. Some organizations, however, have reported problems mobilizing the aid out of airports and into the places and people who need them.

Officials say Hurricane Maria left 16 dead in Puerto Rico, 27 dead in Dominica and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But accurate information has been hard to come by since cellphone service and electricity, along with access to water and fuel, have been knocked out. Many roads into rural areas still are blocked by debris, making it difficult to access those who live there.

Many Puerto Ricans in the mainland U.S. have been making desperate pleas on social media to see if others can give them information about relatives or conditions in town or cities where their relatives live but which remain without communication.

President Donald Trump is set to visit Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 3.4 million, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands on Oct. 3. He has largely been criticized for what some perceive as a slow humanitarian response and for spending time tweeting against athletes as Puerto Rico suffered. But when he got around to tweeting about the island’s misery, he also offended many by bringing up its debt, including debt to Wall Street, as well as the island’s pre-existing failing infrastructure.

It took a week for the U.S. to send a plane carrying 3,500 pounds of water as well as food and other supplies to the island, but the president said, “It’s on an island in the middle of the ocean. … You can’t just drive your trucks there from other states.” A hospital ship also has been sent.

Scarcity of food, water and fuel is rampant. The deaths of two patients in intensive care at a San Juan hospital were blamed on lack of fuel.

On Sept. 27, the Trump administration said it would not waive shipping restrictions to get fuel and supplies to island, angering politicians such as U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who asked the Department of Homeland Security to waive the restrictions known as the Jones Act.

Many, such as New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, are in the meantime offering Masses as well collecting donations to help in a long recovery ahead for Puerto Rico.

Cardinal Dolan will celebrate a Mass in Spanish at St. Patrick’s Cathedral Oct. 8, to “express prayerful solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico and Mexico, and their relatives and friends in New York, in the wake of the natural disasters that have ravaged both lands this month,” according to an article in the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York.

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Conflicts and drought mean famine looms for 20 million Africans

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Catholic News Service

Conflict and drought are threatening more than 20 million people in four countries with the prospect of famine, and the U.N. has called this food crisis the largest humanitarian crisis since the world body was formed more than 70 years ago.

A man walks by a dead cow in Dong Boma, South Sudan, April 12. Up to 20 million people in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and northeast Nigeria face the prospect of famine this year. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Additional resources and funding are needed “to pull people back from the brink of famine” in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria, the U.N. Security Council said in an Aug. 9 statement that commended efforts by international donors to provide humanitarian assistance for the crises in these countries.

Catholic church officials and representatives of Catholic aid agencies spoke with Catholic News Service about the enormous efforts being channeled into meeting the needs of those most vulnerable.

Governments “are reducing aid, while needs are skyrocketing,” said Elizabeth Carosella, who works for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services in Abuja, Nigeria.

Humans cannot control the weather patterns, such as drought. But increasingly, aid officials find access to areas of need blocked by ongoing conflicts or inaccessible because of poor infrastructure.

Yemen situation ‘horrific

Jerry Farrell, country representative in South Sudan for CRS, was Save the Children’s country director in Yemen until mid-2014. He called the situation in Yemen “horrific,” a famine that is entirely man-made. Seventy percent of the country’s 14 million people need some form of humanitarian aid.

Yemen has relied entirely on imported food since 1991 and “now it is sealed off from the rest of the world,” Farrell said. Yemen has been embroiled in civil war since 2015, which includes a Saudi-led blockade of the country.

Yemen’s food system has collapsed, Farrell said, noting that even hospitals have been bombed, and it is “as difficult to get medical supplies into the country as it is to get food in.”

The World Health Organization reports 436,000 cases of cholera in Yemen.

Bishop Paul Hinder, who heads the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, told CNS that the blockade of Yemen hinders the reconstruction of the destroyed sanitary system.

“As long as the minimal infrastructure in many parts of the country is not functioning, we cannot expect that the cholera can be stopped” or that “the starving people” can be properly fed, Bishop Hinder said.

“Without bringing people again around the table” to agree on a cease-fire, “there will be only killing and destruction with disastrous consequences for the civilian population,” he said.

“As the church is reduced to a tiny group without any structure, little can be done from our side at present,” he said.

“As I believe in the power of the prayer, I can only ask the faithful around the world to keep in mind the suffering people in Yemen — Muslims as well as the few remaining Christians, including the Missionaries of Charity,” Bishop Hinder said.

2 million face famine in South Sudan

In South Sudan, nearly 2 million people are on the cusp of famine, Farrell said, and it is hard to get food to the hungry because the country has “virtually no infrastructure.” South Sudan, a country slightly smaller than Texas, has only 12,000 miles of road, which is “more like track than road,” said Farrell, noting that”the lack of infrastructure can’t be separated from the conflict.”

In the fertile land of South Sudan’s Western Equatoria state, which has avoided the drought afflicting other parts of the country, little grows because of the war, he said. And even if the residents were still able to grow mangoes and papayas in this “breathtakingly beautiful place,” there are no roads to get any excess food to people outside, he said.

“Fresh food rots because it takes weeks to get it out of there with tracks to follow instead of roads, and one can expect frequent ambushes along the way,” Farrell said.

In distributing food airdropped by the World Food Program, CRS finds “some places very difficult to get to because of active conflict,” he said. Other places are unreachable for many months because of flooding. People often walk four or five miles to food distribution points in South Sudan, he added.

About 200,000 of the 2 million internally displaced people in South Sudan are in U.N.-run camps, Farrell said. The rest have fled into the bush or into neighboring communities, “and they all want to go home to their land.”

Farrell said the tragedy of South Sudan “tires me out more and fills me with more sorrow” than even Yemen’s situation did. In 2013, two years after gaining independence from Sudan, South Sudan was caught up in a civil war.

“South Sudan is a new country, rich in resources, and all this suffering is preventable,” said Farrell, who is based in the capital, Juba.

“Education is what matters most for young people because they will be the new leaders,” he said. Instead, because of the conflict and violence, all efforts need to be directed into emergency feeding programs, “while 75 percent of women in the country cannot read or write,” he said.

Maryknoll Father John Barth, who is based in Eastern Equatoria state, told CNS South Sudanese “are giving up hope and moving to the camps in northern Uganda by the thousands; I see them along the road when I drive back and forth across the border.”

Uganda is hosting about 1 million refugees from South Sudan. They move because “they have no food,” Father Barth said.

Teachers and others with government jobs have not been paid their monthly salaries in five months, and “even if they had been paid it would be the equivalent of about $6, because the 500 percent inflation has ruined the value of the South Sudanese pound,” Father Barth said.

In Nigeria, 5 million need emergency food aid

In northeastern Nigeria, the effects of violent conflict as well as changing weather patterns have exacerbated poverty and led to 5 million people in need of emergency food aid, Carosella told CNS, noting that deaths from famine-related causes have already occurred in Borno state. Since 2009, more than 20,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million forced to flee their homes by the Boko Haram insurgency, aimed at creating an Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.

Carosella said while the severity of the region’s hunger crisis is caused by conflict, the shorter rainy season of recent years has dramatically reduced harvests, and much of Lake Chad has dried up, partly because of shifting climate patterns.

Many of those forced to flee the violence have sought refuge among communities in remote rural areas, she said, noting that these communities are themselves among the most vulnerable in the region and depend on humanitarian aid to survive. Remote rural communities hosting people displaced by Boko Haram attacks have been “immensely generous despite their own poverty,” she said.

Carosella said Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, “used to be a trade hub, but its markets have been destroyed” by the Boko Haram attacks.

“People have lost their livelihoods and now can’t afford food and have no access to even basic services,” she said.

Even where food can be found, it is unaffordable for most people, she said.

Sometimes a very malnourished woman will sell part of her food ration for cash that will enable her to transport a sick child to a clinic, Carosella said.

“Having to make that choice is something no one should have to face,” she said.

She told of a 24-year-old woman she met at a hospital in Maiduguri.

“She fled her village with her four children, all under 5 years old, after seeing her husband and parents slaughtered” in an attack by Boko insurgents, Carosella said.

One of her children died in the 32 days it took her to walk to the hospital, where her “malnourished children were able to be rehabilitated,” Carosella said. “She was looking for livelihood opportunities when I met her,” she said, noting that “there are so many women in similar positions.”

Continuing conflict in Somalia

Somalia’s “continuous conflict and instability,” along with changing weather patterns, are responsible for its current crisis, Lane Bunkers, CRS country representative for Kenya and Somalia, told CNS.

The conflict started in 1991 when clan-based warlords overthrew dictator Siad Barre, then turned on each other. Today, the security threat posed by al-Shabab activity in south-central Somalia makes it difficult for CRS and others running emergency food programs to reach remote rural communities, Bunkers said.

Somalia is a “very undeveloped country that relies on rain, with rain-fed pasturelands,” and there has been insufficient rain for two years in a row, Bunkers said.

Drought conditions in Somalia are expected to continue, and recovery will not be until at least 2018, CRS said in a statement. More than 766,000 people have been displaced by the drought since November, it said.

In south-central Somalia, which includes the capital, Mogadishu, CRS has civil society partners to channel its resources for humanitarian relief.

“Somalia has very well-organized communities,” Bunkers said, noting that local communities have “stepped in to fill the void in education and health services” in partnerships with international nongovernmental organizations.

Somalis are “entrepreneurial people in a desperately poor country,” which has exceptionally active markets, Bunkers said. This is “born out of necessity” in a country that has had no functioning government for close to three decades, he said.

Somalis’ “wealth is held in their herd of animals,” Bunkers said, noting that in times of drought, men leave women and children behind and follow their goats, sheep or camels, seeking water and grazing land.

“It’s very rare to resort to killing animals for food” in Somalia, Bunkers said.

To help families where animals are already in distress, some relief agencies “pay the farmer for his goat and have him slaughter it so that his family has something to eat,” he said.

“The farmers are then able to use the cash at the markets to replenish their livelihoods,” he said.

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House OKs aid to genocide victims; Senate urged to act quickly

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WASHINGTON — The co-authors of a House bill that will provide humanitarian aid to Christians and other religious groups suffering at the hands of Islamic State militants praised the June 6 House passage of the measure and urged the Senate to quickly act on it.

The House unanimously approved the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act, or H.R. 390, in a voice vote.

Chaldean Catholic Bishop Bawai Soro, head of the Diocese of St. Peter the Apostle based near San Diego, is seen in Washington June 7 during a news conference about bipartisan support in Congress for the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Chaldean Catholic Bishop Bawai Soro, head of the Diocese of St. Peter the Apostle based near San Diego, is seen in Washington June 7 during a news conference about bipartisan support in Congress for the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Co-authored by Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California, the bill will provide emergency relief and aid to the victims of genocide in Iraq and Syria, particularly the Christians in the Middle East as well as other religious minorities.

The humanitarian aid will be directed to groups such as the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Irbil, Iraq, which provides direct care for victims, and those groups in turn get the assistance to those in need.

Smith and Eshoo held a news conference June 7 urging the Senate to continue the progress of this legislation to ensure the swift direction of funds to the Middle East.

“We are celebrating something today that we believe is something that is going to make a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of people who have been persecuted by ISIS,” Eshoo said. “Certainly the Christians, those of my own background, the Yezidis, and other minorities in the Middle East.”

Since 2013, Smith has actively worked through hearings and mission trips to spread awareness of the situation of the victims of ISIS in the Middle East. Part of the effort was to get the United States to admit that what was occurring was genocide.

“As I think many of you know, Congress has been trying for the better part of three years to finally get a designation of genocide being committed by ISIS against Christians, Yezidis and some other Muslim minorities in the area,” Smith said. “Ultimately, it did become a policy of the United States of America.”

When then-Secretary of State John Kerry issued a declaration of genocide about ISIS in March 2016, it was one of the few times in the nation’s history that the U.S. government had made such a determination. Eshoo said the declaration requires further legislation that will confirm what the victims have endured.

“They too, like people in our country, want their lives to go on, especially for their children,” Eshoo said. “The State Department would not allow any U.S. dollars to flow to church organizations and this legislation allows for that.”

In addition to sending humanitarian aid for groups in Iraq and Syria to provide to genocide victims, the bill also ensures that the government’s money will be monitored.

“There will be accountability for these dollars,” Eshoo said. “But it is so essential to work with those who are on the ground that know exactly where the dollars should go.”

Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, the CEO of the Knights of Columbus, has worked with Smith to get support of the bill and has testified on behalf of the measure.

“We must have the courage to confront reality and then we must have the courage to change reality,” Anderson said.

The Knights of Columbus has donated over $12 million to groups in the Middle East aiding Christian refugees. In addition, they recently began an ad campaign in an effort to raise more funds.

“These are people who are still praying in the language of Jesus,” Anderson said. “They have every right to survive.”

Chaldean Catholic Bishop Bawai A. Soro, who heads the Diocese of St. Peter the Apostle, which is based near San Diego, also attended the news conference. He said the current situation for Christians in the Middle East remains fragile, as they suffer at the hands of radical Islamic groups.

“It is very unfortunate that Iraq as a country still lacks the certain constitutional amendments that guarantee liberty and equality to all Iraqis,” Bishop Soro said. “It remains our dream that the Christians will not be second-class citizens in their own native homeland, Iraq. But instead, they will hopefully soon have equal social, economic, political, lives and statuses just as all Iraqis have.”

Haider Elias, president of the human rights group Yazda, whose own brother and other relatives were killed by ISIS, spoke to the critical aspect of the bill.

“As this legislation has been passed by the House, we urge the Senate to act upon it and expedite it as quickly as possible,” Elias said. “These Yezidis and Christians are in dire need for such assistance in order to survive as religious minorities in our region.”

Smith said that they have contacted several representatives in the Senate who they believe will offer similar support to the bill. He said he hopes they will vote within the next couple of weeks.”

By Josephine von Dohlen

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Pope Francis calls for help for the suffering in Ukraine

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ pleas for humanitarian aid for Ukraine is bringing needed attention to a forgotten war, said Ukrainian Catholic leaders.

The 2-year-old war has caused thousands of deaths and forced more than 1 million people to seek refuge abroad, the pope said.

A man stands in front his damaged house after shelling March 24 in the Ukrainian town of Makeevka. (CNS photo/Alexander Ermochenko, EPA)

A man stands in front his damaged house after shelling March 24 in the Ukrainian town of Makeevka. (CNS photo/Alexander Ermochenko, EPA)

After Mass April 3, Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope Francis asked that Catholic parishes throughout Europe take up a special collection April 24 as a sign of closeness and solidarity with people suffering because of the war in Eastern Ukraine.

He prayed that the collection also “could help, without further delay, promote peace and respect for the law in that harshly tried land.”

Ukrainian Bishop Borys Gudziak of Paris, head of external church relations for the Ukrainian Catholic Church, said the three things needed most are “to pray for peace and justice in Ukraine, to stay informed regarding the true situation in this ancient European land and to show your solidarity.”

In a statement sent to the media on April 14, Bishop Gudziak said that after two years of war, there are “1.7 million internally displaced people and a million refugees in neighboring countries. Half a million do not have basic food and hundreds of thousands do not have access to safe drinking water.”

In March 2014, Russia annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine, and about a month later, fighting began along Ukraine’s eastern border. Russian-speaking separatists with support from the Russian government and its troops have been battling Ukrainian forces.

Jesuit Father David Nazar, rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute and former superior of the Jesuits in Ukraine, said April 13, “There is a great human need that’s been lost in the media,” which is no longer covering the war.

“The Russian military presence is still very strong, and increasing day by day,” said Father Nazar. “The diplomatic community knows this, the parliament knows this, there are always negotiations going on at that level. But the general populace has forgotten about this.”

But Bishop Gudziak said the Ukrainian people have not lost their hope and faith: “Despite their suffering, Ukrainians believe that God has not forsaken them. Indeed, he has not forgotten them.”

Since the crisis began, Caritas Ukraine, the charitable agency of the Eastern-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church, and Caritas Spes, the charity of the Latin-rite church, have been assisting the displaced as well as those still living in the conflict zone.

“Sometimes when the fighting is going on, we have to put our operations on hold and wait. It is very difficult to live with the fact that these people need our assistance and we cannot reach them,” said Hryhoriy Seleshchuk, coordinator of humanitarian aid for Caritas Ukraine.

“It is even harder to know that there are millions of people in need in areas beyond government control and that we can only send through a very limited amount of aid,” Seleshchuk said in an article posted on the website of Caritas Internationalis, the umbrella organization for Catholic aid agencies.

Other members of the Caritas federation have been assisting Caritas Ukraine. The U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Austria, for example, have provided funding to set up six centers for displaced children, providing them with fun activities, but also psychological support.

The Canadian bishops’ organization Development and Peace, CRS and other Caritas members also help Caritas Ukraine provide small cash grants to displaced families to help them pay rent and buy food and other necessities.

— By Gaby Maniscalco

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