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U.S., world urged to help Jordan aid refugees, end Syrian civil war

March 26th, 2018 Posted in International News Tags: ,


Catholic News Service
SOUTHERN SHUNEH, Jordan — The United States has a responsibility to help Jordan as it struggles to support hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and must actively seek to end Syria’s long civil war, American human rights advocate Kerry Kennedy told a conference on forced migration.

“Stop the violence that creates the refugee crisis,” Kennedy said March 24 to an audience that included Nobel laureates, global leaders and children concerned about child trafficking, trauma and abuse stemming from the violence. “We have not done what we should to stop that violence and we can do that more all over the world.”

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Syrian refugees, all Muslims, graduate from Caritas-run schools in Jordan


Catholic News Service

NAOUR, Jordan — Exuberant Syrian refugee children sang, danced and played with colorful clowns as they celebrated graduation at their Caritas-sponsored school in this sleepy suburb of the Jordanian capital, Amman. Read more »

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Bishops visiting Holy Land urge peace efforts to help ‘forgotten’ Christians


Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — With crises in Syria and Iraq deepening, Catholic bishops on a solidarity visit with the “forgotten” Christians of the Middle East are urging stepped-up peace efforts to resolve conflicts tearing apart the troubled region.

Highlighting the ongoing plight of Iraqi Christian refugees who face another winter of displacement, 18 months after fleeing persecution by Islamic State militants, is also their top concern.

A priest gives Communion to a woman during a Jan. 11 Mass for Iraqi Christian refugees at Our Lady of Peace Center on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman. (CNS/Dale Gavlak)

A priest gives Communion to a woman during a Jan. 11 Mass for Iraqi Christian refugees at Our Lady of Peace Center on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman. (CNS/Dale Gavlak)

“They want a future which is full of peace,” Bishop Declan Lang of Bristol, England, said of the Iraqi Christians who attended a packed, solemn Mass at Our Lady of Peace Center on the hilly, tree-lined outskirts of the Jordanian capital.

“These people are of tremendous faith, and that’s where they find their identity. What we are trying to say to them is that you are not forgotten,” Bishop Lang told Catholic News Service.

Bishop Lang has been leading 12 bishops from Europe, South Africa and North America on the third and final leg of a pilgrimage to encourage Christians in the Holy Land. Known as the Holy Land Coordination, the annual event was set up at the invitation of the Holy See at the end of the last century to offer support to local Christian communities of the Holy Land.

The bishops earlier traveled to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to encourage a Palestinian Christian population increasingly dwindling in the land of Jesus’ birth.

But the bishops told Catholic News Service that it also was important to hear from Iraqi Christians and other refugees, so the wider Christian community can effectively help them.

“It’s important that we remind our governments and the general population of the situation of Iraqi Christians,” Bishop Lang said of the some 8,000 Iraqi Christians currently sheltering in neighboring Jordan.

They fled their ancient homeland of more than 14 centuries after Islamic State militants told them to convert to Islam, be killed or leave. Tens of thousands are internally displaced in northern Iraq.

“So one of the responsibilities and obligations that we have is to keep reminding people of the stress and distress of the Iraqi refugees,” Bishop Lang said.

One Iraqi Christian, identified only as Bashar, said after the Mass, “My family and I sadly feel that we can never go back to our home in Mosul.” A mechanical engineer, the man had once owned his own telecom company in Iraq’s second-biggest city, which is now in the hands of Islamic State.

“The military didn’t protect us, and our Muslim neighbors betrayed us, even robbing us of our personal possessions. So we believe that the only future for us is somewhere in the West,” said the man, who now shelters with his family of four at the center’s compound because he has lost his savings.

Bishop Lionel Gendron of St. Jean-Longueuil, Quebec, told CNS that one of the first things he plans to do is talk to the new Canadian government about the issue of opening more resettlement opportunities to Iraqi Christians.

“I will insist on the fact. Iraqis are practically not allowed to go back to their country,” the Canadian bishop said. “Many Syrians left (their country) because of the war and the political situation, while the Iraqis left mainly because of their faith.”

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, told CNS that “the time for peace is now.”

While praising the work of the international Catholic charity, Caritas, which aids more than 1 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees and the other humanitarian efforts in Jordan, he called them “a band-aid.”

“It’s not sustainable in the long run,” said Bishop Cantu, who serves as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace. “We have to look at the root causes of these issues. It’s in everyone’s interest to build peace, so we will certainly be advocating for that as we return.”

“It’s also important that the U.S. take in its fair share of refugees,” Bishop Cantu said of the increasingly divisive issue in the United States.

Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, accompanied Bishop Cantu on the visit. He said the office’s work on behalf of “all the peoples of the Middle East” has involved supporting a resolution in Congress declaring that Iraqi Christians and Yezidis have suffered genocide at the hands of Islamic State militants. He said his office also has worked to encourage the U.S. to accept its “fair share of refugees” and “invest in more resources for countries, like Jordan, to cope with the refugee influx, so they are not destabilized.”

Colecchi emphasized the need for active international peace efforts that recognize the rights of religious minorities in the Middle East.

“We’ve got to work for peace and ultimately stop the atrocities of Islamic State and the flow of refugees,” he said.

“A more united and effective response is needed to that kind of extremism from which Muslims are suffering and particularly, Christians and Yezidis, are targeted by,” Colecchi added.

Among the other bishops who took part in the Holy Land Coordination were Bishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, South Africa; Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, England; Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore, Ireland; and Bishop William Nolan of Galloway, Scotland.

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Church leaders lodge complaint to Israelis about rabbi’s arson remarks



Catholic News Service


AMMAN, Jordan — The Assembly of the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land filed an official complaint to Israeli police against the leader of a radical Israeli movement over his remarks supporting and encouraging the burning of churches.

Father Pietro Felet, the assembly’s secretary-general, filed the complaint Aug. 7 against Israeli Rabbi Bentzi Gopstein and the Lehava movement on behalf of more than 20 patriarchs and bishops. Read more »

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Jordan faces ‘desperate situation’ in helping 1.4 million Syrian refugees


Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — International aid continues to fall short of what Jordan needs to host 1.4 million Syrian refugees, Jordanian officials reported, saying the number represents the equivalent of the United States hosting 60 million refugees.

Syrian refugees walk the street at Zaatari refugee camp near Mafraq, Jordan, March 14. Jordan officials report international aid continues to fall short of what the country needs to host 1.4 million Syrian refugees. (CNS photo/Jamal Nasrallah, EPA)

Syrian refugees walk the street at Zaatari refugee camp near Mafraq, Jordan, March 14. Jordan officials report international aid continues to fall short of what the country needs to host 1.4 million Syrian refugees. (CNS photo/Jamal Nasrallah, EPA)

With no end in sight to the Syrian conflict, now in its fifth year, officials are calling the situation critical. So far this year, Jordan has received only 7.2 percent of $2.9 billion needed for services to Syrian refugees and host communities.

Planning Minister Imad Fakhoury urged the international community to do its part, warning the country may have to restrict entry to Syrians if the crisis increases unemployment and poverty among its own citizens.

Syrian refugees now make up 20 percent of the kingdom’s population, Fakhoury said. However, only about 630,000 Syrians are registered with the U.N. refugee agency, he told reporters in Amman April 30.

“You can count on Jordan, but please don’t leave us alone in that effort,” Fakhoury said at the end of a recent visit by six U.N. agencies to view the situation on the ground.

“If we are left alone, then we will have to make very difficult decisions about our national security with a priority to our citizens, and the world can’t blame us,” he added.

Today, Jordan is the world’s third-largest host of refugees, including some 208,000 Iraqis in addition to Syrians, Palestinians, Yemenis, Libyans, Sudanese and Somalis.

In March, the Assembly of the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land urged the international community to “intervene in alleviating the desolation” of Syrian refugees in their “desperate situation.” It also expressed concern over cuts in support provided by humanitarian groups, including the international Catholic aid agency, Caritas, due to a lack of funds.

“Our projection is around $17 million and, for the first quarter of the year, we have received about 50 percent of this amount,” Omar Abawi, emergency program manager of Caritas Jordan, told Catholic News Service.

“But compared with 2014 and past years, it’s a real gap because it was more than 50 percent” at this time, said Abawi. “Funding for health services have yet been received as planned.”

As of February, Caritas Jordan had helped more than 91,000 Syrian refugee households, the equivalent of nearly 452,000 individuals, who had registered with the Catholic relief organization since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Caritas works solely among the majority of Syrian refugees who live in Jordanian communities and not those sheltering in U.N. camps where they already receive U.N. assistance. There are numerous other church-related agencies assisting Syrian refugees in Jordan, both in the community and in the camps.

Such cuts to services by the U.N. and charities include reducing the amounts provided for food assistance vouchers or eliminating them entirely. Also, refugees must now pay for health care that was once provided free to Syrian refugees by the Jordanian government.

U.N. agencies have limited aid to the neediest among the refugees, leaving many without basic subsistence.

“About four months ago, the U.N. refugee agency stopped issuing me and my family of five food coupons,” said Samira, a Syrian refugee from the southern town of Daraa.

Sitting cross-legged on foam cushions lining a floor where her family sleeps and eats, Samira told CNS that she has been trying to scrape together some living expenses from part-time work as a cleaner in Amman.

Samira, who only gave her first name for fear of retribution to family still in Syria, is also suffering from a painful kidney stone, but she has been unable to go to a doctor because the $60 treatment cost is prohibitive.

“In the past, Syrians got free medical help, but that is no longer the case,” she said, her dark eyes full of concern because, she said, one of her sons is suffering from a far more serious medical problem.

Although some 80 percent Syrian refugees live outside U.N. camps and in Jordanian communities, more are moving into the camps. There, they no longer have to pay rent, and they have access to some free medical services. Still, others have gone back to war-ravaged Syria, despite the enormous danger as a result of ongoing fighting.

“They returned because it’s difficult to keep living here. They got fed up and tired,” said Abu Omar, a Syrian refugee in Jordan’s largest camp at Zaatari. “The services aren’t good. They felt it’s better to die in Syria than here, at least to return to our land.”

That said, there are still dozens of Syrian refugees streaming into Jordan weekly.

Jordan, a resource-poor Middle Eastern country, has never been fully compensated for its assistance to refugees from all of the region’s conflicts over many decades, Fakhoury told CNS.

Last year, only 37 percent of the $2.3 billion requested for humanitarian assistance in Jordan was received, and that’s been one of the highest percentages ever received.

Jordan’s Information Minister Mohammed al-Momani said his country’s economy and security have been negatively impacted by the protracted conflict in Syria. Jordan’s military also bears the sole responsibility of protecting the 235-mile border between the two countries, he told reporters.

“The lack of a political solution to the Syrian crisis has a cost and will continue to increase until there is a political solution,” said Edward Kallon, the U.N. resident humanitarian coordinator in Jordan.

“The Syrian crisis is a global security threat and provides the highest caseload of refugees worldwide,” Kallon added.

Jordan is one of five host countries for nearly 4 million Syrian war refugees.


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Politician calls for coalition airstrikes to help Syrian Christians


Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — A prominent Syrian Christian political leader has called for U.S.-led coalition forces to use airstrikes to aid fellow Christian and Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State militants following reports of flagrant abductions and church burnings in northwest Syria.

“There is a need for immediate action similar to what took place in Kobani,” Bassam Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council of Syria, told Catholic News Service, referring to a key Kurdish city in Syria.

A displaced Syrian girl finds temporary shelter at a school in Damascus, Syria, Feb. 23. A prominent Syrian Christian political leader has called for U.S.-led coalition forces to use airstrikes to aid fellow Syrian Christian and Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State militants in northwest Syria following reports of flagrant abductions and church burnings. (CNS photo/Youssef Badawi, EPA) See SYRIA-APPEAL

A displaced Syrian girl finds temporary shelter at a school in Damascus, Syria, Feb. 23. A prominent Syrian Christian political leader has called for U.S.-led coalition forces to use airstrikes to aid fellow Syrian Christian and Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State militants in northwest Syria following reports of flagrant abductions and church burnings. (CNS photo/Youssef Badawi, EPA) See SYRIA-APPEAL

There, near the border with Turkey and with help from international airstrikes, the Kurds drove out the extremist militants in January after a four-month siege resulted in a victory against the extremists.

Ishak’s appeal to stop the Islamic State advancement has been echoed by Syriac Catholic Archbishop Jacques Hindo of Hassakeh.

“I wish to say quite clearly that we have the feeling of being abandoned into the hands of those Daesh (the Arabic acronym for Islamic State),” Archbishop Hindo told the Vatican’s Fides news service.

“American bombers flew over the area several times, but without taking action,” he said.

Analysts in Washington confirmed his information. They said U.S. planes flew overhead, but there were no airstrikes made against Islamic State militants in the Hassakeh area.

Ishak said the area is being defended mainly by the Syriac Military Council, Christian police called “Sutoro” and Kurdish People’s Protection Units, but all lack sufficient weapons and ammunition. The groups are reportedly seeking immediate air support against the extremists.


On Feb. 27, he told CNS that Islamic State was reinforcing it positions and seemed “to be preparing for a big assault. The lives of hundreds of thousands of Christians and Kurds are at stake. We need action soon before it’s too late.”

“Christians in the city of Hassakeh called me. They are very scared,” he added.


“We have a hundred Assyrian families who have taken refuge in Hassakeh, but they have received no assistance either from the Red Crescent or from Syrian government aid workers, perhaps because they are Christians. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is nowhere to be seen,” Archbishop Hindo told Fides.

The call by Archbishop Hindo, Ishak and other Christian leaders follows a church-burning and kidnapping spree that began Feb. 23.

The extremists attacked a series of Assyrian Christian villages along the Khabur River in the vicinity of the region’s hub of Hassakeh. They reportedly took 150 hostages, including women, children and the elderly, and forced more than 3,000 people to flee their homes.

At least one rights activist expressed concern that 30 young Christian women among those abducted would be used as concubines for Islamic State fighters.

“The terrorists first attacked the village of Tal Tamar … and all the many smaller villages as far as Tal Hermiz, where they set fire to everything,” Archbishop Hindo said.

The archbishop spoke of the militants taking “dozens of hostages, with the intention perhaps of using them to obtain a ransom or for an exchange of prisoners,” he added.

Father Emanuel Youkhana, who heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, CAPNI, said Feb. 25 that more than 50 families in Tal Shamiran remained surrounded.

Dozens of other families had been captured and taken to the Sunni Arab village of Um Al-Masamier.

“They are alive so far, but the men have been separated from the women and children,” Father Youkhana said.

The priest said the situation represented another example in Syria of what was witnessed in Iraq this past summer: Arab Sunni Muslims joined and supported Islamic State in attacking their lifelong Christian and Yezidi neighbors.

He said the Assyrian Church of the East outside of Syria was communicating the direness of the situation to international agencies and decision makers.

Despite the turmoil and suddenness of the attacks, he said Bishop Aprim Nathniel of the Assyrian Church of the East remains in Hassekeh and is hosting and supporting the hundreds of displaced.

However, Father Youkhana said that because of ongoing conflict, the church lacks the required resources to aid all those in need.

Ishak also warned that if the villages of Tal Tamar and Ras al-Ain were to fall, then Islamic State militants could possibly encircle the area. This, he said, would pose a serious threat to larger towns such as Hassakeh and Amouda. Hassakeh borders Iraq and Turkey, and the extremists see it as a necessary bridge to unite areas under their control in Syria and Iraq.

The Assyrians are an ethnic group whose origins are in ancient Mesopotamia. They are a Christian people; the Chaldean Catholic Church was formed by a group of Assyrians who broke away and joined the Catholic Church in the 16th century. The Assyrians have traditionally lived in what is now Iraq, northeastern Syria, northwestern Iran and southeastern Turkey.


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Jordan’s Christian churches condemn pilot’s murder, offer prayers


Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — Christian churches in Jordan condemned the Islamic State militants’ killing of First Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot who had been held in captivity by the jihadist group.

Special Masses and prayers were planned as churches sent condolences conveying their deep sorrow to his Muslim family and tribe, the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in Amman reported Feb. 4.

“Christian churches in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan convey their deep sorrow and sadness over the martyrdom of pilot Muath Kasasbeh,” read a statement issued by Father Rifat Bader, the center’s director.

“As the churches denounce this heinous crime against humanity, they ask all citizens to reinforce their national unity under the Hashemite leadership, led by King Abdullah II,” it said.

Outraged and in pain, Jordanians are seeking retribution after the Islamic State’s murder of the fighter pilot, whose U.S.-led coalition plane went down over Syria on Christmas Eve. On Feb. 3, Islamic State released a video showing the 26-year-old airman burned alive inside a cage by militants.

Shortly afterward, Jordan hanged would-be Iraqi female suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi, involved in the country’s worst terror attack in 2005, and terror plotter Ziad al-Karboli, amid Jordan’s pledge to strike back hard at Islamic State. Both had been on death row.

Some Jordanians have opposed the use of executions, but with emotions raw and anger high, the government, military and tribe demanded such revenge.

Father Bader said prayers are needed for the pilot, the leadership of Jordan and its security institutions, national unity and to “keep Jordan strong as ever in the face of extremism and violence.”

Churches are also hold prayer vigils for religious harmony, Father Bader said, “so that religions will constitute a factor conducive for peace, harmony and unity among people, rather than a factor leading to division, killing, oppression and dispute.”


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2014 was a year marked by millions suffering in the Middle East


Catholic News Service

The story of the Middle East in 2014 is one of war and displacement, broken families and tireless aid workers, and the rise of a new group one scholar referred to as “al-Qaida on steroids.”

It’s a story of populations stretched to the limit, but still welcoming more refugees as neighbors. And it’s a tale of religious leaders calling for prayer, meeting for dialogue and urging an end to the violence.

U.S. Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, N.Y., stands amid rubble from buildings destroyed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. Bishop Malone visited Gaza Sept. 14 as part of 18 bishops' nine-day prayer pilgrimage for peace in the Holy Land. (CNS photo/Matt McGarry,

U.S. Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, N.Y., stands amid rubble from buildings destroyed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. Bishop Malone visited Gaza Sept. 14 as part of 18 bishops’ nine-day prayer pilgrimage for peace in the Holy Land. (CNS photo/Matt McGarry)

The continuing civil war in Syria created what Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, called “the defining humanitarian challenge of our times.” His agency estimated in December that more than 3.3 million Syrian refugees lived in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

UNHCR also estimated that, within Syria, 12.2 million people were in need, including 7.6 million people displaced from their homes. Of those displaced, half were children.

Amid the migration of Syrians to neighboring countries, a group calling itself the Islamic State began driving Christians, Yezidis and even Muslim minorities from parts of Syria and Iraq. The minorities told stories of the Islamic State group cutting off electricity for weeks ahead of the main troops’ arrival. When the militants arrived, minorities were told to convert to Islam, pay a protection tax or be killed.

Mary Habeck, associate professor in strategic studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, described the Islamic State, and its parent group, al-Qaida, as “merchants of violence” trying to “use Islam for their own purposes.” The groups are “a very tiny group of extremists that have decided that they understand what Islam is, and they are going to force the rest of the Muslim-majority world in their direction.”

After capturing Mosul, Iraq, in June, the Islamic State group declared a caliphate, or Islamic empire. Habeck said the group views itself as “the only legitimate government in the entire world.”

Faced with the choice of renouncing their faith or being killed, hundreds of thousands of Christians and other minorities in Iraq’s Ninevah province fled Mosul to places like Qaraqosh. Later, as Islamic State fighters advanced, the minorities fled again to cities like Irbil, Iraq, where they slept in churches or in tents in parks and on the streets.

The mass migration of Syrians and Iraqis, combined with Palestinians left homeless after a 50-day Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip, created a huge challenge for international aid organizations, including those run by the Catholic Church. Most refugees in the Middle East do not live in camps, but in local communities. This placed a strain on the host countries.

Church agencies focused on helping those communities. For instance, between August and early November, Caritas Jordan registered 4,000 Iraqis; the agency helped more who did not register.

Lebanon, a country 70 percent the size of Connecticut, has a population of 4 million and hosted 1.5 million additional refugees.

Jordan, slightly smaller than Indiana, with a population of 6.5 million, recognized 44 different nationalities as refugees. From 1921 to 2011, Jordan had a $10 billion deficit; since the Arab Spring began in 2011, it has picked up an additional $10 billion deficit.

Although the Jordanian government welcomed those fleeing, for the past three years it said that 30 percent of any aid going to help Syrian refugees must help the host community. It set similar quotas when Iraqis began fleeing to Jordan in 2003, at the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Christian aid agencies tried to coordinate their work, focusing on various aspects of aid: One agency might help with mattresses and personal items; another might help with education.

Church agencies also coordinated aid in Gaza after the Israeli-Hamas war left 2,000 Palestinians dead, thousands injured and more than 100,000 people homeless.

In July, the Catholic aid agencies met three times in as many days, planning for Gazans’ psychosocial and material needs.

“We are talking about a massive number of people who will be in need of help, and of at least 200,000 children who will need intervention,” Sami El-Yousef, regional director of the Jerusalem office of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, told Catholic News Service in July.

During a May visit to the Holy Land, Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop to pray for peace before the controversial separation wall built by Israel throughout the West Bank land. He invited Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican to pray for peace.

Throughout the year, he made repeated calls for peace in the Middle East. In early October, he met with the region’s apostolic nuncios and top Vatican officials; later that month, he included a discussion on the Middle East during the Oct. 20 consistory of cardinals in order to let the region’s seven patriarchs, who were taking part in the Synod of Bishops, also attend the proceedings.

At that meeting, Pope Francis said the Middle East was experiencing “terrorism of previously unimaginable proportions” in which the perpetrators seem to have absolutely no regard for the value of human life.

The Mideast Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs as well as bishops from North America, Europe and Oceania visited the Holy Land and northern Iraq to express solidarity with their fellow Christians. And although patriarchs expressed concern about Christians fleeing the violence in northern Iraq, laypeople were not the only ones leaving the advance of Islamic State: Twelve Chaldean religious men and priests living in the United States, Canada, Australia and Sweden were suspended from exercising their priestly ministry for not receiving permission from their superiors before emigrating from Iraq.

Once the Iraqis and Syrians fled, they hoped for resettlement in another country. One refugee described waiting for resettlement as “miserable days doing nothing.” Almost all Iraqis interviewed by a variety of news sources said they would not return to their country.

Father Rifat Bader described the refugees: “They are teachers. They are normal people, very kind people.” Faith “is a part of their identity.”

The Iraqis, he said, “are knocking at the doors of the embassies” trying to get resettled. But after their initial appointment, they were being forced to wait six months for a second appointment, he said


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Refugees in Jordan say they never thought they would have to leave home

June 19th, 2014 Posted in Featured, International News Tags: ,


Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) — Desperate to reunite with family in Europe, a young Syrian refugee recently paid thousands of dollars to a human trafficker to help him and his brother travel abroad. Instead, the pair found themselves tricked, half-way on the opposite side of the world — in China.

Back in Jordan, with their life savings of $34,000 wasted, they almost gave up hope of seeing their mother again and the chance to start a new life.

Some refugees may consider the pair lucky that they are still alive as so many the world over have perished trying to flee to safety from conflict. They are remembered on World Refugee Day June 20. Read more »

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Aid agencies, artists work to help 2.5 million Syrian refugees, including children


Catholic News Service

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan — As Syria’s civil war hurtles into its fourth year, hopes of returning home soon seem far off for the 2.5 million refugees sheltering in neighboring countries, like Jordan. Syrians are soon expected to overtake Afghans as the largest refugee population in the world, according to the United Nations.

A boy cries as he stands amid rubble of collapsed buildings at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in Aleppo March 6. (CNS photo/Hosam Katan, Reuters)

Top U.N. officials warn that the grinding conflict will leave a generation of 5.5 million children in and outside Syria physically and emotionally scarred. But American street artist Samantha Robison is working hard to change that.

A Washington, D.C. native, Robison and her team of international artists paint alongside the refugee children, encouraging them to remain strong and positive in Jordan’s Zaatari camp.

Covered in splashes of paint in every color of the rainbow, Robison encourages a 9-year-old Syrian girl named Zeinab to express her future dreams through painting on a recycled tent tarp.

“I am drawing a bird flying in the air. To me, it represents the freedom we want,” the enthusiastic child said as she drew.

Peaceful demonstrations protesting the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad erupted three years ago and were soon met by sniper fire from government troops before bursting into all-out civil war.

Robison said the young Syrian refugees at Zaatari remember the start of the conflict, but now look to the future.

“Yes, commemorate the three years, but also remember where they’ve come from and how much they’ve accomplished,” she said.

“Honor the human dignity and the next generation and the future of Syria. I think is where a lot of the energy needs to be focused,” she added, speaking of the children.

Zaatari is now the second-largest refugee camp in the world and Jordan’s fifth-largest city. Just more than half the 120,000 refugees there are under the age of 18.

Robison encourages the children to use their imaginations as they draw and paint and not to use well-known cartoon characters in their illustrations.

“What does your dream village look like? Draw yourself saying hello to children in other countries,” she urges them.

In the process, they magically transform dull canvas tents, metal trailers, schools and other facilities into colorful and creative works of art. Healing and hope come to the children and their families.

She encourages them to explore their creativity and have the space to just be children, something the civil war back home — full of bombings, the death of family members, and assaults — has robbed them of.

“Painting for these kids is fun and gives them a way to express themselves while putting them back in touch with themselves as children. It’s not about working or making ends meet,” said Leah O’Bryant, a Washington state artist working with Robison’s AptART organization in the camp.

“That’s something that kids take for granted in other places, but isn’t always possible here. They are expressing some intense emotions, but they are also just having fun. That’s one of the most important things that we do,” she said.

Syrian children along with women are among the most vulnerable of those fleeing the conflict, international aid workers say.

“The images on TV often show Syrian men fighting, but among the refugees, the heart of the story is women and children, who make up nearly 75 percent of the refugee population,” Caroline Brennan, Catholic Relief Services’ senior communications officer, told Catholic News Service March 17.

Brennan regularly visits CRS field work in Jordan and Lebanon. CRS, the U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency, aids 250,000 Syrian refugees across the Middle East region.

“Because they make up such a large percentage of the population, our services are predominantly supporting women and children, especially those in towns where the vast majority live as urban refugees, by providing for their basic needs for survival and health care,” Brennan said.

“Given the enormity of needs for women and children, we focus on education for children and counseling for mothers and children. Issues of trauma are so significant,” Brennan said.

She said CRS medical workers have observed that 45 percent of Syrian refugee children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and 60 percent from depression.

“Going to school helps children stay at their school level, have a place to go during the day and enables them to claim some semblance of childhood. Counseling is a big component of that, not only for those children, but their mothers. The mothers are caring not only for their children who are traumatized, but also making major decisions for their families in a way they were not necessarily making back home,” Brennan said.

A Syrian refugee mother who identified herself only as Reem said she struggles with her new role as the female head of her household.

“My husband divorced me recently, and my father died shortly afterward. I have to be strong and protect myself and my children. This is contrary to Middle Eastern culture,” the young woman emphasized.

Other Syrian female refugees say their husbands are also absent. They are either fighting back home or have been killed or abducted in the conflict.

“A glass might drop. It doesn’t even break, and the children are crying and shaking. Older children are wetting the mattress. The issues are severe,” Brennan said.

“The mothers are desperate to know how to care for children suffering from trauma when they have their own issues they are wrestling with. Our counselors are there to help,” she said.


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