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Christian activists warn of slaughter of Syrian civilians in Afrin

March 12th, 2018 Posted in International News Tags: ,


Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — Christian activists warn that 1 million Syrian civilians will face certain slaughter in northwestern Afrin, where they allege Turkey and its militant allies have already carried out “war crimes” and “ethnic cleansing.”

They have appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump and top U.S. officials to stop the bloodshed, warning that failure to act jeopardizes the hard-fought U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State in Syria.

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U.S. doctors, nurses treat Syrian refugees for free in Jordan


Catholic News Service

MAFRAQ, Jordan — American doctors and nurses on a medical mission to Jordan are performing badly needed surgeries and other medical treatment free of charge to thousands of Syrian refugees who can no longer afford basic health care.

Dr. Bassel Atassi of the Little Company of Mary Hospital, a not-for-profit Catholic community hospital on Chicago’s South Side, led the 80-member mission.

Dr. Anas Safadi, a cardiologist with the Syrian American Medical Society, checks his Syrian refugee patient Jan. 11 at Gardens Hospital in Amman, Jordan, after performing free heart catheter surgery the previous day. (CNS/Scott R. Carey)

Dr. Anas Safadi, a cardiologist with the Syrian American Medical Society, checks his Syrian refugee patient Jan. 11 at Gardens Hospital in Amman, Jordan, after performing free heart catheter surgery the previous day. (CNS/Scott R. Carey)

Fanning out across Jordan, under the auspices of the Syrian American Medical Society, teams provided cardiac, eye and orthopedic surgeries; others offered care in pediatrics, obstetrics, dentistry, pain management and nephrology for refugees, inside camps and in the community. They also aided poor Jordanians.

Atassi, originally from Homs and Aleppo, Syria, said the brutal, nearly six-year Syrian conflict has scattered his immediate family around the globe.

One of the two main oncologists at Little Company, Atassi praised the hospital for its support.

“The hospital donated medications and other supplies to the mission. The last time I was here in the fall, the hospital asked me to speak at a big meeting about the mission, showing my documentary video. They are very appreciative of this effort,” Atassi said.

Compassion for the sick and cancer treatment are deep-rooted at Little Company. Its founder, Venerable Mary Potter, fought a personal battle with cancer. The hospital has a state-of-the art cancer center affiliated with the University of Chicago Hospital. While the latest technology is key to treatment, so too, Little Company says, is the “spiritual connection of prayer to the healing process.”

“The hospital has a real humanitarian ethos,” said Dr. Junaid Makda, an orthopedic surgeon who also works at Little Company and joined Atassi on the mission.

“This trip really ties into the hospital’s mission statement of giving back and across all religions. That is something that is fundamental to everyone,” Makda told CNS during a clinic held in Mafraq, a northern Jordanian town hosting thousands of Syrian refugees near the Syrian border.

Aminah, a former teacher who fled the Syrian conflict three years ago with her tiny daughters, waited for treatment at the clinic in Mafraq.

“Life in Jordan is very difficult for us,” said Aminah, who asked to be identified by her first name only for fear of reprisals against family members still inside Syria.

“It’s difficult to find work, our funds are finished, and so I’m grateful that these doctors have come here to help us and provide medicines free of charge. This is a great blessing,” the petite woman, sporting a leopard-print headscarf, said as refugee children raced around the packed waiting room.

Atassi said the Syrian American Medical Society does most of its work in Syria, while carrying out missions in neighboring countries that host the refugees.

“SAMS used to be a small organization with few members. Now in 2017, we have thousands of members and hundreds of people employed both inside and outside Syria,” said the doctor, citing the crisis in Syria as a real turning point for the nonprofit medical relief organization with offices in Washington, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

“SAMS has been one of the first responders and biggest nongovernmental organizations bringing medical relief inside Syria, often through its field hospitals, including in Aleppo,” Atassi said. As of September, the group said it had treated more than 2.7 million Syrians.

Atassi said that during the recent battle for control of Aleppo, SAMS operated the largest field hospital in the eastern part of the city. It had been hit several times before, but the recent attacks left it completely destroyed.

“Some doctors lost their lives, others were injured. The majority evacuated to safe zones. They demonstrated a lot of dedication. After the evacuation, SAMS has opened new facilities for these doctors,” Atassi said.

Lona Gabree’s eyes welled up with tears when she explained why she traveled to Jordan for the first time to aid Syrian refugees.

The nurse for the past 27 years from Claverack, New York, said, “There is a crying need for help here and, because I can do it and my heart is here, why not rise up and grab the chance.”

Gabree anticipated having to deal with a lot of post-traumatic stress suffered by the refugees.

“I helped people dealing with PTSD right after Hurricane Katrina,” she said. “I was very humbled to work there and am now humbled to be here.”

Dr. Soroosh Behshad, a cornea specialist and ophthalmologist at Atlanta’s Emory University, told CNS he wanted to participate in the mission because, as a child, he was a refugee, and he knows what that experience means for the many displaced Syrians.

“My parents fled first to Pakistan after the Iranian Revolution, when my mother was pregnant. Later they made it to Austria and finally to the United States, where our family settled, I was schooled and am now a doctor,” he said.

Atassi said he experienced one of his toughest days as a cancer doctor at one of Jordan’s camps for Syrian refugees.

“I’m an oncologist and used to delivering bad news. But today I was almost going to cry,” he said.

“I saw the tears of the young woman and the faces of some family members. It was bad. My hands are tied here. If I am back at my clinic in Chicago, I can do tons of stuff for her. I can cure her. But today, I can’t do anything. You try to refer her to agencies that can help and you just hope for the best,” Atassi said.

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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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‘Peace has no religion’ — Syrian refugees thank pope for their safety


Catholic News Service

ROME — After less than 48 hours in Rome, “dream” is the word used most often by the six Syrian adults Pope Francis brought back to Italy with him from a refugee camp in Greece.

By April 18, the couples — who asked to be identified by only their first names, Hasan and Nour, Ramy and Suhila, Osama and Wafa — and their six children had spent more than three hours doing paperwork with Italian immigration officials and had enrolled in Italian language classes.

Syrian refugees Osama and Wafa and their two children, Omar, 6, and Masa, 8, are pictured in Rome April 18. The family was among 12 refugees Pope Francis brought to Rome with him from a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Syrian refugees Osama and Wafa and their two children, Omar, 6, and Masa, 8, are pictured in Rome April 18. The family was among 12 refugees Pope Francis brought to Rome with him from a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Other than that, most of their first two days in Rome had been spent giving interviews and answering phone calls from friends and relatives who saw them on television boarding the pope’s plane April 16. All three families saw their homes bombarded in Syria and all three arrived in Greece from Turkey on overloaded rubber boats months ago.

Being chosen from among thousands of refugees to come to Italy felt like “a dream,” said Wafa. Being in Rome and not a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos “is a big dream,” said Hasan.

Osama is dreaming of peace in his homeland. “We want peace in Syria so we can go home,” he told reporters outside the language and culture school run by the Catholic Sant’Egidio Community.

In agreement with the Italian government, the Rome-based lay community, along with the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy, has been operating a “humanitarian corridor” for vulnerable Syrian refugees — the elderly, families with sick children, women traveling alone with their children. The Vatican asked Sant’Egidio to help it screen refugees in Greece and choose families that both the Greek and Italian governments would provide with the necessary travel papers in time for the papal flight.

Daniela Pompei, coordinator of Sant’Egidio programs for migrants and refugees, said the Greek government insisted that they choose only refugees who arrived in Greece before March 20, when an agreement between the European Union and Turkey went into effect. Under the terms of the agreement, new arrivals must apply for asylum and will be taken back to Turkey if their requests are denied.

The two Christian families originally on the list for inclusion in the papal flight had made the sea crossing from Turkey after March 20, she said.

Asked if his gesture was not really so small as to be insignificant, Pope Francis told reporters flying to Rome with him and the refugees that people used to tell Blessed Teresa of Kolkata that what she was doing was meaningless when there was an ocean of need in the world.

“And she responded, ‘It’s a drop in the ocean, but after this drop, the ocean won’t be the same,’” the pope said. “I’ll respond the same way. It’s a little gesture. But all of us, men and women, must make these little gestures in order to extend a hand to those in need.”

Osama said he was told at 10 p.m., April 15 that he, his wife and children — Omar, 6, and Masa, 8 — would be flying to Rome with Pope Francis the next day. Hasan said he was in a grocery store in Greece when he got the call.

When asked what he thought of the head of the Catholic Church sponsoring three Muslim refugee families, Osama said, “Peace has no religion. If you think about it, we are all human.

“The pope made a humanitarian gesture and it was so moving,” he told reporters.

Nour, an engineer who studied in France and hopes eventually to go there, responded to a similar question by saying, “No other religious leader in the world helped us like the pope did.”

Her husband, Hasan, said, “The pope is an amazing, amazing person, an incredible person. Every religious person should be like the pope.

“We are Muslim and, unfortunately, our people did not deal with us like the pope did,” he said.

Hasan and Nour decided to take their 2-year-old son Riad and flee after they were stopped by members of the Islamic State. Hasan said he was told he must fight, “make jihad,” but “I didn’t want to kill anyone. I am an engineer, not a soldier, so I must escape from Syria.”

He, too, dreams of peace, safety and a dignified life for his young family. But also of seeing his homeland again.

“You can find a new job maybe, you can find a new house, but you can’t find a new family,” he said.

Ramy, who was a teacher in Syria and has two teenage sons and a 5-year-old daughter, said being chosen to come to Italy “was God’s blessing.”

– – –

Follow Wooden on Twitter @Cindy_Wooden.

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Pope Francis brings 12 Syrian refugees to Rome from Greece


Catholic News Service

MYTILENE, Greece — Pope Francis’ five-hour visit to Greece ended with him offering safe passage to Italy to 12 Syrian Muslims, half under the age of 18.

The Vatican had kept secret the pope’s plan to invite the members of three Syrian families to fly back to Rome with him April 16. Rumors began swirling in the Greek media a couple hours before the flight took off, but it was confirmed by the Vatican only as the 12 were boarding the papal plane.

Refugees walk to board Pope Francis' plane to Rome at the international airport in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Greece, April 16, 2016. The pope brought 12 refugees to Italy aboard his flight. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Refugees walk to board Pope Francis’ plane to Rome at the international airport in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Greece, April 16, 2016. The pope brought 12 refugees to Italy aboard his flight. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Vatican Secretariat of State made formal arrangements with the Italy and the Greek governments to obtain the legal permits needed for the refugees to live in Italy, a Vatican statement said. The Vatican will assume financial responsibility for the families, who will be assisted by the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio.

All 12 in the group, the Vatican added, had arrived in Greece prior to March 20, the date a European Union agreement with Turkey went into effect for returning most asylum seekers to Turkey. The children are between the ages of 2 and 17.

After spending the morning with desperate refugees interned in a camp in Greece, Pope Francis and Orthodox leaders turned their attention and prayers to the sea, the final burial place of hundreds who died trying to get to Europe.

Just since January, the International Organization for Migration said, more than 150,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Greece and 366 people died attempting crossing the Aegean Sea to the country.

“Though many of their graves bear no name, to you each one is know, loved and cherished,” Pope Francis prayed to God April 16 in Mytilene, a city on Lesbos, the island on which more than half the refugees have landed.

“Wake us from the slumber of indifference,” the pope prayed, “open our eyes to their suffering and free us from the insensitivity born of world comfort and self-centeredness.”

In his prayer, Pope Francis insisted “we are all migrants, journeying in hope” toward God in heaven.

Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and all Greece stood alongside Pope Francis on the waterfront at the Mytilene harbor on the bright spring day. They, too, offered prayers for those who have died making the crossing and joined the pope in blessing laurel wreaths that were tossed into the sea.

Recognizing the generosity and sacrifice of the Greek government and Greek people, who had tried to assist hundreds of thousands of refugees despite an ongoing economic crisis, the pope told them, “You are guardians of humanity for you care with tenderness for the body of Christ, who suffers in the least of his brothers and sisters, the hungry and the stranger, whom you have welcomed.”

With hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq and fleeing extreme poverty and persecution elsewhere, Pope Francis acknowledged that Europeans and their governments naturally could feel overwhelmed. The fact that the newcomers speak different languages and have different religions and cultures adds to the challenge.

But the migrants “are living in trying conditions, in an atmosphere of anxiety and fear, at times even of despair, due to material hardship and uncertainty for the future,” the pope said.

While the concerns of governments are “understandable and legitimate,” he said, one must never forget that “migrants, rather than simply being a statistic, are first of all persons who have faces, names and individual stories.”

Greece, and to a lesser extent Italy, are on the frontlines of the refugee influx and are forced to bear much of the burden for welcoming, housing and screening them as other European countries close their borders or make entry difficult.

Pope Francis, though, called on Europe to live up to its claim of being “the homeland of human rights.”

“Whoever sets foot on European soil ought to sense this, and thus become more aware of the duty to respect and defend those rights,” the pope said.

He praised the people of Lesbos for showing that “in these lands, the cradle of civilization, the heart of humanity continues to beat; a humanity that before all else recognizes others as brothers and sisters, a humanity that wants to build bridges and recoils from the idea of putting up walls to make us feel safer. In reality, barriers create divisions instead of promoting the true progress of peoples, and divisions sooner or later lead to confrontations.”


Follow Wooden on Twitter @Cindy_Wooden.

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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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Freezing temps, tents: Half a million Syrian refugees struggle in Lebanon


BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon — Many Lebanese have spent as much time as possible indoors this winter, protecting themselves from this year’s unusually brutal cold season.

But for the approximately half a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, their makeshift housing, often flimsy tents or abandoned unfinished buildings, has hardly given them sufficient shelter from the continuous storms that have been pounding the mountains since last fall.

“The hardest part is being cold and not being able to leave the tent. Where would I go?” asked Safia Hassan Hussein, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo who shares a tent with seven family members in the town of Bar Elias. Their informal tented settlement, called Moussa Jassem, is one of about 600 in the Bekaa Valley. These settlements often have 200 tents, each housing anywhere from five to 15 people.

A Syrian child stands barefoot outside a tent Feb. 17 at a camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. This winter's heavy rains have caused the paths between the tents at the settlements to fill with water. (CNS

A Syrian child stands barefoot outside a tent Feb. 17 at a camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. This winter’s heavy rains have caused the paths between the tents at the settlements to fill with water. (CNS

The Hussein family insisted on serving hot tea, which they drink all day long to keep warm, showing the occasional visitor that they have not lost their sense of hospitality.

Lebanon’s heavy wind and rain began in October with only a few days of respite between almost back-to-back storms. Since then, Lebanon has seen around four times as much precipitation as the same period last year. This comes amid aid funding shortfalls for the refugees of the four-year-old conflict. The weather, along with the substandard living conditions, has exposed the refugees to illness, such as pneumonia.

Surviving the elements has become a full-time job for the refugees, whether they’re keeping warm by huddling in front of a small gas heater, fetching drinking water, cleaning clothes or gathering food. They are forced to choose between staying inside the tent and enduring the stench of gas and burning garbage or stepping outside into the cold air and onto a muddy path of open sewage.

This past winter, the temperatures in the Bekaa have ranged from just below to just above freezing. At times the wind has been at 60 miles per hour, in many cases damaging property, with tents and dilapidated houses particularly vulnerable.

On the outskirts of Zahle, Shiraz Mutanos Makhoul was fairing a bit better than her fellow refugees in tents. Ten months ago, she, her husband and newborn fled from Homs, Syria, with little more than the clothes on their backs. Now the family lives in an old abandoned house, but the home’s humidity and smoky heating system prevent her daughter from recovering from her runny nose.

“This is my first winter in Lebanon. It’s much colder than in Syria,” she said. She held her baby close to the heater to keep warm, then pulled her away when she started coughing from the smell. “She’s had a runny rose for a week, and I can’t take her to the doctor.”

Makhoul was an engineer in Syria; now she spends her days at home taking care of her baby while her husband, who owned a shop in Homs, goes out and looks for any work he can find, a task made all the more difficult with the severe winter hindering the agricultural sector, the area’s main employer.

“This has been the toughest winter for Syrian refugees,” said Wissam Tannous, Caritas Lebanon’s coordinator for the Bekaa Valley, as he drove up the main road from Beirut to the country’s eastern mountains between storms.

Tannous makes the trip every day, even in thick fog. One day in mid-February, as he crossed Dahr al-Baydar, the gateway to the Bekaa Valley that sometimes faces road closures during severe weather, he and a passenger saw a vast view of the snowy mountains with ominous dark cloud lurking above. The area has had many snowfalls, with still more to come.

Caritas Lebanon is currently providing aid to 56,000 Syrian refugee families across Lebanon. This year it has shifted from material to cash donations for the refugees, allowing for easier logistics for the agency and greater choice for the refugees.

Caritas continues to provide the elderly and the disabled, who have less access to the markets, with supplies such as food and blankets. Its partner agencies in places like the U.S., Canada, Britain, Ireland and Australia support the efforts.

This assistance has become all the more crucial as donations for the Syrian refugee crisis have significantly decreased over the last year, even if the needs have increased. The U.N. World Food Program aid has dropped from $30 per family member per month to $19. Aid agencies cite donor fatigue as a reason for a drop in funding, as Syria is no longer a new story.

For the refugees, more help is essential for survival until they can safely return home, but for many donors, the situation has dragged on far too long to be considered urgent.

“After four years, there’s donor fatigue. After four years, it’s no longer an emergency,” said Isabelle Saade Feghali, deputy manager and coordinator at Caritas. “People need to be sensitized, because the needs are still there.”

— By Brooke Anderson

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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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Caritas Lebanon helps refugees fleeing Syria


BEIRUT — Church aid workers scrambled to find housing for hundreds of Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring Lebanon because of ongoing violence between Syrian forces and armed rebels.

About 200 families — more than 1,000 people overall — made their way to the border town of Qaa in the Bekaa Valley in northern Lebanon March 5 and were struggling in the region’s near-freezing temperatures.

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