World must open hearts, ears to Syria crisis
04 May 2016

Fr. Cedric Prakash S.J.

(Washington, D.C.) May 4, 2016 — The following interview was conducted in early April. Father Prakash notified us yesterday that in the past week the situation in Aleppo has grown more dire. “Mortar shells fell directly next to JRS distribution center and next to the JRS medical clinic; additionally, several mortar shells fell next to the JRS kitchen” where JRS prepares hot meals for thousands of displaced people in Aleppo. 

“Areas where we have our distribution center and for team visits are subject to heavy and continued shelling. As a precautionary measure we have today (May 3) suspended immediately all our activities in Aleppo and until further notice. This decision has been taken with great regret,” Fr. Prakash said. JRS will re-evaluate the situation daily and renew relief activities as soon as possible.

In the interest and safety of the civilian population of Aleppo Jesuit Refugee Service calls upon all warring factions to halt all hostilities with immediate effect. “We wish to express our solidarity with all those affected and pray that peace returns to Aleppo and to the whole of Syria at the earliest,” said Fr. Prakash.

Fr. Cedric Prakash S.J. has witnessed a lifetime’s worth of pain and suffering in only a few short months on the job as the Advocacy and Communications Officer for Jesuit Refugee Service’s Middle East and North Africa.

As the region reels from the five-year Syrian civil war, JRS MENA staff and volunteers are reaching out to those displaced by the conflict — as well as refugees from elsewhere — under trying and sometimes dangerous circumstances. The challenges in the region he said, are daunting: indifference from the outside world; the lack of a strong political will to tackle the problems in a meaningful, lasting way; and a reluctance by society to accept and welcome refugees into their communities.  Yet Fr. Prakash remains an “incorrigible optimist” that conditions in the region — and the circumstances that created them — can and will change for the better. 

“The effort has to be made not from the victim, not from those who are suffering, for they will clutch at any straw, but by those who possess the possibility of providing not only a straw but a huge log that people can use as a raft,” he said.

Fr. Prakash, on a recent visit to Washington, D.C., shared with JRS/USA a detailed look at these and other issues facing the Middle East refugee crisis, including how educational opportunities for displaced youth must be a vital component for the region’s healing and rebuilding process.

Question: What is Jesuit Refugee Service doing in Syria right now?

Fr. Prakash: We are based in three locations: Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. In some places like Aleppo we do food kitchens. We serve a cooked meal to (thousands of people each day). In places like Damascus we provide food and hygiene kits to the displaced families. We are doing plenty of educational work in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, where we try to provide some kind of education to the IDPs (internally displaced persons).

In each of these centers we created facilities for counseling, for family visits, for trying to provide that kind of engagement for a lot of people who have been suffering, and for the whole dimension of healing, because a lot of people need to be healed. And finally we provide life-skills programs, especially in a place like Damascus, where we have been running different kinds of programs, both for the youth but also the seniors, so that in some ways they can get on with lives and to have a livelihood for themselves. It’s a whole range of programs, each responding to the particular needs of a situation.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about the frustrations of youth in Syria and in the refugee communities in general in the region?

FP: The question many of them have shared with me is, ‘what do we hope for, what do we live for?’ Education (there) is in the doldrums. Some of them try to do something or another — go to school, go to university. There is little chance of having any sustainable employment (in Syria), even after you’ve had some kind of education. So many of them just want to get out, which is tragic… It’s painful, it’s despairing, it’s very, very frustrating. But this is where JRS is providing a lot of them with a sense of hope, with a new tomorrow.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about education as a tool of integration and reconciliation?

FP: We at JRS believe that the key to a lot of the future — to sustainability, to integration, to reconciliation — is through education. It creates this spirit of what the children need most, and that is of acceptance. It’s really difficult as a child to be rejected. And there is this constant feeling of rejection (among refugee children). Now in Syria we have this whole generation that has been born since 2011, five years old and (younger), who have been born into hostility, into conflict, into violence. And when they are born and brought up into this all they know is fear.

We realize that a key to answer the problems of divisiveness, of discrimination — whether it is racial, whether it is religious discrimination — is integration. Integration helps with inclusion. So once you help integrate the child into the mainstream by providing them with the education that they need, it also gives them the feeling that they are included in this particular culture, in this particular country, in a place that is not their home. And we would think that once you have quality education, once we get into the dynamic of integration, of inclusion, then we will truly have a reconciliation that his sustainable. This we believe is mercy in motion.

Q: You’ve been traveling around the Middle East quite a bit these last few months. Can you tell me a little bit about what JRS is doing in Erbil in northern Iraq?

FP: We have an excellent schooling program happening both in Erbil proper and a little outside. JRS in Iraq has been providing regular livelihood assistance. We are providing for the youth, the adults, we have programs for adult learners in computers and English and even in dress making, in fashion, in hairdressing, in beauty treatment. And some of the refugees are really attracted to this … it provides them with some possibility of earning some money at home.

Above all we have been doing regular family visits… And the (JRS) teams that visit the families try to provide them with counseling, with medical assistance, and trying to help them with their legal status and with their papers and whether they are recognized by the local government as refugees.

Q: What are some of the under-reported issues in the Middle East/North Africa region?

FP: What goes unreported is the way the ordinary citizen suffers because of decisions taken maybe far away and to which they have not been called to be a part of. So that is what we have been trying to advocate. We cannot merely have peace that has been decided maybe in Geneva or some other major capital of the world. Rather it must be decided where people live.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about interfaith efforts to help refugees in Syria and the region?

FP: Depending on where we are… most of the refugees we serve are Muslims. And as Pope Francis reminds us, it doesn’t matter to what faith that person belongs, that refugee is my brother; that refugee is my sister; I need to reach out to that person in concrete and tangible ways.

I take great pride in saying that JRS responds to any single refugee in need without discrimination, without distinction. We have been helping people across the board. It doesn’t matter if they are Shias in one country, Sunni Muslims in one country, the Yazidis are a persecuted lot in their own country, and we have been working for them. And we have also been working with Christians from Syria who have been refugees, Christians from Iraq who have been refugees. In Jordan we have a whole range of refugees who have come from Sudan, from Somalia.

There is a sense that, whatever we are doing with JRS, however small, however, seemingly insignificant, we represent the personal message of Jesus. And the personal message of Jesus is about love, is about healing, is about mercy, is about compassion, is about giving, is about reaching out, is about not creating barriers, is about not building walls, is about building bridges… When one hold hands with another brother or sister in need, I think one then feels a tremendous amount of worth that one is representing the personal message of Jesus in a very tangible way. People see that, and that is where reconciliation begins.

Q: How does accompaniment guide the works of JRS in the Middle East and North Africa?

FP: Accompaniment, service and advocacy are the three guiding principles — a mission that is highly integrated — of JRS. And accompaniment for JRS in the Middle East means our ability and the courage we demonstrate to tell people that we are there for them… And we don’t wait for people to come to us only, we also go out to them.

Just now in Erbil the JRS team will be out looking for refugees who are not in the camps of the government, they are living in illegal tenements, they are living in the fields. In Erbil we have skeletal buildings, and many of these refugees are living in them. And the JRS team goes and seeks them out. And when we seek them out we accompany them. We tell them we are on this journey of hope. We tell them we are on a journey for a better tomorrow. And from there we try to provide ways and means, help – sometimes monetary help, food kits, maybe the hot kitchen whenever necessary, the hygiene kits, and providing also education to the children. That is accompaniment for us.

Q: What do you think are the challenges, the impediments to peace in Syria and the region?

FP: I think there are several challenges. The first challenge is, all of us need to listen, the world needs to listen, the powers need to listen to the ordinary person down there and hear him or her saying please, do not allow us to suffer anymore… That is the greatest impediment, when we in the world are not listening to the pain and the trauma of the ordinary person there and when our hearts do not go out to them.

Another challenge is, how do we create a more inclusive society, a more integrated society, and a society that realizes it has a serious problem, and yet we can say with all conviction that this man, this women, this family can be my neighbor… All of us must remember that we are children of the one God, and God is our father and we are brothers and sisters.

Q: Why are people leaving Syria? Why would someone with young children, a family, risk their life to leave the country?

FP: Because there is no future. I ask people ‘why do you want to leave?’ If you go back (in time before the war), Syria was one of the (most prosperous) countries in the Middle East. It was never a poor country. It was a land in which they had everything.

If you ask an ordinary citizen why they wanted to leave Syria, they’d say they that they never wanted to leave Syria. But circumstances forced them (to leave). Today they’re risking the little money they’ve saved all their lives (to leave). I’ve met families who have paid any amount of money to these human traffickers to get them (out of the country), to get them to Greece, to get them to Macedonia. I think the world does not know the exact number of people who have died, who have drowned trying to go to the promised land, to Europe or perhaps the United States. We must provide these people with a sense of hope, a sense of tomorrow, and it should not be a piecemeal approach. And for that we need to provide security and stability in the region immediately, because tomorrow might be too late.

Q: Do you see any hope for Syria and Syrian refugees?

FP: I am an incorrigible optimist. I always believe in hope. I think that after a winter there must be a spring, there must be the cherry blossoms, there must be the possibility of a new tomorrow.

How do we expedite the change? Unless there is a political will, unless there is a kind of concerted effort from civil society across the board (things won’t get better).

Don’t say “it’s none of my business.” That person is your brother, the Lord is telling us. We cannot say no to the cries, to the helplessness, to the children who are saying give us a better tomorrow. No, our conscience cannot be deadened, our hearts cannot remain mute. We have to respond in compassion, with mercy, with a lot of love. By Sean Lengell Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

By Sean Lengell
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

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