JRS Syria - dedicated to refugee education

POST BY JHellings

Zerene Haddad of JRS Syria and Fr Dominic Robinson at a food bank in Lebanon

“Why don’t you come out to Lebanon to see where the money is going?”.  So suggested Zerene Haddad, the dynamic young regional co-ordinator of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the Middle East.  Zerene was visiting London in July and called in at Farm Street, the Jesuit parish and centre in the heart of London, to see how our Aid for Syria appeal was going. 

The Farm Street Aid for Syria project began in April with three aims.  Firstly, to pray for peace and reconciliation in Syria and the Middle East.  This is centred around a shrine at our Altar of the Seven Dolours of Our Lady and where prayers are offered especially for two Jesuits who had been working in reconciliation ministry Syria.  Fr Paolo dall’Oglio has been missing since July 2013 and Fr Francis van der Lugt was brutally and needlessly murdered by an unknown gunman on April 7th of this year. 

Secondly, we raise awareness of the humanitarian situation through information and events bringing together Middle Eastern Christians and those of other religions and none.  A recent evening of prayer, performance and fellowship directed by the Catholic artist Sarah de Nordwall brought together 250 people from Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox communities, mosque and synagogue.

Finally, fundraising is the third part of the project. So far  more than £26,000 has been raised, mainly through a Pilgrimage Walk in the steps of St Ignatius of Loyola in Spain during the summer.  The money is to be divided between JRS and the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need to bolster the two organisations’ different and complementary and above all courageous, inspiring work with refugees in and from Syria.

Sarah Teather MP and Jon Featonby (far right) at Jbeil School and family centreI was asked to go to see projects in neighbouring Lebanon because Syria is off limits to visitors and so I could join in a longer visit from the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees Sarah Teather and her Chief of Staff Jon Featonby. My most overriding impression was of the sheer tenacity and goodness of agency workers amid an ever growing huge tension hanging over the region.   The sheer number of Syrians trying to enter Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, is of staggering proportions.  At present it is estimated Lebanon has an influx of 1.6 million refugees from Syria and Iraq in an overall population of just 6 million.  It is no wonder Lebanon has now closed its border to Syrians but the violence ensuing there in recent weeks has created greater fears of the huge scale of the refugee crisis. 

We met most of the JRS staff based in Syria – Jesuits and young lay workers – who visited Beirut during the week. All spoke of the suspicion surrounding aid for Syrian refugees within Lebanon.  One of these, a young Syrian, had had her passport retained when coming into Lebanon; another was under surveillance from Lebanese military intelligence. But they continue their work amid this, providing for greater and greater needs.  In Syria itself JRS are providing emergency aid in the city centres of Damascus, Homs and Aleppo – field kitchens, clothing and bedding, basic healthcare support, hygiene kits.  Thousands of families in war-torn Syria, trapped with nowhere to go, are still being provided these basic vital human needs even as the bombs fall. 

But one of the key works our funds are going to is that of education and integration of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries.  So it was a great privilege to visit a wonderful just two-month old education project in Bourj Hammoud, north of Beirut.  250 Syrian children from ages 5-16, driven out of their country, go to this new school which aims to teach them Arabic, English and French, Maths and science, vital to move into the Lebanese education system.  This school is one of several in Lebanon, part of JRS’ ‘Accelerated Learning Programme’.  It is a programme which has to work urgently.  The children have no possibility of returning to their homeland in the near future.  Lebanon is their new home and they must be given all they can to grow up and flourish there. 

Bourj Hammoud School in Lebanon serving Syrian refugee childrenThe day we visited the children seemed joyful, full of energy, and the teachers so focussed and upbeat.  It truly is an incredible project put into place in such a necessarily short period of time.  But closer discussion with staff highlighted the real needs.  “What is the greatest challenge here?” I asked.  The response was that there is a crying need for space for children to play, proper classrooms, computers. But there is another need JRS have to try to answer. All agreed that the most pressing aim was to provide more social work and psychological support to deal with abuse in families.  Domestic violence and abuse is endemic in an environment in which up to ten families are renting one room, fathers are away fighting in Syria, where there is simply no room nor culture of socialisation.  The challenge of reintegrating Syrians into Lebanese society is the next step.  More social workers; a co-ordinated reintegration programme and psychological support is badly needed.

In addition to Bourj Hammoud JRS are developing the Accelerated Learning Programme in the city of Jbeil and in the Bekaa Valley. The Programme seems to represent the fruits of JRS’ aims in giving power back to displaced peoples.  In addition to providing resources for sheer survival, working for reconciliation between peoples at the centre of conflicts in the region and the work of schooling itself, this Programme is aiming to respond to the need to help refugees manage their destiny.  As whole communities in the midst of this appalling humanitarian disaster risk losing control of their lives, JRS is trying here to work with individuals so they can tell their stories, integrate in the host community, and so move into the education and socialisation system.  At present it seems there is a  risk of a whole generation being forgotten, left behind, and so a need of addressing the wellbeing of such a displaced community, the welfare of the broken families there, the safeguarding of their basic rights to human dignity and flourishing.  It seemed to me that JRS are beginning to provide this kind of need but it is such early days and the need is so great. 

Bourj Hammoud School in Lebanon serving Syrian refugee childrenRhada, a teenage Syrian refugee in Lebanon, put it so clearly and yet so painfully: “I miss my home, I miss my friends, I miss my memories.  Being able to go to school in Lebanon means everything to me.  It’s helped me not feel so sad all the time”. 

When Pope Francis visited JRS’ Centre in Rome, the Centro Astalli, in September 2013, he put the issue succinctly:

“Hospitality in itself isn’t enough.  It’s not enough to give a sandwich if it isn’t accompanied by the possibility of learning to stand on one’s own feet.  Charity that does not change the situation of the poor isn’t enough.  It calls for a situation where no one is in need of a soup kitchen, of a shelter for the homeless, of legal assistance to have his right to live and to work recognised, to be a whole person”. 

Those sentiments were certainly mine on this visit.  The work we are doing with displaced peoples in the Middle East must be rooted in Gospel values, in a commitment to respecting the dignity of each human being of whatever religion, ethnicity, background, and, amid the growing tensions in the region, fostering education, human flourishing, community integration, in families, in local communities, in society.  These are enormous aims but they are those of the Gospel and for those working so courageously in the region they are both real and with prayer, support and a large heart ultimately achievable.   

To donate to support the continuing crisis for Syria Refugees please go to our donate page

This article was written by Fr Dominic Robinson SJ  for the Catholic Times