Category Archives: Peacebuilding

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A refugee remembers Syria

The business of Karim, a shoemaker, was destroyed during bombings in Syria. He, his wife, Zahaya, and their year-old son also lost their home to the violence. The family has been living in this tent in Lebanon since late June 2013. Photo by Sam Tarling for CRS

The business of Karim, a shoemaker, was destroyed during bombings in Syria. He, his wife, Zahaya, and their year-old son also lost their home to the violence. The family has been living in this tent in Lebanon since late June 2013. Photo by Sam Tarling for CRS

By Caroline Brennan,

A family photo album. “If only I could see it,” says Zahaya. “Only then could I get the fuller picture.”

Zahaya, 21, is talking about her family and  life in Syria that was so recent—just a year or so ago—that might as well have been another lifetime.

We are sitting in her tent in the summer heat in a growing refugee settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Many refugees have come from their neighbouring tents, and they all want to talk about the Syria they remember. They are taking me back in time—all the way to 2010. They serve coffee, though they have nothing. It is the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, so they are not drinking. They insist and, after some time, there is no way to refuse their offer.

The nostalgia for what Syria was – and the effort to convey that  longing to others – seems to be for so many refugees the last grip on a normal life, to keep themselves from losing their minds. What is happening to their country is simply beyond comprehension. Many of them echo the same message: “We were the country that helped so many people in need. We were the stable ones in the Arab region.” Says Mona, a young woman in the group, “We are humiliated.”

Zahaya keeps referring to the lost family album. It’s not just a book to her—that is clear. It’s not just the loss of something in a move—that can happen to any of us. The album is central to her identity and is now a crucial document in her search for help.

She and her husband, Karim, lived in Ras Al-Ayn, a town near the Turkish border. They were safe for some time during the first year of the civil war in Syria, a conflict that began in March 2011 with a peaceful protest in the south that gradually escalated into a deadly fight for the country. Estimates put the number of people killed in Syria from March 2011 to July 2013 at about 93,000 to 100,000 people. Millions of people have been uprooted inside the country, and at least 1.6 million people having fled into neighboring countries to seek help.

As the indiscriminate violence began to transform sleepy middle-class towns and urban neighborhoods, Zahaya’s family started to feel the creep of danger.

Two events were pivotal to Zahaya’s decision to flee.

Zahaya’s mother, who was suffering from cancer but had already fled to Lebanon when violence engulfed her village, tried to return to Syria for chemotherapy that she couldn’t afford in Lebanon. The bus she was traveling on was hit by a bomb. No one survived. Zahaya still has trouble talking about it today.

Around the same time, Zayaha’s neighborhood started to shake from bombings at night. Community members decided to sleep outside to keep each other safe. One night in April 2013, after waking up, she and her husband walked back to their home and saw that it had been demolished.

“When we saw the house, a house we had worked so hard to physically build, we would have preferred to have died in our house than to see it that way,” Zahaya says. “We had nothing, only the clothes we were wearing. We knew it was time to leave.”

The family tried to go to Turkey, because it was close by, “but even that was too dangerous with bombings and insecurity,” says Zahaya.

So they made their way to Lebanon. Zahaya, Karim and their 1-year old son took several buses and made attempts to cross at three different borders. They were turned away each time because they didn’t have their papers or proof of identity—all destroyed in their house—and because they didn’t have any photos. “No albums?” they were asked when prompted to prove that Zahaya was in fact the mother of her son.

This affront to their identity seems to be the deepest wound many Syrians have endured. Their country is a living nightmare. Their homes and livelihoods are gone. Their families are torn apart. They have nothing to show for everything they lived and worked for.

“It is very difficult to live here in a tent. We live here because we have no money to pay for rent. We have no shower or bath here. We have no running water or electricity,” says Zahaya. “As a mother, it is difficult to manage my family here. Even when I want to bring water to clean clothes, my clothes get dirty with the process of collecting the water.”

The refugee families clutch memories shared in these tents and a hope that they will one day return and rebuild Syria as they remember it. For now, they try to create a semblance of home in another country, in living conditions far below their standards, awaiting news on the safety of loved ones.

“We want all countries around the world to know how we live in this very bad situation,” Zahaya says.” Our children have asthma, illnesses, allergies that we are struggling to care for here. Our life was good before. We were not afraid before.

“Even if I have to live in a tent in Syria, I will go back home the moment it is safe,” she adds.

Her mind goes back to Syria. Without photos of her family to show visitors or to convey what her country means to her, Zahaya hopes that words can do her justice.

“The characteristics of Syrians are generous and helpful. In [previous conflicts in the region] people came to Syria for help. We opened our schools and homes to them. We welcomed them.

“We hope people will be kind to us.”

Editor’s Note: Caritas Lebanon provide critical food, shelter and living supplies to Zahaya and her family. Caroline Brennan is a CRS senior communications officer. She is based in Chicago.

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Filed under Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Syria, Lebanon, Middle East & North Africa, North America, Peacebuilding, Syria, United States

Central African Republic road movie

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On the road in the Central African Republic

Fr Aurélio Gazzera is the local diocesan Caritas director in Bouar in Northern Central African Republic

Read this story in French

Scene from a Western

These days I had been in Bangui for meetings. Coming back Thursday, we arrived at the ‘PK12’ roadblock, the gateway and exit to the capital. Men belonging to Seleka forces, the rebel group who seized the country in March, asked to search the car. I told them that they had no authority to do so, but if the police want to do the search then fine. There were policemen on the other side of the street.

One of the rebels fighter insisted on carrying out the search. Again, I refused and we left. After 500 m, I saw in the mirror a rebel with a machine gun on a motorbike coming up behind the car. I was motioned to stop, and I did. The rebel pointed the gun in my face and told me to return to the checkpoint.  He started to shoot at the tires and then in the air, expecting me to reverse.

With bullet holes now in the tires, I explained to him that I couldn’t move the car. A stray bullet had also hit a woman passerby. I was trying to calm the situation down, when luckily a joint patrol of Central African and Congolese soldiers came by. They tried to get the rebel soldier to relax and then we changed the tires of my car.

We went to a police station and called the local chief of police.  The rebel who had shot at us was arrested. The rebel chief asked for a search of the car again and so the police chief asked what was inside and we told him 4 pots of paint. He was satisfied.

Scene from thriller

After buying two new tires, we were back on the road again heading for PK12. A government minister had now joined us and insisted on coming along (for our protection).  A land cruiser with blacked out windows was waiting now at the roadblock. We passed it by.

But then further up there were two more pickups with rebels waiting on the road. We feared they were out for revenge or wanted to take one of us to bargain for their arrested colleague or were just angry because PK12 is a big source of income and we were threatening that lucrative sideline. We did a U-turn on the minister’s suggestion.

The rest of Thursday and Friday, we tried to get out of the city. But we needed to organise an escort and that was difficult to find. There was a UN plane, but not until next week and not to Bozoum. We could drive another way, but that would be long and wouldn’t be safe either. We resigned ourselves to wait.

Scene from a spy story

On Saturday morning , it rains for 4 hours. After prayer and Mass , I said to my companions that we could take advantage of the weather to try to pass.  All agree. We pick up Joseph, our driver, and his wife and we hit the road. I get in the back, disguised in dark glasses and a sweater.

We arrive at PK 12. Joseph goes to sign the necessary paper work ( and pay the 1000 f cfa bribe). Then Seleka revels says they want to search the car. But before the search can start, the police stop the rebels, saying that NGO or Mission vehicles are only to be searched by the police.

After ten minutes waiting in silence in the car, with the windows now fogged up, we hear someone shout to Joseph if he has Fr Aurelio with him. It’s a policeman who had been at the seminary. It’s a moment of terror.  Luckily, he sees Fr Stefano and they greet each other. Finally we leave.

Scene from a tragedy

Why all this? It is absurd that the entrance to the capital is left in the hands of the rebels who act like cowboys. It is absurd that people should continue to support all these atrocities and injustices . It is absurd that the government fails to do its duty and allows an armed man to shot in broad daylight in one of the busiest places in the capital city.

I hope and believe that speaking about the risks involved in this work can be used to change something …

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Filed under Africa, Central African Republic, Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Central African Republic, Peacebuilding

Syrian refugees helping Syrian refugees in Jordan

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Tehane, a refugee who fled Syria after her home was bombed, now works as a volunteer with Caritas Jordan. Photo by Murad Saidawi/Caritas Jordan

By Caroline Brennan

Along the Syrian border, conversations with refugees from Jordan to Lebanon to Turkey strike a recurring theme: a yearning for the world to see Syrians as they know themselves to be—a hospitable, warm and civilized culture.

The quest by Syrian refugees to hold onto their identity is tangible. You see it in the small grass and rock arrangement that is placed as a centerpiece on the mud floor of a desolate tent. You see it in the care of a mother bathing her daughter each day with a bucket and cloth to keep her clean in the dusty refugee camp, far from the nice home they enjoyed just 10 months ago.

And you see it in the Syrians who are refugees themselves, but who are helping other refugees because “it is part of our culture.”

Like Tahane, a 25-year-old woman from the Syrian city of Homs. Tahane fled Homs in late 2012 when it came under siege by planes and indiscriminate bombing. When she arrived in the Jordanian town of Zarqa, she had nothing: no food, no shelter, no way to earn a living, no answers about what was to come.

“I arrived at Caritas Jordan needing help. But, when I was at the social center, I realized there were people around me who needed even more than I did,” says Tahane.

Caritas Jordan is supporting 140,000 refugees across the country with vital relief and assistance, including urgent food, medical care, hygiene supplies, trauma counseling, and education for children.

Within a few months of arriving in Jordan, Tahane asked Caritas if she could volunteer for them – to help reach out to Syrians who are living in some of the most difficult, inhumane conditions in the area.

Tahane is now part of a three-person Syrian team that visits refugee families who have just fled Syria and arrived Jordan. She meets them wherever they are staying – in tents, as squatters, in crowded apartments with other families.

Most refugees prefer to live outside refugee camps and in many cases they have no choice, as camps have the capacity to accommodate only about a third of the refugee population. Since December 2012, the number of “urban refugees” has more than doubled, with families living in overcrowded conditions with other families in small apartments. These urban refugees often depend on savings, limited work opportunities and the generosity of the host population to survive. Many have experienced trauma, violence and the loss of loved ones.

When Tahane meets them for the first time, her purpose is to let them know that help is available to them, that they are not alone.

“When we show up and they see we are Syrian, they are relieved. They hear our voices, they connect to our stories. We tell them we understand, that we went through this, too,” Tahane says.

Tahane lost all that she had built when her house was demolished by bombs. Thankfully, she and her family survived.

“We were all hiding in my basement and we could hear the planes above us and feel the shaking from the bombs. We grabbed our things and just ran,” she says.

“I can’t explain what it felt like in that moment. We just wanted to make sure the kids were OK. We ran out onto the street and waved the first car to get in and get out. There were many cars passing and carrying the injured…we went in one of those cars to Damascus.”

Tahane listens to families who share stories of grief and loss remarkably similar to her own, showing patience and care as they come to grips with their new reality.

“I can’t forget my first visit. I could cry as I think about it. I could not have imagined that the situation facing other Syrians was worse than my own,” she says. “Those who are newly arrived literally have nothing with them. So anything can help them to start their lives. Every time I visit a new family, I wish I had more to help them.”

Tahane recognizes that, in many ways, helping fellow Syrians helps her, too.

“My volunteering here with Caritas helps me to adapt, to not to forget what I’ve left behind. When I’m helping others, I know I’m helping myself. I might be unable to help Syrians within Syria. But when I am helping a Syrian family here, I am helping Syria in one way or another.”

As the needs dramatically grow for the millions of refugees across the region, more Syrian refugees are part of the humanitarian response to save their brethren.

“What gives me great joy is when I see these families the first time they enter the Caritas Jordan center. They know no one. Then they see me, they see our Syrian volunteer team, they know us and they feel instantly secure.”

Tahane loves her work so much she can’t imagine not doing it. She says one of the first thing she hopes for is that she can work back in Syria to help Syrians when they return to their country and start to rebuild, to recover.

“The difference of where we are from, our economic backgrounds, the things that made us different in Syria-that is not relevant here. We are all refugees. We are all in need of help. We are all the same.”

Caroline Brennan is CRS’ senior communications officer for the emergency response team. This post first appeared on the CRS website.

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Filed under Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Syria, Jordan, Middle East & North Africa, Peacebuilding, Refugees, Syria

Calais : le Secours Catholique soutient les réfugiés syriens

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Credit: Secours Catholique

Alors qu’une cinquantaine de réfugiés syriens sont regroupés  sur la passerelle menant au terminal ferry du port de Calais pour dénoncer leurs conditions de vie en France, Noémie Bourdet, bénévole au Secours Catholique de Calais, fait le point sur la situation.

Vous êtes auprès des réfugiés depuis le début de leur sit-in. Quelle est la situation sur place ?

Il s’agit d’un sit-in pacifique, les réfugiés syriens ne sont pas du tout violents.

La nuit s’est déroulée dans le calme. Nous avons eu des duvets par Médecins du Monde, et le Secours Catholique a fourni des couvertures. Ce matin, des bénévoles ont apporté du thé et du café pour les femmes et les enfants. Les hommes, eux, ne mangent pas depuis hier 14h.

Actuellement, il commence à pleuvoir donc on est en train de négocier avec la police le droit de monter une installation de bâches qui ne gêne pas le passage. La police espère que la pluie va les faire partir mais ils sont très déterminés. Ils ont vu que leur appel prenait un peu d’ampleur, avec notamment la présence de quelques médias ce matin, et ils comptent donc poursuivre le sit-in, d’autant que le directeur du port ne souhaite pas porter plainte pour l’instant.

Pour nous associations c’est important d’être là car les policiers sont plus respectueux, on joue les intermédiaires. Hier par exemple, la police ne voulait pas qu’une femme enceinte et une femme âgée puissent accéder aux toilettes du port…

Que réclament les réfugiés syriens ?

Leur espoir est de passer en Angleterre, où les demandes d’asile sont beaucoup plus rapides qu’en France. Ils dénoncent leurs conditions de vie en France et cherchent à établir un dialogue avec les autorités britanniques pour obtenir un moyen légal d’entrer dans le pays, sans mettre leur vie en danger. Beaucoup d’entre eux ont pris des risques en passant la frontière dans des camions frigorifiques ou transportant des produits chimiques.

Quelles sont leurs conditions de vie à Calais ? Qu’attendent les associations des autorités françaises ?

Ils sont à la rue, dès qu’ils trouvent un squat ils en sont expulsés et sont donc obligés de s’entasser jusqu’à dix dans des tentes de quatre places. Nous demandons au minimum une amélioration des conditions d’accueil, l’arrêt du harcèlement policier et la prise en compte des principes d’humanité.

Pour être avec eux depuis hier après-midi, je peux vous dire que certains policiers tiennent des propos méprisants voire racistes. Les réfugiés nous disent que quand on n’est pas là c’est encore pire, cela va jusqu’aux coups.

Propos recueillis par Marina Bellot

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Filed under Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Syria, Europe, France, Middle East & North Africa, Peacebuilding, Refugees, Syria

Pope Francis in St Francis’ birthplace

Pope Francis in Assisi on St Francis' feast day.

Pope Francis in Assisi on St Francis’ feast day.

The feast day of St Francis of Assisi is 4th October. It’s the day Pope Francis has chosen to visit his namesake’s hometown to pay homage to him. St Francis was famous for giving up his riches and dedicating himself to the poor.

Pope Francis met with the poor assisted by Caritas on the morning of his visit and then ate with them in the Caritas soup kitchen of Assisi in the afternoon.

In his speech to those helped by Caritas, the Pope referred several times of the need to “strip ourselves” of our worldliness, as did St Francis, and have an encounter with the poor.

Here are some of the things he said:

1.       “We’re all called to be poor, to lay ourselves bare. For this reason we must learn how to be with the poor, to share with those who don’t have basic necessities, to touch the flesh of Christ!”

2.       “This is a good opportunity to ask the Church to lay itself bare. But the Church is all of us! From when we’re baptised we’re all the Church and we must follow the path of Christ.”

3.       “When the media talks about the Church, they believe that the Church is priests, nuns, bishops, cardinals and the Pope. But the Church is all of us, as I said. All of us must divest ourselves from this worldliness: the spirit contrary to the spirit of the beatitudes, the spirit contrary to the spirit of Jesus.”

4.       “Many of you have been stripped by this world, which doesn’t help people, which doesn’t care if there are children who die of hunger, which doesn’t care if many families don’t have enough to eat, or if people have to flee from slavery and hunger, flee in search of freedom.

5.       “Spiritual worldliness kills! It kills the soul! It kills the Church!”

6.       “Let the Lord give all of us the courage to divest ourselves of worldliness, which is the leprosy and the cancer of society. It is the cancer of the revelation of Christ. Worldliness is the enemy of Jesus!”

7.       “For everyone, for our society which gives signs of growing tired, if we want to save ourselves from the shipwreck, we need to follow the path of poverty and sharing and being in solidarity with the most needy.”

8.       “I want to pray that every Christian, the Church, every man and woman of good will, learn to strip themselves of all that isn’t essential so they can have an encounter with the poor and ask to be loved.”

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Syrian refugee children take a holiday

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And there are school places for only a quarter of the Syrian children now in the country. Many are expected to work to support their families, either picking fruit or selling on the side of the street.

And added onto this is the trauma of being away from home and from loved ones.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a holiday from all that, however short? Caritas Lebanon arranged just that for 200 children. It organised two summer camps in July and August in Monastery of The Lady of Joy in Kfardebian- Kesrwan for 150 Syrian children, and integrated another 50 Syrian children into camps for Lebanese children.

The children range from 6 to 12 years old. This time the children came from Christian communities. It was the first time such a camps had been set up for Syrian refugees, and Caritas Lebanon want to make sure everything ran smoothly.

Children have a full day of activities that includes painting, handicrafts, nature walks, games, drama and songs, treasure hunts and reading. Youth volunteers lead the camps. It’s all specially tailored to bring in ideas around personal responsibility and that children have rights too.

Caritas Lebanon’s Freddy Bejjani helps organise the camps. He said, “The children come to us in a bad way. They can be aggressive and hostile towards each other. They’re very defensive. In the camps, children aren’t given boundaries.

“Day by day, those barriers break down. They learn to trust each other and work together. They can build up a relationship. We also teach them about how to control their own environment, keep it and themselves clean for example.”

Freddy Bejjani admits the numbers are small. Only 200 children out of 400,000 Syrian children who are refugees in Lebanon.

“I feel I’m helping the children to progress. For some, just to have a bed to sleep in makes them happy. It’s a holiday from the daily life in a refugee camp,” he said. “I believe in what Mother Teresa said ‘What we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.’”

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Filed under Aid Success Story, Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Syria, Jerusalem, Middle East & North Africa, Peacebuilding, Refugees

Making sense of All Saints massacre in Pakistan

7081_10150307486769975_1358319494_nBy Asenath Naeem

Communication Officer for Caritas Pakistan

It was a different feeling going for Mass this Sunday. My heart was still heavy after seeing images of blood spattered All Saints Church where twin suicide blasts killed 86 congregation members in Peshawar.

They were the same people like me, going for a regular mass with their families and friends. Nobody knew it was the last time they were meeting, I wondered.

Security has been tightened on the major churches across the country since then. However there were no security concerns at the church I attend in Bahar Colony, a predominantly Christian majority locality in Lahore. Located amid narrow streets, such small churches are often ranked lower in the government security plan.

To my surprise, the church building was jam packed with people. Together we all prayed for the souls of the deceased and for those wounded in the attack.

I wonder how terrible it is for the survivors who are badly injured, I wonder if they shed tears over their physical pain or over the loss of the lives they faced. It is true that Christian history is rich in having the blood of martyrs flowing from the day the Christianity originated till today, seeing these in real life is more painful.

Now I wonder how easy is it to kill the innocent for any noble cause what so ever and what is the worth of blood. Does any amount of compensation justifies the worth of martyr’s blood.

Perhaps not. As a Pakistani Christian, I take comfort in believing that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Church. And I pray that this seed helps to blossom the faith of those who are alive , I also pray that this seed may calm the violent protesters making them realize that to reply violence with violence is not the Christian spirit and I pray that Love of Christ abounds in the hearts and binds the Christian community in perfect harmony . Amen !

This story was originally published by Caritas Pakistan

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Filed under Asia, Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies in Pakistan, Pakistan, Peacebuilding