June 20th was World Refugee Day. During the month, the Irish Jesuit Mission office honoured the courage and perseverance of refugees with a series of articles based on Jesuit perspectives and works with refugees in Africa and the Middle East.
In an interview with the Irish Jesuit Missions, Fr Mourad Abou Seif SJ, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Coordinator in Allepo until 2014, gives an outline of the multi denominational community work that he, his colleagues and many young volunteers are immersed in within Syria.
Syrian people working together for Syria
JRS was originally set up seven years ago to assist Iraqi refugees in Damascus and Aleppo. When the Syrian war began in 2011, they began to leave and JRS turned its focus on displaced Syrians. An initiative began by Fr Mourad in Aleppo to encourage young people of all faiths to work together for the common good, has expanded in leaps and bounds with almost 600 volunteers helping the Jesuits in family community programmes providing food, health care and psychosocial care and education. In Aleppo alone, he says, there are 240 young people working together from all colours of society. Many Syrians have fled to the coastline where it is safer and outreach teams from the three cities collect data continuously there.
Fr Mourad stresses that they are not Christians working for Christians or Muslims working for Muslims, but a Syrian people of all religions working together for Syria.
Hot pasta and lively theatre plays
The volunteers run three huge kitchens catering for 15,000 families in Damascus and Aleppo. When JRS decided to provide hot daily meals – in addition to cold food baskets – large cooking vats were installed and the cooks trained to cater for the enormous numbers. There was great excitement and sense of achievement when the first hot meal of pasta in tomato sauce was ready to serve!
Aleppo has a Centre where all families are welcomed into the JRS programme and although Homs and Damascus do not have the same facility, they try to provide health care and some medicines especially for chronic diseases.
Education is key to continuing intellectual advancement and creating a stable routine especially as most schools have been destroyed. Students are facilitated to take their Baccalaureate Exams and go on to university.
Fr Mourad explains that when people are displaced, they loose their sense of security and are often traumatised. JRS runs psychosocial support for children, young people and women in particular. Activities are imaginative and creative: games, art and interactive theatre are some of the methods employed to examine issues and build trust and self-confidence.
In one youth play devised production; young Muslim girls acted out the issue of arranged marriages around a family table. The play stopped and audience members were invited on stage to continue the conversation between daughter, father, son and mother. Very lively discussions followed!
Constructing the heart of Syrian society
It remains very hard to talk about the future: there is no light visible at the end of the tunnel. Fr Mourad believes there is light somewhere but it cannot be seen at present.
“We are trying to maintain some hope that God is with us and that there’s a possibility for us to live together”, he says, “Our team of Muslims and Christians and everybody working together, is a hope for us. Maybe we are hoping the international community will stop the violence and we will rebuild our country.
“We have been living together for hundreds of years and we have to continue to live together like brothers and sisters, like neighbours and friends. Amongst all the violence around us, we are trying to experience a new kind of life, of relationship together. We are working to construct the heart of society in Syria.”
IJM interview with Fr Mourad Abou Seif SJ, 21st May 2015.
NB. There are at time of writing, nine Jesuits still serving in Syria despite the knowledge of the personal risks they run. Italian Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio SJ has been missing for almost two years and Dutch Fr Frans Van der Lugt SJ was killed last year in Homs. Your prayers are requested for them and for the Jesuits who continue to work for peace in conflict zones.