In March 2012, The Catholic Near East Welfare Association launched an appeal to help the Syrian Church provide emergency relief to those families who were forced from their homes.
Issam Bishara, vice president of the Pontifical Mission and regional director for Lebanon and Syria, spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about the perilous situation in Syria and how the local and global Catholic Church is responding.
Our Sunday Visitor: Can you explain what the current refugee situation is?
Issam Bishara: It’s mostly what you hear in the newspapers, except that in the last week, the number of refugees coming into Lebanon really increased tremendously — maybe 20,000 or 30,000 went in and the reason is the recent fighting in Damascus and Aleppo.
OSV: Are the refugees mostly Christian?
Bishara: They are mixed. The refugees are not leaving because they are Christian or non-Christian, they are leaving because of the fighting. Mostly people are leaving because of the fighting, the shelling, kidnapping in some cases. We lived the war in Lebanon and we know how it feels when you are lying in bed at night and the shelling starts. It’s very scary, so you grab whatever you can and run away.
OSV: What has life been like for local Christians in Syria?
Bishara: Christians or non-Christians, they are fleeing the shelling. The Christians would have an additional worry — they are not sure of the future. The experience of Christians in Iraq was horrible. If something similar happens to the Christians in Syria then they would be in a very difficult situation. Most of the Christians who fled Iraq went to Syria and Lebanon. The question is, what if the Christians in Syria were displaced? What we hear from them is that they worried about their future, about the form of the new regime and the new government — would there be a democratic regime, a fanatic Muslim regime? They’re not sure.
OSV: What is CNEWA doing to assist the refugees?
Bishara: We are assisting 2,000 families in the regions of Homs, the Christian Valley, Tartus and Damascus. We work through the infrastructure of the local church — the Greek Orthodox Church, which is the largest Christian community in Syria, and the Greek Catholics, the Melkites, and through the different sisters and the Jesuit fathers as well.
OSV: How has the Church responded?
Bishara: The Church has responded in a very good way. We are trying to utilize their social workers and priests and the sisters and try to raise funds and pass it through them. They are purchasing all of the commodities that we agree on and putting it in boxes and taking care of distribution. They are extremely accountable and very strict in terms of who gets what. We’re very happy with the way they are presenting their reports. We are in almost daily contact with them.
OSV: What are the needs of the refugees?
|Issam Bishara, vice president of the Pontifical Mission and regional director for Lebanon and Syria.
Bishara: We are distributing food rations and now we are trying to raise funds to distribute blankets and heating fuels. Most of these homes use locally made heaters that use diesel for heating. The sisters and the parish priests told us when winter comes the need would be heating fuel and blankets.
OSV: What does the future look like for the refugees and Syria?
Bishara: Not good. Look at the Palestinian refugees in Syria and in Lebanon and in Jordan. They are still without a country and it’s been more than 60 years now. The Iraqi Christian refugees in Syria, they are living in poverty waiting for the U.N. to process their papers to immigrate somewhere, some of them to Canada, the U.S., Australia. They live in misery. They spent whatever money they had the first few months and then with the continuous flow of refugees, rent increased in Damascus and they couldn’t afford it anymore.
It’s the same now with the Syrian refugees. Of course some, maybe 2 or 3 percent, have the financial means to rent a hotel or get an apartment, but the rest either stay with family — because of the proximity between Syria and Lebanon many of them have family members here. But you can host maybe one or two people in your apartment. You can’t host 10 or 15 people. The others are living in miserable conditions.
OSV: What should concerned Catholics do to help?
Bishara: I think we can all pray for peace. If people are interested, they can always send their help through Catholic Near East, in the U.S. or Canada. The information is on the website. Any help would really make a difference. The situation is really bad and doesn’t look like it’s going to end soon. Having myself witnessed the misery of displacement and the misery of shelling for many years, I can feel with the people who are now suffering in Syria.
OSV: How do refugees find hope in this situation?
Bishara: Believers pray, and they keep their hope in God that their situation would soon be resolved. But frankly, if you look at the situation and how it’s progressing in Syria, it looks like the fighting is going to be there for a long time. Again, based on experience from Lebanon, we lived for years hoping the fighting would stop. In Lebanon it took 16 years.
I hope it’s not the same in Syria. In the meantime, there are people who are in need and people who are dying, and regardless of who is right or wrong, there are innocent people suffering and dying.
Jessi Emmert is OSV Newsweekly’s intern.