The Syrian civil war has been raging for five years with no end in sight. An estimated 4.5 million refugees have fled the country, relocating to surrounding nations such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, with some headed on foot or by boat to European nations.
Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), headquartered in Baltimore, has been with the organization for 28 years, working in the field in Africa and managing CRS’s annual Lenten Rice Bowl fundraiser. He has held his current position with CRS for 13 years, which is focused on changing U.S. foreign policy so that it “addresses the root causes of poverty and injustice in the 100 nations in which we work.”
Working with local organizations to aid the Syrian refugees has been a major focus for O’Keefe and CRS in recent years. He recently returned from a trip to Greece, Macedonia and Serbia to assess the situation of refugees passing through those countries on their way to European countries farther north such as Germany and Sweden.
Our Sunday Visitor: What was the purpose for going on this trip to Europe?
Bill O’Keefe: The knowledge I gained will help me to advocate before government entities more effectively. When you talk to people, you need some texture, some dirt under your fingernails, to help you to be more effective. I can now tell people in government that I’ve met with Syrian refugees who told me about the horrific bombings they’ve endured which forced them to leave their country. The fact that I can explain the situation with emotion and personal experience is of great value.
OSV: What kind of stories did you hear?
O’Keefe: I visited a transient camp at the Macedonia-Serbia border, for example. It is operated by a local church, and CRS supports it. The refugees are passing through on their way north. They need food, shelter, clothing and counseling services.
I met a Syrian woman there with six children. Her sixth child had been born three days before in the camp. I saw her during Advent, and I thought, “Jesus, Mary, Joseph … no room at the inn … we’re part of providing room at the inn.” The transient camp had a heated building which offered a safe, dignified place in which she could have her baby.
OSV: Do these refugees want to return to Syria after the war is over?
O’Keefe: Two years ago, I was in Lebanon and Jordan. All the refugees I met there said they wanted to return to Syria.
The people I met in Europe on this last trip are different. It’s been a horribly brutal, five-year war, and they don’t think they’ll ever be able to go back.
They’re saying, “Syria is lost. It is gone.”
It is profoundly sad.
OSV: What would you like to see happen to improve the situation?
O’Keefe: Our government and other governments must make obtaining a cease-fire their highest possible priority. We need a negotiated settlement. Once the bombing stops, people can begin to rebuild. Only recently has the U.S. engaged in a leadership role negotiating to stop the conflict. It’s very difficult, as there are many interests and many players.
Also, with the federal budget season coming again, we want the administration to make as generous a commitment as possible to supporting the refugees. Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged $600 million or so to help with the crisis. While that’s great, the needs far exceed the contributions that have been offered.
And, we need an increased focus on long-term needs and support for refugee-hosting countries like Jordan and Lebanon. Lebanon, for example, has a population of 4 million, taking in 2 million refugees. That would be like having 150 million refugees come to the United States during a five-year period. It is in everyone’s best interest to see that Lebanon does not collapse. They need help to bear the burden they’ve taken on.
And, we want the United States to welcome more of the most vulnerable Syrians, women and children, and those who have been tortured. We’ve taken 3,000 in five years, and we could take more.
OSV: Some countries have resisted taking immigrants because of concern that Islamic terrorists will slip into their countries or that large numbers of immigrants will change the culture of their country.
O’Keefe: It’s a scary world. I’ve been to countries in crisis. I understand why people looking at their TV screen would be afraid.
But the people I met are vulnerable, fleeing the people of which you and I are afraid. They’re fleeing the terrorists. Our immigration system is an orderly, managed process, through which we can admit people who are legitimate refugees. They can make a positive contribution to our culture, but won’t overwhelm us. We have a moral imperative to help these vulnerable people.
OSV: The refugee crisis began with the Syrian civil war. What are the prospects for peace so that refugees can return home?
O’Keefe: I will be the last one standing with hope. There were recently a series of negotiations held, but talks were suspended. We hope to see them resume in a few weeks.
Our Holy Father said we should dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, even with people with whom we don’t agree. Perhaps then we will get to the point of a cease-fire.
OSV: Give our readers an overview of Catholic Relief Services.
O’Keefe: We are part of the U.S. bishops’ conference, created by the bishops in 1943 to help World War II refugees. We have a board of directors, the majority of whom are Catholic bishops. ... Our job is to assist the poor on behalf of the American Catholic community. We help people to help themselves; we try to address the root problems of poverty.
OSV: How are you funded?
O’Keefe: It’s very diversified. The bishops have a national collection for us; we have our Rice Bowl collection; we have donors and a fundraising department. On particular projects, we will apply for resources from our government or governments from other parts of the world.
OSV: You are “Catholic” Relief Services. What distinguishes you from governmental or nonreligious charities that provide humanitarian aid?
O’Keefe: What makes us Catholic is the compassion our staff shows for the poor and our commitment to serve the most vulnerable people around the world. We work with bishops so that we keep in line with Catholic social teaching and Catholic moral teaching.
OSV: What role will CRS be playing in helping the Syrian refugees?
O’Keefe: We will work with local partners to provide aid. For example, the Church in Macedonia went from being a sleepy little place to being overwhelmed by refugees. They’ve had 5,000 a day coming through their camp. We will provide the Church there with resources and the training and expertise that we’ve acquired from working around the world. We provide such things as food, clothing, funding for translators or printing up informational flyers so people know where to get help.
OSV: How can people in the United States help?
O’Keefe: First, pray for an end to the conflict and for those who have been affected by it. Next, I’d encourage people to support CRS and other groups trying to meet humanitarian needs. And, I’d push the government to do what it can to help.
OSV: What are some of your other major projects going on in the world?
O’Keefe: The Central African Republic has been a big focus of CRS of late, as it’s seen much violence and has a terrible humanitarian situation. The local Church has done an amazing job despite being part of a failed state where nothing works.
We’ve also been active in Ethiopia, which has been undergoing a severe drought due to El Nino. We’ve been working with local partners to provide relief. ...
Pope Francis has declared this the Year of Mercy. When I see the work of our CRS staff in these and other places, I see the love, compassion and mercy brought by Jesus Christ himself.
Jim Graves writes from California.