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I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me
Monday, March 07, 2016

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(Washington, D.C.) March 7, 2016 — Jesuit Refugee Service calls for a just and generous response to all people seeking refuge in Europe and the Middle East.

The past several years have seen a substantial increase in the number of refugees of many nationalities risking the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean to seek new lives in Europe. A dramatic new movement of refugees from the Middle East across the Balkans toward Western Europe has drawn new attention to worsening conditions for refugees in the region, and has underlined the failure of the international community to address them adequately. 

The conflict in Syria enters its sixth year this month, with no end in sight. It has resulted in the death of at least one quarter of a million people and the displacement of over 12 million. Of this number, 4.6 million have fled the country to seek refuge, most fleeing to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. Jesuit Refugee Service is working within Syria, throughout the Middle East and in Europe to aid these most vulnerable people.

In strife-torn Syria, people have sold anything of value — rings, jewels, accessories, cars — just to survive. 

“Those who had savings are running out of money,” says JRS Syria Director Fr. Nawras Sammour, S.J. “This is why they are forced to move out. People cannot afford normal life anymore.”

With the constant threat of mortar attacks, people are afraid to send their children to school, forcing them to remain virtual prisoners in their homes. 

“I would say goodbye to my mom before I left to go to teach each day,” a Syrian refugee and English teacher at the JRS Jbeil center told JRS, recalling life in Aleppo before she fled. “They just shoot... You leave your house never knowing if you’re coming back.”

Refugees arriving in neighboring countries face new hardships, often finding they are barred from legal employment and must compete for limited jobs in the informal sector. Now, after years of exile, many families have exhausted their resources and increasingly are desperate. Meanwhile, international aid has utterly failed to keep pace with needs. 

So far, Syria’s neighbors have shown enormous generosity in welcoming Syrian refugees. But in recent months these countries have restricted movement into their territory, sending a clear message that their hospitality is not unlimited. 

As a result, in the past months more than one million refugees — mostly Syrians but also Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans and others — have turned to Europe for protection and assistance. The United Nations attributes this movement to seven factors: loss of hope; deepening poverty; lack of access to livelihoods and work authorization; large aid shortfalls leading to drastic cuts in food assistance and access to health care; the difficulty and cost of maintaining legal residency; a lack of access to education; and insecurity, especially affecting minorities fleeing Iraq. 

Prices for rent and other necessities have increased with the demand of millions seeking to meet basic needs. As the conflict wears on, many current Syrian refugees no longer see any prospect of a return to their homeland, while new refugees arrive every day. 

Significantly, many families cite fear that their children will spend their entire childhoods without access to education as a motivating factor in onward migration. Lack of space, the cost of transportation, language barriers, problems with social acceptance, years of school time lost due to the war, and the need for children to work to support their families all form a complex web of barriers that hinder school enrollment and retention.  

“Education is the only way to build a future for these children,” said Majed Mardini, a Syrian teacher at the JRS Jbeil center in Lebanon. “But we must give them the base first.”

Across the region, hundreds of thousands of children are out of school, and many have never seen the inside of a classroom. Many refugees say the recent dramatic cuts in food aid, forcing more children out of school and increasing the prospect of malnutrition, was the last straw in their decision to attempt the dangerous journey north.   

We Accompany, Serve, and Defend

Before the start of the conflict, JRS had relatively modest programs within Syria, offering aid to Iraqi and other refugees in that country. Soon after the outset of the conflict, these programs provided a foundation for new services to assist Syrians displaced by the war. 

Working in close partnership with local church institutions and in solidarity with Christian and Muslim communities, JRS expanded its presence and began providing food baskets and hot meals, along with non-food items such as bedding, clothing and hygiene kits. JRS also started pharmacies for the chronically ill and opened classrooms and daycare centers to provide a safe haven for children. Staffed by Syrian volunteers of good will across faith communities, these programs quickly grew to serve thousands each day. 

“Every night, teams would gather together and talk. Sometimes we also cried because we had seen something very awful or difficult,” said former Jesuit Refugee Service Aleppo project director Fr. Mourad Abou Seif S.J. 

Seif said this sharing and discussion created a powerful bond among the mixed Christian and Muslim staff.

“They discovered each other in a different way,” he said. “They learned to love each other.”

Today, JRS is one of the few international agencies still able to operate in the country, working under dangerous conditions to keep a lifeline in place for those most in need.

In response to the refugee flow out of Syria, JRS offices also expanded in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, providing accompaniment to traumatized victims of violence through home visits, counseling and referral to professional services. JRS helped new arrivals sort through bewildering documents to regularize their legal status. JRS enrolled thousands of children in informal education programs designed to prepare them for further schooling through social activities and remedial education programs.  

“The children used to fight when they played. It was all they knew,” said Catherine Mora, an English teacher at the JRS Jbeil center. “But after two sessions at the JRS center, they have improved immensely. They now play with each other.”

JRS during the past five years has continued to be present with refugees in need of personal support and information, relying on groups of multi-faith and multilingual staff and volunteers to help bridge the gap between newcomers and their host communities. More recently, JRS has expanded its services to reach refugees who have fled to northern Iraq as well.

Now, as the outflow from the region spreads into Europe, JRS’s European offices have opened their doors to expand their response while advocating for governments to follow the generous example of their peoples, thousands of whom have reached out to welcome arriving refugees into their communities.

JRS programs in 17 European nations are assisting refugees through services including visitation of detention centers, as well as drop-in centers, language classes and informal education, psychological counseling, services to unaccompanied minors and help in finding work and accommodation. 

“For the first time since I left home, I feel safe,” said Kasim, a refugee who slept one night in Stockholm’s St. Eugenia church. The church shelters newly arrived refugees for a night or two as they discern their next steps.

JRS also has mobilized staff and volunteers in transit locations including Macedonia, Greece, and Croatia to welcome newcomers making the dangerous and exhausting trip northward. JRS offices in Europe are making plans to work with the new asylum seekers who will be settled there in the coming months under recent European Union agreements. 

“I’ve seen sadness, tiredness, exhaustion, worry, confusion, hunger. Hunger not only for food, but for a warm word, support and understanding,” said Martina Kikic, a JRS volunteer. 

“Regardless of not knowing the same language, we all understand the language and the word of love.”

Recommendations for Action

The experience of JRS in working in solidarity with Syrians and refugees of other nationalities throughout the Middle East and Europe compels us to call on governments and international institutions to redouble efforts to ensure refugee safety and dignity through just and generous policies that reflect international law, humanitarian standards, and our responsibilities to welcome the stranger in accordance with Catholic social teaching.

First and foremost, refugees must have safe and legal paths to seek asylum. Toward that end:

• Members of the European Union must ensure that policies related to the entry, reception and treatment of arriving refugees are developed and carried out in a humane, generous, and unified fashion, in accordance with their legal obligations under refugee and international human rights laws and principles. Members must further respect the right of individuals to asylum as enshrined in the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights and not to shift protection obligations to third countries that cannot ensure proper standards of protection. 

• Although much focus in Europe is presently on Syrians, the rights of refugees of other nationalities must not be neglected. Asylum should be based on human needs and not be limited by considerations of race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. 

• The European Union must enable refugees to travel safely and not have to rely on smugglers. 

To achieve this, a range of safe and facilitated means to reach Europe (such as a common humanitarian visa system) must be implemented to protect the rights of forcibly displaced people to seek asylum in the EU. The EU should adopt further measures to facilitate the reunion of forcibly displaced people with other family members present in the EU.

• Access to resettlement must be greatly improved by increasing the number of resettlement places and engaging more countries. The United States, which has traditionally resettled the largest number of refugees each year, should rise to this new challenge by pledging to admit many more people. This will require the streamlining of processing and consideration of the creation of new processing sites to provide access for more applicants.  

The international community must do far more to support Syria’s neighboring countries in their responsibilities to provide access to their territory and continued protection to those seeking refuge.  

Sufficient resources must be found both to support refugee communities in conditions of safety and dignity, and to assist local communities affected by the large numbers of refugees living in their communities to sustain the welcome they have thus far provided. 

Toward this end, assistance in expanding infrastructure must urgently be provided so that access to safe shelter as well as adequate food, water, sanitation and medical care is ensured. 

• In return for increased support from the international community, host countries must assist refugees in using their skills and talents to their own needs by allowing them the right to work and by providing job assistance.  

• Emphasize that all refugees and asylum seekers must be treated equally and should receive protection, assistance, and access to durable solutions on the basis of need alone, without discrimination.

• Education is the right of every child. Donor countries should engage host country governments of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to ease bureaucratic processes to issue work permit for refugees and ensure safe, equitable and dignified labor standards.

• Donor countries should also work with national counterparts to ensure that all assistance committed is guided by "conflict sensitive approach." Assistance must therefore be oriented to maximize opportunities to bridge divides and promote conditions for social cohesion between refugee and host communities. 

Finally, the present crisis cannot be fully resolved unless greater efforts are made by the UN and concerned governments to bring the war in Syria to an end. 

• JRS urges governments and international institutions to work vigorously to seek a negotiated and inclusive peace under which the security and participation of Syrians of all communities can be guaranteed.