Ignatian Year: Supporting each other during a humanitarian crisis
19 August 2021
Wail Halou is an Accounting Assistant in the Finance Department of the JRS International Office in Rome. He hails from Aleppo, Syria where he started the foundation Aleppo Family Volunteers at the beginning of the Syrian war in partnership with JRS. He then went on to work with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regional office to manage and support all Syrian grants and operations remotely. He has lived in Italy since 2016.
When did you join JRS and what do you do in your current role?
I learned about JRS in 2011, when a friend of mine was working with them on a project to assist Iraqi refugees in Syria. Before the Battle of Aleppo in 2012, many Syrian IDPs from cities such as Homs began to enter Aleppo. They were in need of basic services, so a small group of friends and I started the Aleppo Family Volunteers. Eventually, other people joined us including Fr. Mourad Abou Seif SJ. Fr Mourad offered us a space in the Jesuit residence, which sort of put us under the church’s umbrella.
In partnership with the Jesuit community in Aleppo, we used the space as a distribution centre. We provided clothing, medicine, and we helped find housing. The project went on to become one of the largest in the city. When conflict began in the east side of Aleppo, many of the displaced people in that area panicked and fled to a local park in the western part of the city to find safety. It was the first day of Ramadan, and volunteers from the centre and I brought them food so that they could eat when it was time to break the fast.
Our primary mission was to be with the IDPs throughout this ordeal. In all the small details, we learned a lot from each other. We supported them, and in return they supported us with a precious smile, a compliment, or a simple chat over a cup of tea or coffee. We celebrated their marriages, births, their feasts, and at times their sadness and tears.
I later went on to work for JRS at their MENA (Middle East and North Africa) regional office in Beirut, where I managed the finances and grants for all Syrian operations remotely from 2013 to 2016. I started my current position in the Finance Department at the International Office in Rome in 2021, and I help support the management of all financial interactions of JRS’s regional and country offices.
What brought you to serve refugees? Do you have a “cannonball” moment that led you to dedicate your life to the marginalized?
I was in the midst of a terrible humanitarian crisis, and I had a network of people who, like myself, were eager to assist the IDPs. This was natural to me because I grew up with a family that made it a priority to help people in need. When I was a child, my mother used to drive to the poor area of the city to assist the people there, and she still does this today. We had a thriving family business and we believed it was our responsibility to help those who were not so fortunate. Even when life gives you opportunities, I was taught that you always had to consider that you could be on the other side of luck. One of the things that I insisted with the team of volunteers is that they help IDPs in the same way that they would like to be treated if they were in their shoes. It is important to allow people in need to maintain their dignity above all else.
My “cannonball” moment was, of course, the reality of the war in Syria. But even before then, I think back to the employees in my family’s business. In Syria, we have a big difference between classes. You can go to a neighbourhood in Aleppo where people live in big, fancy houses and then go to another part of the city where the poverty is so staggering that you feel you are in another city all together. This gap really touched me.
The arrival of so many IDPs in Aleppo was a call to action. We wanted to help as many people as we could. It was summer and the schools were closed, so we turned them into shelters. In each classroom we used curtains to create four separate areas for four families. We eventually were able to create an education centre for the children of the IDPs. I was involved in the start-up and all logistical aspects of the project; I even supervised the finances. I oversaw the operations every day from 8:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. Then I’d go to my cousin’s place (who also helped create the Aleppo Family Volunteers) and work on the accounting to document the work that I did each day. I was living on four or five hours of sleep, but I was determined to be there for these families.
Is there something from the life of St. Ignatius that inspires you in your work for JRS?
The life of St. Ignatius is indeed inspiring, but in my personal experience I’m inspired by the Jesuits overall. The community of volunteers was very diverse. Although our religions and cultures were different, we all felt connected to the Jesuit mission. We were inspired by their humility, open minds and their ability to engage in inter-religious dialogue, their reconciliation projects, and the sincerity of their friendship with us. These qualities changed us, and we saw the value to work in this way. I am still friends with Fr Mourad SJ and many of the Jesuits who were with us in Aleppo. I also keep in contact with Fr Nawras Sammour SJ, who was the Regional Director of JRS MENA.
Pope Francis says, “No one saves himself. We are either saved together or we are not saved.” How does this message speak to you and your experience with forcibly displaced people?
We can apply this quote to all the problems happening in the world, from the refugee reality to climate change. There is global conflict that is affecting all of humanity. If we could get everyone to agree to this message, we could solve many of the world’s problems. People watch crises unfolding on their TV screens and many choose to disconnect themselves from these situations. Forcible displacement is twofold: there are the people who are forced to leave their countries and communities and there are the people who can welcome and support these refugees and IDPs. It is much easier to be on the side of those hosting, accompanying, and supporting refugees than to be on the side of those in crisis. It seems simple, but as Pope Francis says, “We are all in the same boat.” If we don’t help people, their crises will eventually become a heavy burden to everyone, and the boat is going to sink. Our only way forward is to row all together.