Jesuit Refugee Service brings help to a Syria in crisis

Civilians inspect a damaged site May 14 after what activists said were airstrikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Damascus suburb of Ain Tarma. (CNS/Reuters)

Jesuit Frs. Peter Balleis and Michael Zammit were in Washington in April, making the rounds of nongovernmental organizations and government offices to inform policymakers of the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Balleis is the international director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, and Zammit works with refugees and internally displaced people in Syria. They were also visiting JRS-USA, which is based in Washington. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

NCR: What is the Jesuit Refugee Service? What does it do?

Balleis: Jesuit Refugee Service is an organization around 35 years old. Today, we are working in 46 countries and last year reached out to around 760,000 people.

We move according to the crises in the world. Thirty-five years ago, during the Cold War, it was Asia-Pacific, helping refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam.

Then in the mid-1990s when Africa exploded, we continued in Asia-Pacific and other places like San Salvador, El Salvador, but the main focus became Africa with the Rwanda crisis, the Great Lakes crisis, Sudan and so on. More recently, the conflicts in Africa are more in the Sahel Zone. We work in the Central African Republic, Chad, and we have started in Cameroon. We are going to engage with the refugees who are victims of the Boko Haram.

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Today, the conflict zone No. 1 is to be found from Gaza to Kabul. The main focus, 40 percent of our work, is in the Middle East. That means Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, north Iraq, and Afghanistan. This began in 2008, but nobody anticipated the crisis we are having now.

What is the situation for Christians in Syria?

Zammit: In Syria, the Christians have had a privileged position with the Bashar al-Assad government because there's the idea that minorities should stick together against the others, and that's a position that the government is pushing a lot.

Now, the situation wasn't wonderful -- there were restrictions, but there was no real restriction on getting together to worship. The bishop is a respected member of Syrian society.

At the beginning of the conflict, there was immense pressure by the government to arm the Christians, and luckily, they refused. Some of them in some specific areas have accepted to defend themselves. We don't believe that fighting is necessary. But now, if the Islamic State group (ISIL) comes to our doors, most Christian young people would take arms to defend themselves.

In ISIL-controlled areas, the northern cities on the Euphrates in the northeast near Iraq, Christians have had to leave their villages.

They basically had three choices: First choice, become Muslim. Second, continue to be Christians, but live as a second-class citizen. They might not be harmed, but they would only have access to certain jobs, they would have to pay the Islamic legal tax (Djizya), and they would not be allowed to have more than a certain amount of goods.

The third choice was to leave -- and many chose to leave -- and they were not allowed to take anything with them.

Most Christians would feel more or less at ease living in the government-controlled part of Syria; they would not at all feel comfortable with the ISIL-controlled areas.

In the area under the Free Syrian Army, it all depends on which faction was in charge.

There is security in the government-controlled part of the country that we do not find in the rest of the country. We are only working in the government-controlled area.

What does JRS do in Syria?

Zammit: We're known for education and psychosocial activities, but in Syria, we are heavily into relief work, emergency work. In Syria, we are also into distribution of food. That would be cooked food and noncooked food.

We have two food kitchens, one in Aleppo, serving about 9,000 hot meals a day, and another one in Sahnaya, with about 6,000 hot meals a day. The one in Aleppo in the bad times served 20,000 meals in one day. People don't come to the place where we cook the food. We cook the food and give it to partners, who then take care of the distribution.

We've also been giving out food baskets for people who cook their own food. A food basket should feed a family of six for a month. I say "should" because there have been budget cuts.

We are also distributing mattresses, blankets, clothes and other items. In Aleppo, we had to stop our educational program for security reasons.

In Aleppo, we also have a clinic. Many of the doctors have left Syria because they would be of the class who can travel; they're rich. Some diehards have remained. Many of the hospitals have been bombed on both sides, so in Aleppo, you only have two hospitals working and few doctors.

We got together a team of four young doctors just out of medical school, who are wonderful people, and we are offering services in part of Aleppo.

They are seeing about 150 people a day. The doctors would examine them, decide what tests they needed, and we would pay for them. They would come back for treatment and pick up their medicine, which would be free.

What do you mean by psychosocial work?

Balleis: First of all, the main element is family visits, like with the north Iraqi refugees in Erbil. It's the way to reach out to people in urban centers. We have to meet them where they are and find out what are their needs.

Psychosocial work is also activities for women, some of whom have been violated. Part of healing is helping people with trauma be able to tell their stories in a supportive environment. We provide normal activities so as not to stigmatize them. It is skills training, literacy programs, all kinds of programs. Besides learning practical skills, they have that aspect of healing, of bringing people together again.

How do you get along with Muslims?

Zammit: We have some 500 employees in Syria, half of whom are Muslim, half of whom are Christians, and they work very well together. That is absolutely not a problem. The people we are serving are mainly Muslims: 82 percent are Muslims.

We work closely with SARC (the Syrian Arab Red Crescent) in Aleppo, and we are very pleased with the cooperation we have with them.

We work with a lot of grass-roots, small organizations. Sometimes just groups of villagers who have gotten together to try to deal with the situation. We have an outreach program from Damascus that goes into the villages on the coast.

As I said, in Sahnaya, we have a food kitchen we serve 6,000 hot meals a day. We're working with two organizations for the distribution of the food. One is a lay-Muslim organization. They are young people who aren't religiously motivated, but they are a group of Sunnis who want to help the people, so they are giving out food in one area. The other is a group of Druse. So we work with many groups.

What is the situation in Aleppo?

Zammit: The situation in Aleppo is becoming worrying. ISIL and other radical groups are coming closer, so there's a real panic of people wanting to leave.

There's a Christian school next to our headquarters in Aleppo in which a third of the children have left; they're not there anymore. We have 250 staff in Aleppo; 40 have already either resigned or asked for a leave of absence. It's almost impossible to buy a suitcase in Aleppo nowadays. The buses out are fully booked for several days. So there is a panic, which might die down, but there is a panic amongst the people.

What people need to hear is the international community saying, "Aleppo is a city in which there are 1.5 million people. The status quo will remain; it will not fall." If people hear things like that, they won't move, they won't be afraid. But they are not hearing that, so they are beginning to see whether they should move.

If ISIL does come in (and that's a possibility), it will be a major humanitarian disaster -- 1.5 million people on the road, because it's not just the 80,000 Christians who will leave. The Muslims who are in the western part of the city are considered traitors by the opponents of Assad, like the al-Nusra combatants. "Why aren't you fighting? Why aren't you fighting against the regime?"

Many of them left eastern Aleppo to go and seek refuge in western Aleppo. To Assad's opponents, that means, "You are not happy with us." So we really might have a lot of people moving out from there.

Who holds Aleppo now?

Zammit: Aleppo is a divided city. You've got western Aleppo, which is government controlled, where you've got some 1.5 million people. You've got eastern Aleppo in which you are having some 200,000 people left. That part of the city is controlled by a mixture of al-Nusra, of Syrian Free Army, and other Islamic groups.

The eastern part has been heavily damaged; it is that part that has received the barrel bombs. The western part has not suffered so much.

But in April, the Christian regions, which had not been heavily bombed, received heavy shelling from the opposition forces. The cousins of two Jesuits had to leave their homes because they were ruined. There are many dead. The Catholic cathedral was heavily damaged as well. So this also leads to a sense of panic.

Is there local support from Syrians themselves for ISIL?

Zammit: You have two elements. You have the fundamentalists, who are drawn toward the idea of the caliphate. But the majority of Syrians would not want that. The majority of Syrians believe that Christians and Muslims can work and live together. For example, our association, we're half Muslim, half Christian, and we're not the only ones. There are many people who do that.

I think we are dividing Christians and Muslims far too much. We have a history of living together, we have a history of working together, and we can do it.

Now it's evident that there are communities that have the ascendancy and others that are suffering, that do not have liberty. The feeling of frustration has increased in most Syrians.

Those questions have to be addressed, and I think that they can be addressed, but they will not be addressed when so many people are coming from outside and interfering in the situation. ISIL fighters are mainly non-Syrians. You've got people from Afghanistan, from Pakistan; you've got even 3,000 Europeans. 

These people might control over half the country, and they are not what the people want. The Syrian Muslims may themselves turn against ISIL. We've had some reports of people being very unhappy in some villages at having to stop hearing music, having to change their ways of dress, but is that enough to overthrow ISIL? Not yet.

Why are you visiting Washington and New York?

Zammit: Our motto has three components: serve, accompany, and advocate.

The advocacy component is an essential part of our mission. That means visiting people, talking to them, visiting delegations at the United Nations, trying to show them what the situation is on the ground, where we can go, and how important it is to be able to get, above all, a cease-fire.

Next, we tell officials that there is the need include all parties in discussions, whatever they are, and taking care to respect the existence of the minorities. If you cannot guarantee the existence of a minority community, they will hold on to the bitter end. Their reading at the moment is that if they lose, they will be eradicated. Certainly, you have to address that fear.

What would you like to see from the international community?

Balleis: The countries who are major players in the region need to contain the conflict and to stop it. 

We encourage negotiations with everyone. There's nobody who is absolutely evil and nobody who is absolutely good. Today, you think this one is a good guy; tomorrow, he shoots others and is a bad guy.

So we have to talk. You have to talk to the devil. We have to talk in order to stop the war.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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