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Bringing Syrian children of different ethnic and religious backgrounds together helps create understanding of difference, Aleppo, Syria (Jesuit Refugee Service)
Damascus, 28 February 2014 – Radicalised violence, displacement and poverty affect Syrians of all creeds. In what has always been a complex society, with many layers of social, religious and economic diversity, perpetrators of violence have been able to manipulate this heterogeneity to sow divisions among the population.

Large sections of the population are in need of emergency assistance. Acute shortages of basic commodities, high and increasing unemployment, rampant inflation and the collapse of essential services cause everyone to suffer. In this environment of increasing violence, both Muslims and Christians of all sects fall victim to targeted persecution in one form or another.

Working with civilians from different religious and socio-economic backgrounds, JRS staff hear a variety of testimonies from people we assist. Many highlight the diversity of those affected by the Syrian conflict; but simultaneously show a connecting thread of perseverance amidst the misery of war.

"It doesn't matter about religion, everyone is suffering. This is what Syrian people have in common with one another: their suffering…. It is our place to be with all these people, to listen to them, and to help them reconcile and recover", said Nawras Sammour SJ, JRS Middle East and North Africa Director.

Accounts by Syrian Christians and Muslims are startlingly similar. Persecuted and forced to flee their homes because they were members of this or that religious community. Below are stories of two very different people who have faced serious human rights violations that have become all too common.

Nour*. My story is like that of many families, displaced victims of war. As a 75-year-old single woman from Homs, the Syrian war has taken its toll on me. With my sister Sara*, just two years older, we persevere together.

I only finished primary school, whereas my sister is illiterate. She is a widow of an estranged son who lives abroad and hasn't heard from him in year.

Earlier this year we fled our neighbourhood, Hamidiyeh, for both economic and security reasons. We were accused of supporting the government because we are Christians.

One night, armed men came and tried to evict us. When they discovered we were Christians, they wanted to kill us. I kept asking them for mercy but instead we received cruelty.

One of them set fire to our beds and made me walk over the burning mattresses. They said this would remove the demons from my soul. My hair was burned and my ears throbbed in pain. They said they were going to kill me and offered to let me say my final words.

I replied to him, "God help you and protect you all".

For some reason, he allowed me to go.

Afterwards, we went to Damascus where we stayed with a friend until we could find a house to rent. It was hard at first. We were distraught from what had happened, and it was hard to find a place. Today, we still face financial difficulties as neither my sister nor I can work. Her hand was badly hurt and she needed many operations.

We still live without many of the basics of home, like a sofa or a fridge. We hope the crisis ends soon so we can return to Homs. My sister dreams her son will come back and take her away.

Ibrahim*. At 41 years of age, I have become a victim of some people's interpretations of my religion, displaced from my home by the violence, and the insecurity pervading Syria.

I'm a Muslim living in Damascus, the father of four daughters and one son. My wife is a teacher who works with disabled children.

Last year, rebel fighters gained control of our neighbourhood in Aleppo. They forced me to close down my bakery and leave my home because my wife refused to wear a veil. But we weren't the only ones. They shaved one woman's head for the same reason. They also killed two young men because one had a tattoo and the other wore a gold necklace.

We lost our life's dreams. We were traumatised.

In August last year, we went to stay with my sister's family in Damascus to get away from the violence.

Life is difficult in Damascus. It's hard to get from place to place. We cannot always afford our rent. Some charities refuse to help us because my wife won't wear the veil.

We struggle to earn enough to buy food for the family and pay for healthcare for my two-year-old son who suffers from a spinal deformity and severe problems with his sight; he needs surgery and ongoing treatment.

Although the Jesuit Refugee Service provides us with food assistance and some medical costs for my son, he still needs more help. I hope and pray he recovers and that I can manage to find work to support my children and send them back to school.

Encounter and dialogue. Working through a network of volunteers and local partners, and an even wider network of people we assist, JRS in Syria has a way of working that is rooted in the diversity, as well as the complexities, of Syrian society. Offering emergency assistance, such as food baskets or some medical support is not sufficient on its own.

"If we are to achieve peace, we have to encourage a culture of encounter and dialogue amongst ourselves, our teams and within the broader community. People need to be free to express what has happened to them, and also to be given assistance to help restore some dignity and hope to their lives", Fr Sammour added.

Zerene Haddad, Communications Officer, JRS Middle East and North Africa

*This name has been changed for reasons of security

The Jesuit Refugee Service in Syria assists approximately 300,000 Syrians in need of emergency assistance, the majority of whom are internally displaced.