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The education work of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Aleppo help restore a sense of normality to the lives of children who otherwise would lose years of opportunities to learn, develop and grow.
Chicago, 15 April 2014 – Loyola University Chicago and ART WORKS Projects for Human Rights hosted the symposium, 'Sanctuary and Sustenance: Syria and the Plight of Refugees' on Monday, 7 April. Scholars, faculty, practitioners and refugees examined the current political crisis in Syria from a range of perspectives and disciplines. During the day-long symposium Angela Wells spoke on behalf of the Jesuit Refugee Service about humanitarian assistance and religious intervention.

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Good morning, I am Angela Wells, a graduate of Loyola University Chicago and currently working in the communications department of the Jesuit Refugee Service based in Rome, Italy.

I would first just like to start by saying that I am not Syrian nor have I ever worked in Syria but through my work I have been able to meet dozens of people who have worked tirelessly in the midst of this brutal war and I hope to represent them well today.

The Jesuit Refugee Service works in 50 countries worldwide but throughout my experience in the past two years I have witnessed the organization nearly double due to the increased focus in the Middle East and particularly within Syria.

Background in Syria. The JRS approach to humanitarian assistance in the Middle East developed organically from already existing local projects which began in 2008 when JRS began assisting Iraqi and sub-Saharan African refugees who had fled to Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Working from within existing Syrian, regional and international Jesuit structures, community involvement and leadership has always been key to our projects in Syria.

When the conflict broke out three years ago in Syria, these grassroots networks were expanded significantly to reach out to other local humanitarian actors, and also to engage with Muslim community leaders in areas where JRS works.

JRS has thus created a multi-religious and multi-ethnic network of up to 600 volunteers and staff who now work in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. In 2013, they served 300,000 people within Syria.

Current state of Syria. The need for such support is growing daily. As I am sure you have heard in previous sessions, this conflict has caused the unnecessary death of more than 130,000 people and the displacement- both internally and externally - of nearly nine million Syrians which could be equated to more than three times the city of Chicago.

Approximately 230,000 people within Syria are currently living in besieged areas and thus denied access to food, medicine or basic amenities. Malnutrition rates are growing and risk of starvation is real, with many people living only on olives and lentils.

Civil society. In response to the severity of this humanitarian disaster, the Jesuit Refugee Service bases its work on the social teaching of the Catholic Church and serves all those in need without discrimination, regardless of their faith.

This in itself is based on the basic human right every person has to safety and dignity. As a faith-based organisation, we are inspired by the words and acts of Jesus in the Gospel as well as Pope Francis, who in his appeal for peace in Syria last fall emphasised that "assisting the Syrian population, without regard for ethnic or religious affiliation, is the most direct way to contribute to peace and to the up-building of a society open and welcoming to all of its different constituent parts."

Within Syria, JRS strives to emulate this ideal set by Pope Francis by working under principles of neutrality, non-violence and inclusiveness.

While so much of the media attention the Western world is provided on Syria focuses on the violent actors I would like to focus today on the Syrians who work across religious, ethnic and political divides in harmony to build, what we call, "a culture of encounter and dialogue". 

Our team members in Syria are 100 percent Syrian. They are doctors, engineers, teachers, mechanics, high school and university students, parents and grandparents. They represent a silent majority of Syrians who have not resorted to violence; who continue working to put their desire for peace into action by engaging in grassroots humanitarian initiatives.

I think the following video made early last year in the country highlights the influential work going on in the country by civil society members.


So, this film was released more than one year ago and rates of displacement, levels of insecurity and numbers of those killed has drastically increased since then. Today, approximately 9.3 million Syrians are in need of urgent assistance.

In doing this work, these team members and others have put their lives at risk. Some have been arrested, others displaced themselves and some face tensions within their own communities for their work with JRS, but we are continually told that they stay united, as one volunteer said, "because of their differences" and I want to really emphasise that as our basis for action.

The space created by JRS for local actors to make change, to promote peace and reconciliation based on a mutual respect for the dignity of each person regardless of differences is fundamental to the work in Syria which is done mainly on two fronts:

JRS presence in Syria. The first being emergency relief to those in greatest need which consists of providing food, hygiene kits, basic healthcare, rent support as well as managing shelters. For example, the field kitchen in Aleppo is staffed entirely by volunteers and serves up to 10,000 cooked meals every day.

The second major activity is the provision of educational opportunities and psychosocial support offered to nearly 10,000 children and women. It is estimated that 2 million Syrian children are no longer in school.

In emergencies, international organizations too often view education as secondary to emergency provision but JRS feels that it must be done simultaneously to providing food and shelter.

Education restores normality amidst the chaos of war, especially for children who cannot afford to lose years of opportunities to learn, develop and grow. JRS pursues education under the belief and hope that it contributes to reconciliation by promoting co-existence amongst people of different socio-economic and faith backgrounds.

Multi-faith and inclusivity. Within Syria staff and volunteers are half of the Muslim tradition and half of the Christian tradition and, across the region, 80 percent of the people we serve are Muslim.

Our staff differ in political opinions too but are able to work side by side as Syrians. This isn’t to say that tensions do not exist but rather that in the face of senseless violence they have overcome them to set an example to their communities in working for peace.

Examples of multi-faith cooperation happen every day in our projects but one which stands out comes from Fadi*, a 27-year old Aleppian who started a network in early 2012. 

His mission was to create a network of people who would resist and dissuade others from turning to weapons if the violence were to reach Aleppo.

The network started with nine members but since joined with JRS and now consists of 500 young  and old people, Muslims and Christians who pray and work together in JRS projects.

Violence has since overpowered Aleppo but they remain non-violent, working to provide humanitarian relief to the thousands of families in Aleppo who are affected by the violence. 

Fadi’s reflection. In a recent reflection, Fadi wrote, "Through joint action differences disappeared and I got to know the real Aleppo…. the "other" that I was raised to despise and fear… and why? For no real reason, other than because he is different.

These events taught us how to think, how not to be afraid. It removed the blindfold that was covering my eyes.

This "other" gave meaning to my life. I regained my humanity. I became part of a real family that I loved and adored; the family of my home, Syria.

Our true mission is to spread hope, to assure our neighbours that we are their children and that we will not forget about them".

I think Fadi's perspective highlights how responding to humanitarian conflicts in an all-inclusive manner can help communities resist the logic of war that threatens to destroy them.

Moving forward.  Fadi has since relocated to Lebanon where UNHCR registers 2,500 refugees daily. In Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, UNHCR has registered a total of 2.5 million refugees. JRS, working with volunteers like Fadi, provides urgent assistance and educational and psychosocial support in these three countries under enormous resource constraints.

The international community could make huge contributions to end this conflict, not with military support – as violence only begets violence - but instead by emulating the approach of civil society actors like Fadi and his team.

Support for local actors and humanitarian aid within and in countries surrounding Syria is crucial. Increasing resettlement in the US, Europe and other willing countries would save many families too vulnerable to survive harsh camp or urban settings.

Diplomatic efforts from the international community should urge armed forces to stop using civil society as a tool of war and refrain from disrupting humanitarian operations.

Ultimately, peaceful negotiations must include meaningful participation of non-violent Syrians across social, religious and ethnic divides, if we are to pave the way for a post-conflict society where the human rights of all diverse Syrians are protected.

Syria, our home. I want to end today with a closing remark from Fadi who, I think, could be part of a peaceful post-conflict Syria in the future as long as his voice is heard today.

"The Syrian war became a dark turning point in the life of every Syrian.

Despite all the ignorance that blinded everyone’s eyes, our community still managed to light candles in the darkness of lethal ignorance.

Slowly, little communities formed where citizens would join over one noble cause: Syria, our home.

Here in Lebanon, my heart aches from missing my home which I had to leave a year ago – I miss my bed, my friends, my world, my destroyed future… All of this makes me feel other people’s pain, and it makes me human.

But I can still see light in the eyes of our younger siblings who do not know the meaning of war. What is the fault of a child in the war of adults?  We are here to serve, to accompany and to defend them".

Angela Wells, JRS International Communications Assistant