Beirut, 5 February 2018 – “It is when you have a personal contact that you change your mind. We are serving people because they are human beings not because of their religion” says Angela Abboche, the principal of a JRS school in the Christian-Armenian municipality of Bourj Hammoud, Beirut.
The Middle East is a complex and diverse region where people of different faiths coexist and live together. In Lebanon alone, there are 18 recognised religious groups. With the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, one of the challenges for neighbouring countries is how to host people fleeing their homes while considering their diverse religious backgrounds.
JRS has been present in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon since the beginning of the unrest in the region. Our experience as a Catholic organisation is based on focusing on the best way to serve people according to their dignity as human beings and without regard to their religion.
The majority of the people we serve are Muslims, our staff is made of multi-religious teams, and we partner with other organisations coming from diverse religious backgrounds. This interfaith nature of our work is the only path towards peace and reconciliation.
In Lebanon, for instance, two of our schools in Baalbek are running thanks to the help of the Mufti of the area. He is a point of reference in his neighborhood; his office is always full of people seeking his advice. For him, seeing a Muslim leader work together with a Jesuit NGO is the best example for the local children.
In Beirut, our project team in Bourj Hammoud includes Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian people, all of them from different religious backgrounds. They celebrate both Christian and Muslim holidays together and they are happy to share in each other’s joy of celebration. If we respect each other's beliefs, it is not very difficult to work together and to learn from each other.
As noted by the Project Director, Fadi Daou, in Bourj Hammoud, employee diversity is an added value for the refugees who are part of JRS staff. Having to face the difficulties of integration in a foreign country, the fact that they are working with Lebanese people makes them feel that a part of the local community welcomes them.
For Ana Guimarães, a former psychologist working in a project in Dohuk, Iraq, being able to work in a multi-religious team is a way to get to know different people. This creates a sense of solidarity that she can then transmit to the people she is serving. She says the inclusive way of living and working that JRS promotes, contributes to improving the mental health of her patients. The Iraq Country Director agrees that “the best activity related to peace and reconciliation is that our teams are coming from different backgrounds and are working all together. The great challenge is to create those conditions that we have in our projects in order to reach the peace.”
Working in an inclusive environment and serving people regardless of their religion or beliefs is one way in which we can welcome refugees. When they flee their homes, and arrive in different countries they face many difficulties, including integrating into the host society. After all the challenges they have faced, when they see someone different is serving them without asking any questions and simply respecting their beliefs, they feel welcomed and safe again. Sometimes it is not easy and there are indeed many obstacles, but as soon as we get past our differences and begin to focus on respecting each other, we can begin to welcome people and learn from what they can teach us.