22 June 2017
|JRS International Director meeting Laila, a Syrian refugee student at the JRS social education centre in Baalbek, Lebanon. Laila is a talented artist and has written a book for children while in exile.|
|"Education provides hope to children. When the Syrian conflict stops, the children will have to pick up the pieces and begin life anew."|
Baalbek, 22 June 2017 - While visiting JRS projects in Middle East, Fr Thomas H Smolich SJ, JRS International Director, celebrated World Refugee Day with the staff and the students of the JRS-run schools in Baalbek, Lebanon. He shares some thoughts about his visit in the interview below.
Visiting the region on World Refugee Day. The latest statistical data released by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is a clear indicator that the numbers of refugees and forcibly displaced persons is on the rise. They number of Syrian refugees and IDPs is over 12 million. This reality is not a comforting one. It is also a reminder that much more needs to be done at every level to address the suffering of refugees.
For me, however, this World Refugee Day was special in several ways. I found joy in the midst of the refugee children at the JRS-run schools in Baalbek, Lebanon. I was impressed and touched by the enthusiasm and energy of the students.
I was also glad to have met with the Mufti of Baalbek/Hermel, Sheikh Bakr Rifali. The Mufti is our partner in two of our schools in Baalbek, and he was emphatic in the value of Muslims and Christians working together in this educational project. Interacting with those of different faiths at this time of great division is vital to building bridges with one another.
Visiting the JRS Social Education Centre in Baalbek, I got to meet and interact with the staff and some of the trainees there. Laila, a Syrian lady who wrote a book for children called ‘Dry Bread’, presented me with a drawing she made. In the drawing, she wrote: “JRS you are our Second Homeland”. These words moved me. It says so much about the mission of JRS - a mission which I am convinced makes a difference in the lives of many like Laila.
Highlights of this visit. This is my second visit to the Region as the JRS Director. I have been genuinely touched and impressed by the tremendous amount of work that JRS is doing at all levels: project, country and region.
I would like to mention a couple of things here: the family visit teams are doing a great job in the Dohuk area of Kurdistan, Iraq, visiting Yazidi displaced families and smaller numbers of Christian and Syrian Muslim families. The teams listen to family members and see how best JRS can serve and advocate for them. Secondly, a few months ago, Insherah Mousa began as Country Director in Jordan, the first Jordanian serving in this role for JRS. The work in Jordan is not easy. However, her leadership has already brought positive changes to the work there. I think the future of JRS in Jordan is very bright.
Education in the region. I am very impressed for many reasons with the many JRS educational initiatives all over JRS MENA. Most of our educational work in this Region is with Syrian refugees and displaced people.
Education provides hope to children. When the Syrian conflict stops, the children will have to pick up the pieces and begin life anew. Education in many ways also helps to stop war and violence. Above all, if education is multi-faith and inclusive, as I have seen in the Baalbek schools today, it will go a long way in healing existing wounds.
Major global concerns, challenges, and opportunities. There are many challenges and concerns today regarding the forcibly displaced. The first is hunger. There are millions all over the world who are gripped with starvation because of war, persecution, and famine; many living in camps have had their rations cut below the point of sustenance. Today I was touched when I was told in Baalbek that several of the children who come to our schools keep a part of their snack to take home so that they can share it with their siblings or parents. The world has not directly faced the issue of hunger. How do we develop a way to get food resources to hungry people?
Secondly, there is the institutionalization of violence in several places. We see it in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in South Sudan, and in several other countries. The levels of violence that people deal with is unimaginable. How can we help displaced people create a different narrative?
Finally, I would like to point out a great opportunity the Church and the world have in the person of Pope Francis. He has been direct and unequivocal in his stand for refugees and the displaced. At every possible opportunity, he refers to their suffering and urges all of us to do more for them in every possible way. The new Dicastery for Integral Human Development, which includes a division for refugees and migrants is certainly a step in the right direction. We at JRS work closely with this division, and will collaborate with its coordination of the Church perspectives for the upcoming Global Compacts on migrants and refugees.
In closing. I am always happy when I am on a visit to JRS work. It is an enriching experience to meet and interact with our many colleagues, collaborators and especially with refugees and the displaced with whom we share our mission. Many thanks to JRS MENA and all that you do.
- Fr Cedric Prakash SJ, Advocacy and Communications Officer of JRS MENA