Dispatches is a fortnightly e-mail bulletin of the JRS International Office. It features refugee news briefings, press releases, featured articles and project updates from our people in the field.
Advent: a refugee – a person without past and future
Peter Balleis SJ, JRS International Director
The existence of refugees is an illustration of the theological meaning of advent, of a people who live in darkness and who see a great light, as the prophet Isaiah said.
Rome, 17 December 2012 – What defines the existence of a refugee? A journalist recently asked me this question on Swiss Radio. She could have looked up the definition in the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention but then she was asking the question from an existential rather than a legal viewpoint. What is the meaning of being a refugee, what does it do to a person? A refugee is someone whose past has been destroyed and whose future is blocked: a person seemingly without a past or a future.
Life as a linear progression of past, present and future. We all have a past and a future, which meet in the here-and-now. Most people have a home, a place where they were born, grew up, went to school, with family and friends, in a community based on a shared culture, values and beliefs. Rooted in this past we build the present and future, with dreams, career plans, opportunities in education and our chosen profession.
No past. For a refugee, however, the past has been taken away, left behind, or destroyed: the security and protection offered by a home, family and community have been lost. Dear ones, family members have been dispersed, some or all killed. School and university studies have been abruptly interrupted. Refugees find themselves in a new country, a new culture, sometimes with another religion and value system. They can no longer refer to their past when defining their identity because it has been torn away.
For some, the experience suffered in their home country was so traumatic and deeply disappointing that they want to cut loose, never to refer to it again, much less return to it. The past is no longer a reference point for the present.
No future. But there is no future either. Many refugees feel their host country tolerates them at best but doesn't really want them. The willingness to welcome large or even small numbers of refugees has faded. So-called xenophobia is a growing phenomenon not just in wealthier regions but also in countries in the global South, which were once receptive.
Forcibly displaced people who are granted international refugee status can end up living under the protection of the UN for more than 10, even 15 years, because their home and host countries fail to protect them. Children are born as refugees, grow up in camps and spend their entire childhood and youth there.
Many other refugees are not recognised at all. Nowadays, more than half the world's refugees live in cities, often illegally, without documents, status or protection. They live a life in the shadows. In many countries, even recognised refugees are not allowed to work. Less than one percent have access to higher education, due to many obstacles, not least because it's simply too expensive. No work, no higher education opportunities, no local integration, no return, no resettlement means no future for most.
Just the here-and-now. Refugees live at the crossroads between past and future. They just live in the here-and-now, often on the margins of society, at the borders of countries, in a ‘no man's land'.
Advent and Christmas. Let's consider the life of a refugee through the lens of Advent and Christmas. The experience of a refugee mirrors the meaning of Advent, a time in the here-and-now between the unredeemed past and expected salvation in the future.
The unredeemed past is marked by the sin of the world: greed for power, riches and glory. Across the world, people are oppressed, violated and killed for the sake of robbing their land, their resources, for the sake of the glory of a few. It is such violence and injustice that refugees have had to run away from, which destroyed their past.
Thus refugees are left with nothing but the hope and desire for peace, for a new home where they will find protection. They wait for years for this new home, which will be either back in their country, or in the host country through local integration, or in another country where they may be resettled. They wait patiently, without ever losing hope, until one day the message of peace is announced, the message delivered by the angel at Christmas: Peace on earth to all people of goodwill (cf. Lk 2:14).
The existence of refugees is an illustration of the theological meaning of advent, of a people who live in darkness and who see a great light, as the prophet Isaiah said (cf. Is 9:2).
JRS nourishes the hope of Christmas. Working with refugees, JRS also experiences this dimension of Advent to some degree. There is no need to go into detail to understand what it means for JRS teams to share the tragedies unfolding right now in eastern Congo and Syria. Hundreds of thousands have fled the wanton destruction. JRS still has teams on the ground in eastern Congo and Syria, holding out for as long as possible with people who are forced to endure an unredeemed world at war, a place in the here-and-now without past or future.
This is in line with our mission that gives priority to accompanying refugees, to being with them and sharing to some degree the dangers they are exposed to.
Another priority of JRS is to serve refugees by offering psychosocial and pastoral care, and especially education, to kindle hope through learning. JRS formal and informal education programmes reach over 250,000 children, young people and adults. School is about more than increasing knowledge, it is a place where the past is healed and the future is gained.
Education in the here-and-now of a refugee's life helps to re-connect the lost past and future. One can lose everything but not what one carries in the mind and heart, knowledge and values, the spirit of hope. Education is a source of hope and an instrument of peace.
The mission of JRS finds deep meaning in Advent, striving for the hope, joy and peace celebrated at Christmas. It is about finding a new home, the protection of a new family, community and country, just as Mary and Joseph found a humble place in Bethlehem, cared for by the poor shepherds who were the first to hear the message of the angels: Peace on earth to all people of goodwill.
Peter Balleis SJ,
JRS International Director
Europe: repression without responsibility
Looking towards Europe from the Moroccan city of Tangiers. In total, more than 16,000 forced migrants have died in transit to Europe, according to UNITED for Intercultural Action (Andrew Galea Debono/JRS Europe)
What happened to Mr Nya was done by European border guards, from an EU that just won the Nobel Peace Prize.
EU influence in Morocco and Algeria leads to stricter border controls, harming migrant rights
The 1992 bilateral agreement between Spain and Morocco has been used to justify the immediate deportation of migrants apprehended crossing the razor-wired borders of Spanish enclaves Ceuta and Melilla. Over the years the Moroccan border authorities, with the tacit support of Spain, have used repressive measures to keep migrants at bay.
"Morocco can use repressive measures because Spain cannot [be seen] do[ing] such things", said Ms Alonso.
Searching for opportunity. Mr Armel Nya, whose journey from his native Cameroon to Morocco took over a year, told those present at the conference that his end goal was not to reach Europe, but instead to find a chance of having a better life anywhere.
"Migrants like me are only searching for opportunities to be ourselves wherever we can. If I had found such opportunities in the countries I passed through, in Nigeria or Libya, then I would have stayed, but there were no opportunities", Mr Armel Nya explained.
Clamouring for rescue. In 2006, Mr Nya attempted to swim from Morocco to Ceuta. He was joined by a Cameroonian woman who was seven months pregnant at the time. He agreed to pull her through the sea with a rope and tire. During the journey Mr Nya struggled as his friend began to drown.
"She lost consciousness. I tried to continue swimming with her on my back, but it was impossible", he told participants.
A Spanish Guardia Civil boat found them and brought them on deck. But instead of bringing them to safety, they brought them back to Morocco.
"I begged them not to take us back, and told them that my friend was pregnant, but they would not listen and threw us overboard", he continued.
Still far from the shoreline, a Moroccan guard boat eventually spotted them and brought them to dry land.
"I'm here by the grace of God. Many of my friends are still in Morocco and others are in their final resting place in the desert or on the sea floor of the Mediterranean", he added.
Denial of responsibility. "What happened to Mr Nya was done by European border guards, from an EU that just won the Nobel Peace Prize", JRS Europe Policy Officer, Stefan Kessler, told the audience in no uncertain terms the EU is responsible for such rights abuses.
Citing the report's findings, Mr Kessler explained that financial support is unavailable to migrants in Morocco, even for those who wish to return home voluntarily.
"Migrants have no access to protection in Europe and no assistance for voluntary return. They are left in a state of limbo, and the EU is washing its hands of the situation", he said.
The JRS Europe report also cites evidence of labour exploitation of migrants, specifically in Algeria where they are unable to take up employment in the formal labour market. In order to support themselves and their families, many take jobs on the black market. Consequently, they are more vulnerable to abuse at the hands of their employers.
"The inability to work is a major barrier to meaningful protection for migrants, as well as constituting a serious denial of their fundamental human rights", explained Mr Kessler.
Philip Amaral, Advocacy and Communications Coordinator, JRS Europe
Democratic Republic of Congo: further bloodshed and exhaustion facing internally displaced persons in Masisi
Displaced people flee their villages as a consequence of exacerbated fighting between rival armed groups in Masisi, eastern Congo. This picture was taken by a JRS staff member. (JRS DRC)
Additional stories about the work of JRS in the Democratic Republic of Congo:
Bujumbura, 5 December 2012 – Bloodshed, destruction and massive population displacement continues to terrorise the population of Masisi, a mineral rich area in North Kivu, eastern Congo. At least 28 people were killed in Masisi since 29 November, as a consequence of on-going fighting between rival armed groups.
Violent clashes among various rebels, as well as fighting between these rebel groups and the Congolese army has been on the rise since last August. Consequently, thousands of women, children and men have been displaced from their homes in Masisi. In addition, a climate of fear and reciprocal mistrust reigns between the two major communities living in the area, the Hundes and the Hutus.
The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) believes that highlighting the forgotten conflict in Masisi and ensuring protection of the local population are urgent priorities for the international community, the Congolese authorities, the UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) and the political actors of the Great Lakes Region.
"We appreciate the ongoing diplomatic efforts to end the violence perpetrated by the rebels who took control of Goma on 20 November causing tens of thousands people to flee. However, equal determination should be used to restore peace and security to populations in Masisi, exhausted from the conflict", said JRS Great Lakes Africa Director, Isaac Kiyaka, SJ.
Night attacks. According to the information collected by JRS teams in Masisi, on the night of 29 November members of the Nyatura, a Hutu militia, attacked Kihuma village, around Buabo, burning down houses and firing gunshots at Hunde villagers. Five people were murdered, including one in a nearby medical centre.
"They arrived at four in the morning and the village looked like the hell. I took my six children and fled into the forest without food or clothes. People ran where they could and I saw children falling in the river", explains 60-year-old Loomo*.
Lives in flight. In less than two weeks, Loomo has fled three times, walking a total distance of approximately 21 kilometres, in order to save the lives of herself and her children.
"We constantly feel threatened. I know we will be forced to flee again because another conflict will certainly erupt. We need our authorities to guarantee security. We cannot continue to live in this way: people are tired and we are losing the desire to live", continues Loomo who is now seeking refuge with her children in a primary school.
Vengeance. During the same day of the attack in Kihuma on 29 November, young Hunde militiamen immediately reacted by killing 11 Hutu people in the surrounding area of Buabo, including five men who supposedly belonged to the Nyatura militia. The day after, twelve more people were killed during an armed incursion in various Hutu villages around Lushebere. Several houses were burned down. and the population fled the village en masse.
Moise*, a 30-year-old Hutu man, lives and works in Masisi town, which is primarily populated by Hunde people. He has described an increased climate of reciprocal fear based on ethnic tensions between the two communities in the past few months.
"When I walk in the city, people call me 'Nyatura, Nyatura' (Hutu militiaman), but I’m not a member of an armed group. I just want to live in peace with the rest of the population. Unfortunately, I feel I'll be forced to flee Masisi forever, if not, they may kill me", explains Moise.
Context. On 14 November, JRS released a press statement documenting the murders of at least 18 people, including four women and two children assassinated by machetes; a massive population displacement; and the destruction of camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The humanitarian situation in North Kivu further deteriorated throughout the month as a result of violence by the March 23 Movement (M23), a rebel group supported by the Rwandan and the Ugandan governments according to a recent report of the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, but denied by Kigali and Kampala. The M23 took control of Goma on 20 November causing the displacement of more than 140,000 additional people and the interruption of most humanitarian relief throughout the affected territory.
Following discussions between government leaders of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, the rebel movement agreed to withdraw to 20 kilometres from Goma city, in return for the opening of direct negotiations with the Congolese government.
Recommendations. Amidst escalating violence in Masisi and the great necessity for protection and humanitarian assistance of the displaced population, the Jesuit Refugee Service calls on:
the international community to put pressure on the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and those of the Great Lakes sub-region to immediately stop the violence of rebel groups terrorising Masisi, with the equal determination used to curtail the M23 rebellion;
the authorities of the DRC to ensure protection of the civilian population in and around Masisi by reinforcing army presence in the area; to effectively promote peaceful coexistence between the Hunde and the Hutu communities; and to eradicate the root causes of the conflict and the interests of the armed groups;
the UN Organization Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) based in Masisi to guarantee the protection of civilians from armed attacks conducted by rebel groups;
the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) to effectively engage in diplomatic efforts to put an end to the violent incursions of the M23, but also the numerous armed rebel groups present in Masisi.
*Not their real name
Danilo Giannese, Advocacy and Communications Officer, Jesuit Refugee Service, Great Lakes Africa; tel: +257 78991302; email: email@example.com; www.jrs.net
James Stapleton, Communications Coordinator, Jesuit Refugee Service (International Office); email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.jrs.net
Notes to the editor:
JRS Great Lakes Africa is one of 10 geographic regions of the Jesuit Refugee Service, an international Catholic organisation of the Society of Jesus working in more than 50 countries around the world. The regional office coordinates the delivery of education, housing, psychosocial and recreational services, as well emergency assistance and support to become self-sufficient, to vulnerable refugee and other displaced populations in Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo.
JRS in North Kivu. JRS began working in North Kivu in 2008, in the camps for displaced populations around Goma. After the sudden closure of the camps in September 2009, JRS followed the people to their areas of origin and to places of new displacement. JRS currently works in two areas of North Kivu: Masisi and Mweso districts. Established in 2010, JRS has since expanded its services to five official and other makeshift IDP camps, offering formal and informal education and emergency assistance to both IDPs and local communities.
Latin America and the Caribbean: migrants, an urgent call by God for justice and hospitality
Migrants are a sign of the times in which God calls us urgently to be hospitable, to welcome them as brothers and sisters, Automeca, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (JRS/Peter Balleis)
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Bogotá, 18 December 2012 – In commemoration of International Migrants Day, the works of the Society of Jesus, members of Jesuit Network with migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean, issue a message of solidarity and hope to the 214 million migrant brothers and sisters in the world. Despite the valuable contributions migrants make to their new host societies and countries of origin, a significant number of them are forced to live in vulnerable circumstances, without international protection from human rights violations.
In recent decades migration flows have increased in number and complexity. For instance, the number of migrants has increased from 150 to 214 million between 2002 and 2010; and today this phenomenon affects many groups of migrants, those displaced within their own countries or across international borders, due to sexual violence, political, economic or environmental instability.
Migrants are a sign of the times in which God calls us urgently to be hospitable, to welcome them as brothers and sisters, and to include them into our societies by guaranteeing the totality of their rights, without distinction on the basis of ethnicity, religious beliefs, cultural background, economic standing, or legal status.
It is an invitation to put into practice the words of St Paul in his letter to the Galatians (3.28) "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus".
Or as proclaimed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly, all human beings are "members of the human family", "born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."
In Latin America and the Caribbean.Approximately 26 million Latin American and Caribbean women and men are living outside their countries of origin, principally in the US, Spain and within the subcontinent. The principle causes of emigration in the region include social inequity, inequality between countries, poverty, violence, natural disasters and the unbalanced development model, centred on the excessive extraction of natural resources.
In order to stimulate this apostolic preference, the Jesuit Network with migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean (RJM-LAC) forms part of the Global Ignation Advocacy Network. RJM-LAC seeks to accompany migrants, other displaced persons and refugees in an efficient, coordinated and integrated manner in a number of diverse areas of action: pastoral, education, social, legal, research and advocacy. This approach integrates the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Jesuit Migration Service and other programmes of universities, parishes and colleges of the Society of Jesus regarding migration, displacement and asylum.
RJM-LAC believes that all persons have the right to live, work and realise their full human potential in their homes or places of habitual residence. However, when this is not possible, they have the right to seek better living conditions outside their homes or places of habitual residence, be that within their countries of origin or across international borders.
It is for this reason the network condemns all forms of human rights violations or discrimination against migrants, such as:
the social stigmatization by the media and the criminalisation by states of irregular migration;
the systematic denial by many states to grant international protection to asylum seekers and refugees, leaving them in extremely vulnerable situations;
the application of restrictive migration policies, centring on detention, deportation and border control;
the consequential strengthening of smuggling and trafficking networks many of which are integrally related to state corruption and impunity;
the exploitation of migrants in the labour market; and
the particular vulnerability of women and minors.
We oppose the unbalanced development model, promoted by multinational corporations, which prioritise the market over human development, free movement of persons and consequently the destruction of the environment and the extraction of natural resources, displacing entire populations.
RJM-LAC calls for:
the universal ratification of the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families;
the granting of effective international protection to asylum seekers and refugees;
the implementation of comprehensive and inclusive migration policies which not only address labour migration, but also cultural, social, religious and political dimensions of people's lives;
the protection of human rights, regardless of the migration status of the individual concerned, with particular attention to vulnerable sectors of the population such as women and minors; and
a person-centred, sustainable development model.
Finally, the network urges Latin American and Caribbean states and populations to value the contribution of migrants to their societies and to struggle for a more just and hospitable region.
Ms Merlys Mosquera Chamat
Director, Jesuit Refugee Service Latin America and the Caribbean: Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela
Coordinator of the Central and North American sub-region (CANA) of the Jesuit Migrant Service: Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, USA, and Canada.
Mario Serrano Marte SJ
Coordinator of the Caribbean sub-region of the Jesuit Migrant Service: Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, francophone Canada., Venezuela, USA (Miami and Florida)
Emilio Martínez Díaz SJ
Coordinator of the Southern Cone sub-region of Jesuit Migrant Service:: Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil.
Global: a call on states to end the detention of children
Ending migration detention prevents psychological harm, uses resources more efficiently and is more humane.
It's difficult to see children – three years old, five years old – behind bars.
Melbourne, Brussels, 10 December 2012 – On this Human Rights Day, the International Detention Coalition (IDC), together with the Global Campaign to End Immigration Detention of Children, call on states to take steps to prevent or end child detention and start employing humane community-based alternatives. Detention, even for short periods of time, has a negative psychological and emotional impact on migrant children, who typically do not pose a threat to the receiving community.
States should make a pledge to end the immigration detention of children, using the examples set by countries such as Belgium, who have alternatives to detention in place for migrant children. Moreover, countries like Japan, Holland and the United Kingdom have recently taken steps to release children or prevent their detention altogether. The IDC and the Campaign will be organising an event at the Human Rights Council on the issue, along with supportive states. The IDC invites governments to learn more about the existing alternatives to detention, as described in the Child Sensitive Community Assessment and Placement Model it has developed.
The Global Campaign to End Immigration Detention of Children was launched this year at the Nineteenth Session of the Human Rights Council and started conducting a series of "focus months", concentrating on the issue of child immigration detention in countries like Australia, Greece, South Africa, and just last month, Mexico, where 4,172 children were detained in 2011 and that number is reported to exceed 5,000 in 2012. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile" (Art. 9), and children, due to their vulnerability, certainly make no exception.
Nonetheless, there are countries which are moving away from the practice of detaining children and the IDC and the Campaign to End Child Detention want to encourage them to share their best practices in statements at the Human Rights Council next year, as well as at the High Level Dialogue on Migration, which is planned by the UN General Assembly.
On the last Day of General Discussion, organised by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the topic was migrant children and it was widely agreed that children do not belong in detention. Moreover, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Francois Crepeau, was quoted saying "it's difficult to see children – three years old, five years old – behind bars" after his recent visit to Greece, which ended on 3 December.
"We need to build on these discussions and current momentum by helping states to explore alternatives to detention for all children, as they are, first and foremost children, regardless of their migration status. The IDC, and its members in 50 countries, is keen to assist governments in designing and implementing alternatives to detention that are in the best interest of children," said IDC Director, Grant Mitchell.
Grant Mitchell, IDC Director
Tel: +61 403194665
In Belgium Jeroen van Hove,
Tel: + 32 492 504 447
The International Detention Coalition(IDC) is a coalition of over 300 NGOs and individuals working in more than 50 countries around the world.
The IDC advocates for greater respect for the human rights of detainees; this includes limiting the use of, seeking alternatives to, and using the least restrictive forms of immigration detention. The IDC constructively engages with governments around the word on alternatives to immigration detention, particularly for children and young people, who are most affected by detention policies.
For more information visit: www.idcoalition.org
About the Campaign
The Campaign is a consequence of a consensus by human and refugee rights groups and is currently endorsed by 80 organisations worldwide. Members of the general public can sign a global petition, calling for an end to immigration detention of children, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council in a year's time.
Haitian migrants near the border of the Dominican Republic (Peter Balleis/JRS)
JRS works in cooperation with Boston College exploring our core values.
Boston, 5 December 2012 – While I was in the Dominican Republic with the Jesuit Refugee Service, a group of young Haitian men approached us about the problems they were having with their employer. They sold yogurt cones on the streets of the capital, Santo Domingo, pushing a heavy machine through traffic all day and, after their boss took his 80 percent cut, were left with almost nothing.
More than the low pay and the physical dangers of the job, what hurt them most were the daily insults and humiliation at the hands of their employer, particularly when, after a day of exploitation, he would accuse them of stealing and force them to empty their pockets in front of him.
The boss, a migrant himself, makes the Haitians work seven days a week. When one vomited blood from exhaustion and asked for a day off to go to the hospital, he was told if he didn't show up to work the next day, he could consider himself fired. Another felt the need to go to Mass, where he could sing hymns in his own language and feel like a child of God.
The two began to organise their co-workers and eventually confronted their boss, forcing him to give each of them one day off per week. Meanwhile, the boss hired an armed thug to intimidate the workers with violent threats, lest they continue making 'trouble'.
Naturally, JRS took the case. It quickly became violent. One of the group's leaders had a gun put to his head and escaped with his life, and another was threatened.
In addition to the follow-up work with the labour court, our routine work also included accompanying the workers who had been threatened back to the warehouse at night to return the frozen yogurt machines and settle their accounts with the boss. When the workers asked, a couple of us would go to the warehouse with them, make ourselves visible, and then wait outside until the workers left. It was a way of ensuring their safety.
Once the labour cases were underway, a clever lawyer taught the boss to pressurise the workers each night into signing a blank form regarding hours and pay, which he would later fill in with lies. One night we received a phone call letting us know that one worker had been beaten by the thug for refusing to sign the document. We met the worker, still in his bloodied uniform, on a street corner and accompanied him to the hospital and police station.
Of course, none of this had been part of our strategic plan for the year, and the case forced us to neglect some of our regular work. Nevertheless, we stuck with it, and after many visits to the district attorney, the worker who had been assaulted finally faced his former boss in court, with his co-workers as witnesses. However, tainted by blatant anti-Haitian discrimination and corruption, the whole process went nowhere, and to make matters worse the men were left without jobs.
We felt miserable. After all those sleepless nights, and with such clear, solid cases, we had failed to make a difference. And yet, the young men we accompanied thanked us sincerely. They told us that when we walked with them, they felt safe, and that when they faced their employer and told the truth in front of a judge, they felt in some sense their dignity as humans had been recognised, even if their rights were violated.
If nothing else, if our accompaniment had given them that, it had been worthwhile.
Emilio Travieso SJ, JRS worker
JRS works in cooperation with Boston College exploring our core values. To read their most recent reflection on justice, click here.
Syria: bread and fuel shortages in Aleppo add to daily woes
The shortage of bread in Aleppo, and across Syria, has exacerbated an already extreme humanitarian crisis, Aleppo, Syria (Avo Kaprealian and Sedki Al Imam/JRS)
Additional stories about the work of JRS in Syria:
JRS staff and volunteers based in Aleppo have expressed concerns for displaced populations trying to gain access to emergency relief assistance under such circumstances.
During electricity cuts, the JRS field kitchen became the hub around which activities evolved, and one of the few where there was any heating.
"Everyone wants to be in the field kitchen – it's the only place where there is any heating, food, electricity and hot water", explained Elias*, a JRS staff member and the field kitchen coordinator.
Recently, this kitchen reached a new high record, distributing 300,000 meals within six weeks. At a cost of 340,000 Syrian pounds (3,770 US dollars) a day, the field kitchen produces up to 10,000 meals daily – a total of three tonnes of food – that is then distributed amongst the five school-shelters JRS is responsible for, as well as to other schools and mosques supported by JRS.
"We have tried to reduce costs by using second-grade diesel for the burners; it reduces the bill by 50 percent. Our consumption is about 170 litres a day of diesel for cooking and running the generator to provide electricity", said the field kitchen coordinator.
The kitchen's ability to provide consistent electricity has been invaluable to the JRS team.
"We'd go to the kitchen and print out all the necessary distribution lists, family lists and other data that we needed for each day…. We would charge our phones, laptops, electrical appliances and take turns having a shower", continued Elias.
Other logistical challenges. Due to the closure of main routes in many of the main cities, and the inaccessibility of certain neighbourhoods, the outreach team in Aleppo often spends several hours a day stuck in congestion.
"The traffic jams and checkpoints delay us a lot, it's very frustrating as we waste so much time", said an outreach coordinator.
Yet, despite these difficulties in the day-to-day running of operations, distribution continues at a steady rate. At least 50 families a day receive their food baskets from the outreach team – on good days without any major delays it is possible for 100 families to receive food baskets. Blankets, mattresses and hygiene kits are also distributed to families.
"The most urgent needs for families are bread, winter clothes, shoes and blankets. Heating is a big problem but with no gas, fuel or electricity – what's the solution? People are chopping the trees in the streets for fire. It is so cold now in Aleppo, but so many children only have summer clothes to wear", explained the distribution coordinator, Rana*.
At the distribution centre in central Aleppo, an average of 75 families per day who previously registered with JRS come to the centre to collect their food baskets. These are people who are able to safely access the centre, for those who cannot, the outreach team goes to them.
"Last week 125 families came to the centre, I think our daily average will soon increase to 100 families per day, people are in dire need of everything", continued Rana.
Providing clothes. Every day, between seven to 10 families receive a voucher from the distribution centre that they can use at a shop nearby to obtain clothing.
"The voucher system is also about restoring dignity and allowing people to choose for themselves what clothes they might need. Our work is not only about providing emergency assistance, but also about helping people cope with their situation psychologically", added Rana.
As the conflict enters its twenty-first month, JRS teams foresee further expansion of their services to meet the ever-growing needs of those in the most vulnerable circumstances, both inside and outside of Syria.
How can you help?
Below is a list of items that people in Syria urgently need in order to survive the winter. With your financial help, we can alleviate the suffering of Syrians.
50 euro: a food-basket for a five-person family for one month
80 euro: a basic personal kit: one mattress, two sheets, one pillow, two winter-blankets and two towels
120 euro: winter clothing for one family (pullover, jacket, trousers, shoes)
160 euro: one month's rent of an apartment for a displaced family
4,000 euro: cost of providing cooked meals for 10,000 people for one day
8,000 euro: the installation cost of a second field kitchen
To help support the JRS emergency project, visit https://www.jrs.net/donate
*The names in this article have been changed to protect the security of the persons concerned.
Syria: holding onto normality in Aleppo
A volunteer from the Aleppo Family of Volunteers gives out supplies to children in one of the five school-shelters that JRS is responsible for in Aleppo (Avo Kaprealian and Sedki Al Imam/JRS)
Additional stories about the work of JRS in Syria:
Beirut, 13 December 2012 – Late on a Saturday night, whilst the city outside rumbles with the sounds of gunfights, Rana* was indoors trying to prepare a lecture for the next day – an activity that is seemingly at odds with her context.
"Of course the university is still open, people are trying to live their ordinary lives despite everything; it's a positive sign", says Rana.
While reporting the news from Aleppo, Syria, the mainstream media has continued to repeat a war narrative of death and destruction, while bombarding the viewer with graphic images of the injured and dead. But there is another reality of the situation which also deserves attention, one that people in Aleppo – and all across Syria – face daily: that of their survival.
"It's easy to get caught up in the violence and the negativity of the situation in Syria. I try to remember that for every person who died today, there were hundreds of thousands who didn't, who survived against all odds, and these are the ones I try to focus on", said a JRS staff member.
Life goes on. Rana, a JRS staff member and university professor, has continued to lead her daily routine.
"I'm still lecturing English to the first and second year students. Of course it's not the same, in a class where last year there were maybe 100 students or more from all over the country, now there are only 30, or even less and they mainly come from Aleppo", said Rana.
Although university life carries on – albeit on a smaller scale – it is not immune to the conflict. The most recent estimate stated that up to 60,000 displaced people were being sheltered in the university dormitories.
Last year, qualified English teacher and translator, Rana would work 12 hours per day. From the morning until mid-afternoon she worked as a translator in a public sector company, and then from 3pm until 9pm she lectured at Aleppo University. Although she still remains involved with these two jobs, her hours have decreased significantly.
"There is no work anymore. Things have changed so much, you cannot imagine it. And with this change, my priorities are different too".
Rana now lectures just eight hours per week and spends the rest of her time and energy as an emergency distribution coordinator for JRS.
"In the beginning of the year when displaced people from Homs and Idleb started arriving in Aleppo, I tried to help them with some of my friends, but we weren't very organised. Then a mutual friend put me in touch with someone else who was also doing similar work".
From this contact, Rana got to know other volunteers in Aleppo who were working to assist displaced families. Out of this spontaneous group of volunteers and the will to help, they formed the Aleppo Family of Volunteers.
The Aleppo Family of Volunteers. The volunteers include people from all sectors of society – business people, teachers, designers, artists, pharmacists, students, lay people, religious people, Muslims, Christians – the list goes on. And most importantly, it comprises people of differing political outlooks. Yet despite their differences, they are united in their desire to respond to the urgent needs of people.
"We get along so well because of our differences, we're from a wide variety of backgrounds: socio-economically, religiously or culturally. But we live and work for a common cause. We hope to be a template for a new Syrian society in the future", explained one of the volunteers.
From simple beginnings. In March 2012 when the needs of displaced people in Aleppo became more than the volunteers could handle on an ad hoc basis, the Aleppo Family of Volunteers approached JRS Aleppo in search of support.
At the time JRS was located in the former convent of Deir Vartan in Aleppo, where staff had worked with Iraqi refugees since 2008. From this initial contact, a partnership between the volunteers and JRS came into existence.
Deir Vartan became the base for material, food and clothing distribution, as well as a reception centre for displaced Syrian families. Soon Deir Vartan became a household name amongst displaced families, with new arrivals in the city relying on the Deir in order to receive assistance.
In mid-August all activities were evacuated from the centre due to increased violence in the neighbourhood and the sudden upsurge of the conflict in Aleppo. In late September the Deir Vartan Centre was heavily damaged by fighting. Until today, no one from the JRS team has been able to assess the damage caused to the building and property themselves, relying only on accounts from third parties.
What's in a name? From March until September, Deir Vartan's reputation had become somewhat of a legend in Aleppo. Members of the JRS outreach team are obliged to negotiate with various groups in order to gain access to inaccessible areas where families are in extreme need of help. At checkpoints the name of 'Deir Vartan' has proved invaluable.
A member of the outreach team explains that, "we can get through most areas using the name of Deir Vartan, it has become a type of protection for us, and people from both sides respect it and respect us".
"Once we were stopped and questioned because we were a Christian, a Sunni and a person from another city in one car. They separated us and took one of us for questioning, but ten minutes later all you could hear was laughter from the 'interrogation room'".
"After hearing we were from Deir Vartan they wanted to hear stories about our work and all the difficulties we face trying to help families. Some of our stories are funny, and so before we knew it, everyone was enjoying a good joke or two, and in the end they let us pass without any incident".
Despite incidences like this, the situation for the JRS Aleppo team is far from ideal as they often find themselves in precarious situations, trying to reach families that are trapped in 'hot spots'. It is not uncommon for an ordinary day to include darting through sniper areas whilst carrying food baskets.
When asked if the risk level would ever be a deterrent to their work, a volunteer responds without hesitation, "my sense of purpose is perfectly clear - I've never felt more alive than I do now".
Zerene Haddad, JRS Middle East and North Africa Communications Officer
*Not their real name
JRS DISPATCHES is sent from the International Office of the Jesuit Refugee Service, 00193 Roma Prati, Italy. Tel: +39 06 69 868 468; fax: +39 06 69 868 461; email: email@example.com; JRS online: http://www.jrs.net; Publisher: Peter Balleis SJ; Editor: James Stapleton; Translation: Carles Casals (Spanish), Edith Castel (French), Nicole Abbeloos (French), Simonetta Russo (Italian), Chiara Peri (Italian).