Miserable young women crouch or slump on sidewalks, holding listless babies, every 10 feet on major avenues in Istanbul. I’m heartbroken to see a little girl about 6 years old, alone at the Metro, as lost and mangy as an abandoned dog.
“Syrian refugees,” tourists tell each other, dodging clusters of very young children, dirty and shoeless, begging for coins.
The refugee crisis in Turkey is overwhelming.
It’s the most stable country in an instable region, bordering eight countries, including Syria, Iraq, and Iran. For the last 10 years, people fleeing war and fear have cascaded across Turkey’s borders, most intensely since 2011 when civil war began in Syria.
Over one million Syrian refugees have sought safety in Turkey. More than 220,000 are living in some 22 camps near the Turkish-Syrian border, but most are scattered across the country.
The Turkish government is itself to blame: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave terrorist groups passageway into Syria with catastrophic results for millions of people — killed or displaced.
Catholic Church charities are doing extraordinary work (so under the radar, most don’t want their specific organizations mentioned) and Christian churches are well coordinated in this work.
Unnamed Catholic Charity
It’s another reason to love the Church when you see the busy humming machine that is an international Catholic aid group.
A Turkish-speaking Italian manager broke away to brief me on the situation.
She said the Catholic Church has had a presence in Istanbul for decades. The focus grew from Iraqis to people from all over the region. Migrants from Africa, especially Uganda and Congo, also seek assistance.
Most Syrian refugees have big families, including young children. They come hoping for jobs, but finding work is extremely hard. Few children can go to school because they have no permanent residence.
A “full range” of social profiles can be found among refugees — from the upper middle class to the poor. Christians (some carrying letters proving they were specifically targeted with death threats) are especially convinced they will never be able to go back.
“We have a house visit program, visiting everyone we help in order to know what they need,” she explained. They help all they can, regardless of religious affiliation.
“Basic assistance — medical support, food, blankets — counseling services, scholarships for language study…we provide a wide range of help,” she said. Since they become close to the families, the charity is able to track progress — and make sure need is real.
Many displaced Iraqis went to Syria during the Iraqi conflict; they, too, are now on the run.
In the past, Iraqis were offered resettlement options in countries ranging from Canada to Australia, but few programs exist to relocate Syrian refugees.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has a huge backlog of candidates to interview for resettlement. It can take years for a refugee to escape Turkey — which rarely offers permanent residence.
One program the woman mentions is a summer program for refugee children, ages 5-15, run by Holy Spirit Cathedral.
To see scores of happy children — boys playing basketball or foosball, girls practicing dance steps or sitting in a circle near a statue of Mary — after witnessing their brethren wandering dark streets was a breathtaking contrast.
Salesian Brothers manage the cathedral and run this all-day summer program, the “Don Bosco Summer Oratorio,” regularly serving hundreds of Iraqi and Syrian children.
A delightful, unassuming priest, Fr Andres Calleja, mingles among children wearing “Don Bosco” T-shirts, as well as older “animators” who help mentor.
“One of our goals is to work on tolerance, helping each other grow through teamwork,” the Salesian priest said. “We find Christian and Muslim children from Syria are fine with each other.”
“It takes more time to get Christian and Muslim Iraqis to collaborate,” he added.
Admiring drawings on a bulletin board, listening to infectious laughter, I was struck by a sobering thought: As happy as I was about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, in a more perfect world, money expended to protect religious freedom in the United States could have come to help support programs such as this one.
Catholic charities are living on air, even as they are oxygen for young lives.
“When your backs are against the wall, you cling to each other,” explained an Anglican minister who works closely with Catholic priests in Ankara. Assisting refugees is one of their ongoing activities.
He also mentioned something I noticed: a natural ecumenical mingling occurs in Christian places of worship where faith is under pressure.
Christians of all stripes are at church on Sundays, the minister said. Orthodox, Armenians, Iranians, everyone “who can get their head around the liturgy” is welcome.
On the walls of St Nicholas Church (a joint project of British and Americans in the 1960s) are several beautiful icons. On the altar, two golden candlesticks rescued from an Armenian Church, Catholic or Orthodox.
And a few feet from the altar, near a Bible, stands an image of the Divine Mercy.
“We have an Iraqi family who escaped their home just as it was being attacked. What to grab? They rescued this image of Christ,” he recounted. “They’re probably, originally, Catholic.”
Photo Credits: Top photo of Syrian refugee camp in Turkey/Wikipedia; all other photos provided by Victor Gaetan.