WASHINGTON — When Caroline Brennan met with newly arrived Syrian refugees in Jordan this July, she heard familiar stories of women and children forced to flee their homes without papers, money or food, while men stayed behind to protect family property.
But while the accounts of bombing attacks, deaths of loved ones and sudden destitution echoed the stories she had heard during a 2012 trip to refugee camps in the Middle East, there was also a stark difference.
In 2012, "they would tell me they were returning in a matter of weeks — ‘whenever the fighting stops.’ Now, they talk about a year or more," Brennan, a communications staffer with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), told the Register.
The shift in expectations marks the refugees’ growing realization that Syria’s civil war, now in its third year, shows no signs of drawing to a close. Indeed, experts fear it could morph into a regional sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite forces, with Christians caught in the middle.
International relief agencies are also adapting to the grim truth that an estimated 2 million Syrians now residing in camps and local housing in Jordon, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey may not be able to return home for some time to come. So while aid groups have stepped up the tempo of emergency food, shelter and medical treatment, they are also working on long-term assistance.
Catholic aid groups are among the agencies providing a broad range of assistance to displaced Syrians. And Brennan noted that CRS was working with Caritas Jordan, Caritas Lebanon, Jesuit Refugee Service and other regional Church-affiliated charities to organize schooling for children, medical treatment for chronic conditions and help with war-related trauma and counseling for mothers struggling to adapt to life as the heads of families scarred by death and dislocation.
"We understand that the longer children are out of school the less likely they are to go back," said Brennan, explaining CRS’ funding of schools for Syrian children.
"As a humanitarian agency, you respond with immediate and long-term support."
Over the past two years, the U.S. bishops have advocated for increased aid to Syrian refugees and pressed the Obama administration to bolster the emergency outreach in neighboring countries that have welcomed tens of thousands of people fleeing the civil war.
More recently, Western diplomats and relief workers have expressed alarm that the heavy flow of refugees, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon, could lead to political instability and create fresh problems for Syrians who have sought shelter in these countries.
"The countries continue to be generous, so far, but there are concerns about the conflict spilling into their country," Anastasia Brown, the director of resettlement services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Migration and Refugee Services, told the Register.
Kevin Hartigan, CRS’ regional director for the Middle East and Central Asia, has just returned from Jordan. He told the Register that while Jordan has done an "admirable job of handling this fast-growing number of people," the continued flow of refugees will place an "enormous strain on resources — water, public services, schools and health services."
In the early 2000s, he said, "Jordanians welcomed Palestinians and Iraqis, but this is the most stressful refugee situation they have faced — there are enormous camps."
Additional U.S. Aid
On Sept. 24, the White House announced that it would approve "$339 million in additional U.S. humanitarian aid to support those affected by the ongoing crisis in Syria."
The administration’s statement, which reported that U.S. assistance to Syrians displaced by the civil war now totaled $1.4 billion, also noted "the heavy economic and social strains that hosting this vulnerable population places on local communities and national governments."
The federal dollars, said the White House, will go to "United Nations agencies, international and non-governmental organizations and local Syrian organizations to reach the millions in desperate need of aid inside Syria and throughout the region."
The news underscores the administration’s intense diplomatic engagement in the region, in the wake of an alleged Aug. 21 chemical-weapons attack by the Syrian government.
Initially, President Obama announced that he was proposing a U.S. military strike to punish the government of President Bashar al-Assad for its alleged responsibility for a sarin-gas attack that killed an estimated 1,400 people, including 400 children.
The ensuing political firestorm ignited by the president’s proposed plan was the first time that many Americans took close notice of a civil war that pits forces loyal to Assad, the longtime leader of Syria, against an armed insurrection that includes both democratic fighters and Islamic extremists. The war has resulted in an estimated 100,000 deaths.
While Washington awaits the outcome of a new plan, approved by Assad, to identify and destroy Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, there are no immediate plans for halting the ongoing violence of the civil war. Thus, Syria’s refugee crisis will likely worsen, despite Pope Francis and other Church leaders calling for "dialogue" and stepped up diplomatic efforts to pursue a path toward peace between Assad and the rebel forces.
Helping All Faiths
The majority of people in the vast refugee camps in Jordan and elsewhere are Muslim, said Christian Fuchs, a spokesman for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), and that is because the camps draw the poorest Syrians, the majority of whom "are Sunni Muslims."
Like all Catholic relief groups, Jesuit Refugee Service provides a range of assistance to Syrians of all faiths, and it is one of the few groups to operate within Syria.
Amid the civil war, JRS serves the needy in and around Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, among other locations.
"In Aleppo, the JRS field kitchen makes up to 16,000 hot meals a day, which are then distributed to mosques, school shelters, public buildings and to other displaced persons who do not have the facilities to cook hot food themselves," Fuchs told the Register.
JRS also provides assistance in Lebanon, including Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, "offering support to Syrians in areas where no other NGOs operate," said Fuchs.
Amid the vast numbers of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria are Christians, who have been caught in the middle of the conflict.
"They are perceived as supporting the Syrian regime, because it has allowed religious minorities to continue," said the USCCB’s Anastasia Brown.
"A year ago, Christians in Damascus were getting the message from rebel fighters that they didn’t ‘belong’ there," she reported.
Now, Christians who were forced to leave their country "are fearful of returning and also fearful that the fact that they were there [outside the country] would be used against their families," she added.
"In Iraq, it was the same. Religious minorities were portrayed as supportive of the Hussein regime. They were also a bit fearful that the other refugees would not see them sympathetically."
Anxious about reprisals, many Christians do not register with relief agencies, though legal registration provides a number of benefits, including school enrollment and food assistance that might not "be available otherwise," said Brown.
In general, few Syrian refugees want to resettle permanently in a foreign land, and, so far, the U.N. has resettled about 2,000 people, though the USCCB resettlement program would like Washington to accept a larger number of cases from Syria.
For now, the approach of cold weather has prompted humanitarian organizations to focus on "winterization" services, such as more protective shelter, warm clothes and blankets.
Light Amid the Darkness
Yet Catholic humanitarian workers are optimistic that Syrian orphans of war will survive amid difficult conditions in foreign lands. They have lost so much, yet they demonstrate a remarkable resilience and an unshakable desire to rebuild their country after the war is over.
During her recent trip to Jordan, Caroline Brennan was struck by the fact that "so many Syrian refugees have set aside their own troubles to help their countrymen in even greater need."
"Syrians are working with our partner, Caritas Jordan, as volunteers and teachers. Even those who have lost everything want to help," said Brennan.
"They kept asking me, ‘Do Americans know we are moderate?’ These are the people who will rebuild their country."