After Five Years of Comforting the Afflicted in Syria, a Glimmer of Good News

As a new humanitarian commitment is announced, CRS’ Bill O’Keefe discusses the plight and prospects of those caught in the civil war’s deadly cross fire.

Children from Syria at a park near the Belgrade, Serbia bus terminal.
Children from Syria at a park near the Belgrade, Serbia bus terminal. (photo: Kira Horvath/CRS)

BALTIMORE — The “turbid ebb and flow of human misery” from Syria’s devastating conflict continues to impact its neighbors and Europe. But even as the fifth anniversary of the bloodletting approaches in March, good news brings a glimmer of hope for refugees clinging to survival.

For Syrians trapped in the war zone of their country — where more than 470,000 lives may have been lost, and more than half the country’s pre-war population of 22 million have fled their homes — there is the renewed possibility of a general cease-fire taking place on Feb. 19. Such a move, if it holds, would allow civilians in areas not dominated by the Nusra Front (al-Qaida’s Syrian branch) or Daesh (also known as Islamic State or ISIS/ISIL), to receive badly needed humanitarian aid beginning on Saturday.

For refugees who have clung to existence by fleeing to Syria’s neighbors — Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan — there is better news: World governments have finally come together and pledged a historic $10 billion to fund the United Nation’s hitherto badly underfunded efforts to refugees and their host countries.

Since the beginning of the war, Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ international humanitarian aid organization, has played a key role in supporting refugees from Syria’s conflict: working with the local Church and non-church partners to provide refugees with shelter, basic household and sanitation supplies, and also education for their children, complete with psychological healing with trained experts that can help them process the trauma in “child-friendly spaces.”

In this interview with the Register, Bill O’Keefe, CRS’ vice president for government relations and advocacy, spoke about the latest developments in humanitarian assistance and CRS’ efforts in the region.

What came out of the recent Syria donors’ conference that we need to know about?

The good news at the conference was there was a pretty dramatic increase in pledging to address the humanitarian situation on the ground — which is really good news, because the needs continue to grow. There was a growing recognition that this is really important; that the refugee-hosting countries of Turkey and Lebanon and Jordan need help not only with the humanitarian assistance, but also with the longer-term needs that people who have been there for five years now have: educating their children and for jobs, livelihoods.

In many ways, this is the first time that donor countries really came together with a serious intent to do something about those longer-term issues. I think that reflects the realization that the refugees have come to that conclusion on their own, which is that they’re not going back anytime soon, short of a miracle, and so we need to help them plan for the longer term. That means education and jobs.


More than $10 billion was pledged — that’s a lot of money. What’s the next step?

It was a lot of money. And while that’s great, the problem always is: We’re in a world where governments make pledges — which is lovely — but people don’t eat pledges. So turning the pledges into help is now the task. I think the U.S. has really done a very good job — it has been very generous when it comes to humanitarian assistance in the Syrian crisis — but, still, it’s not nearly enough. The U.S. itself committed an additional $892 million, $600 million of which was for assistance to refugees, and then $292 million was for these longer-term education, livelihood, job needs in the neighboring refugee-hosting countries. That is huge and great, but converting that pledge and commitment into resources is always the tricky thing.


Up to this point, has the world’s collective failure to support refugees in Syria’s neighboring countries helped drive the massive migration to Europe?

Ultimately, while we should assist the people on the ground, we are never going to be able to assist or resettle our way out of this crisis. There needs to be negotiated settlement to the situation in Syria, because what is going on now is so atrocious that we just have to expect that more people are going to flee. And the neighboring countries are full: In Lebanon, for example, there are 4 million Lebanese and 2 million Syrian refugees in the country. That is like having 150 million refugees show up in the United States over five years. That’s unbelievable; that would mean one out of three people walking by was a refugee who had come here in the last five years. We can’t even fathom what that would be like here, but that is what it is like in Lebanon.

The only real solution is to find a way to end the fighting; that is going to be very difficult — it is going to take sacrifices and all sides, but it has got to be done.


Has Pope Francis been able to exert effective leadership in this crisis?

The Holy Father has definitely been clear about the need for a negotiated settlement and about the need to assist refugees. I think, after the initial flow of refugees began last summer, that he definitely inspired a sense of generosity and solidarity. But since then, the situation hasn’t gotten better, and so I think he keeps a lot of us going: staying on task and doing the difficult job of trying to play our part as a Church to help … but I think the Holy Father’s prayers have not been answered yet.


When you were speaking with the refugees most recently in Serbia, Macedonia and Greece, what reasons did they give for why they couldn’t stay in the region?

Some of them fled directly from Syria. For them, it was that they had lost hope. One man told me, “There is no Syria anymore.” It is just profoundly sad that he had just given up on the possibility of his country. So some were directly fleeing violence. There were others who basically had been in Turkey and Lebanon — I didn’t meet anyone from Jordan — for a number of years, with the intention of going home. Then, at some point, something psychologically just switched, and they basically said, “You know, I don’t think we’re going to be able to go back anytime soon, and I can’t stay in limbo; I need to have a better life, so that means trying to go somewhere, where I can settle, where I can educate my kids, or I can try to get a job and I can try to live my life.”


What does this war threaten to do to the host countries if help does not materialize and war continues to drag on?

There is already tension in their societies, because you have all these people flooding in, and what that does is that it raises the cost of housing, it lowers wages in some cases and in some industries. And while the societies in Jordan and Lebanon have done a really incredible job, there is a point — and I don’t know where that point is — where their own social cohesion starts to break down.

If this continues, and more people keep coming, there’s more stress on the societies. They’re going to have a hard time holding it together as their own population feels that [refugees are] impinging on their ability to work, find housing and things like that.


What can we Catholics here do to try to give effective help to the Syrian refugees in the midst of this crisis?

First, we need American Catholics to keep our government focused and insist on continuing to generously provide support for the short term and the long-term stuff that we’ve talked about; but also to not give up on the negotiations and to do everything they can in those negotiations to try to bring the people in the various parties together to a cease-fire.

Second, I think that we, as Catholics, during Lent, can pray for our brothers and sisters in this situation, so that generous people will help them, that they will find a way to help themselves and that leaders involved will find a way to stop the fighting.

Third, CRS and other groups need support for our work to help refugees in the surrounding refugee-hosting countries and in the European countries where refugees are passing on their way north. We’re helping 800,000 people in total — it is a big job, but we’re helping them one by one. We desperately need and want support for that. There’s a lot that we as individual Catholics can do to make a difference here.


Any personal story of encountering the Syrian refugees that you’d like to share as a final thought?

When I was in Macedonia, where we have provided a lot of support to people, a group of us met a family that was from Syria. There was a woman with her husband and her six children — the sixth had been born just a few days before, in this refugee camp. Actually, she went into labor on the train, and they pack 1,100 people onto these trains that leave from the southern border of Macedonia to the northern border. But she had delivered this baby, and it was during Advent.

I just could not help but think about Mary, Joseph and Jesus as refugees in Egypt and how Mary had no room in the inn. But here, we and our supporters have been able to provide “a room at the inn” metaphorically for this woman, where she was able to have her child, where she was able to stay and recover with her family — the kids were the cutest little things, as always — and it was just an incredible moment for me: to realize the ultimate gravity of what we’re trying to do here and why it’s so important.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.