Jesuit Father Nawras Sammour is head of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Syria. Despite the grave conditions in the nation due to Syria’s civil war, Sammour is maintaining hope for the future. Photo by Michael Swan

Christians maintain hope in Syria’s bleakness

By 
  • January 11, 2015

TORONTO - It’s not easy being Syrian, especially if you’re the forgotten minority caught in the tsunami of sectarian massacres and ethnic cleansing referred to as the Syrian civil war.

Jesuit Father Nawras Sammour, who heads up the Jesuit Refugee Service in Syria, has observed the war in two stages. Living among Syria’s 7.6 million internal refugees, Sammour has seen a first phase when people are on high alert, hungry for information, out on the street in villages and refugee camps talking with each other, trying to understand what’s happening and what will happen next. But all that stops at 6 p.m. when refugees hunker down for the night with their families, trying to survive until the next day. Stage two begins when the refugees are still out on the street after 6 p.m., said Nawras.

“You have mortars around and whatever. They don’t care,” he said. “The most important thing is to live in the present moment. Tomorrow? We don’t care about it. According to me, that’s phase two. It’s much more dangerous than phase one. It’s that fatalism. Hope with fatalism doesn’t fit.”

Nawras doesn’t blame Syrians for losing hope.

“It’s too difficult to continue to hope now. In a general way, if you are realistic or are somehow rational in your approach, it’s too difficult to hope, to keep hope,” Nawras told The Catholic Register while visiting Toronto in December. “Because there is no exit point. It’s a vicious circle of violence and violence and violence and no more perspective, if you like, on the horizon.”

That 7.6 million Syrians are displaced internally is depressing enough, but the numbers don’t end there. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has 3.2 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights counted more than 76,000 killed in 2014, bringing the three-and-a-half year total for the civil war to 206,603. The 2014 numbers include 3,500 dead children and 18,000 dead civilians.

Meanwhile, Canada failed to meet its commitment to welcome 1,300 Syrian refugees by Jan. 1 and has yet to make any new commitment. The government claims it had received 1,063 Syrian refugees in Canada by Dec. 29 — 82 per cent of its goal and a dramatic increase from a reported 457 as of Nov. 13.

Tiny Lebanon, a country of just 4.5 million people, is now host to 1.2 million Syrian refugees. It is as though Canada was suddenly living with 9.1 million homeless, traumatized foreigners. A New Year’s decision by Lebanon to impose visas to stem the tide has UNHCR officials worried about people still under fire in Syria.

For Syria’s Christians the future seems particularly bleak.

“None of the possible solutions for the Syrian crisis includes the Christians. None of it,” said Sammour. “If you are talking, for example, about a divided Syria, you have a region for the Kurds, another region for the Sunni, a third region for Alawite and a fourth region for Druze. Christians? They would be around… Now I would say we are completely ignored.”

Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Canada, the United States and the United Nations may be talking about the Christians, but it’s a non-question among the Syrians who must make peace.

“I wouldn’t like to be important because the international community asked others, asked my compatriots, to consider me as a partner,” said Sammour. “If it doesn’t come from them that’s really, really bad.”

Sammour, however, does not despair.

“But we don’t have the right to lose hope,” he said.

The Christian outlier status in any future Syria contains the seeds of hope, according to Sammour.

“Because we are threatening nobody, not considered a threat to anybody, considered as nobody, we would be able to work with everybody,” he explained. “Then we could be something like the salt of the land, everywhere in a very hidden way.”

Sammour sees this as an opportunity “to get back to our first vocation, to be those people who are there, working, being the witness of justice, of some values.”

The only stumbling block is the Christians themselves.

“We have to be somehow convinced of our own values and our own Gospel,” he said.

Hope is central to the JRS, given its commitment to education. Around the world the Jesuits set up schools in refugee camps.

In Syria the educational mission of the Jesuit Refugee Service has to overcome some legitimate, well-founded fears. “Would they be allowed to educate people where the most radical people have control?” Sammour asks. “Education, because it’s about giving people a future, it’s dangerous for some narrow thinking.”

Despite Sunni fundamentalist opposition in militia-held regions, the JRS has managed to deliver classes to about 6,200 students in 2014 and is budgeting for similar numbers in 2015. The JRS operates five centres in Syria where they start with emergency food aid and then add medical services, schools and psychosocial counselling.

“For a short term goal, you are serving children who have gone through atrocities,” Sammour said.

“When you welcome them you try to help them to evacuate all that, to cope with the dramatic reality — through education, catch-up studies, activities, arts, singing, dancing, drawing, whatever.”

But there’s more to Sammour’s strategy than easing the burden on children. Through the children, he hopes to reach parents from all sides of the conflict. Sunni, Alawite, Druze — all parents care about their children and Sammour hopes the parents can discover how much common ground they share through their children.

“Now they are sitting in the same place with their own children playing. Thus you prepare the future as well for adults, not only for children.”

Sammour didn’t come to Canada on a begging tour to raise funds for JRS programs. But as someone who studied theology at Ottawa’s Saint Paul University, the Jesuit is aware of what Canada could offer to Syrians.

“As a Canadian society, you have a very long tradition in welcoming,” he said. “Be faithful to your own tradition, at least. That’s one issue.”

Sammour would also like to see the Canadian tradition of peacekeeping and peacebuilding put to work in the region. The kind of mission Canadians undertook with an international coalition in Afghanistan to protect civilians could demonstrate a different way of thinking about military conflict, he said.

“You have that long tradition of peace building. Go for peace, not for war,” said Sammour.

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