1. Given the situation in the Region (particularly in Syria) today, as the JRS MENA Regional Director, what are your major concerns?
Today as the Regional Director of JRS MENA, I do have several concerns; some of the major ones include:
The terrible reality that the war in Syria does not seem to end; even as late as last night, we heard of bombings in the densely populated areas of Damascus. This is sad and very tragic. At one stage, we were really hoping that peace and normalcy would finally return to Syria; there were some very positive signs last year. But our expectations have been belied. This month of February has been particularly bad. Many are affected – there have been many deaths and several more injured. We are concerned for the safety of every single citizen; however I have an added responsibility that is the concern for the safety and security of every JRS staff and volunteer working in Syria today. I have been in the midst of this crisis since the very beginning – so I am totally aware of the great risks involved. The team in Syria works with complete dedication always ready to be in midst of those who are suffering the most. But I do worry for them. We will soon be completing seven years of war in Syria. Millions are affected and among those still living, a fairly large percentage, have either fled the country or are living as displaced persons within Syria. People are tired and helpless today; the same fatigue is also being experienced in host countries and naturally also with donors and other benefactors who have so generously been supporting our efforts all these years. The major concerns are plenty – but we continue with a firm resolve to serve, accompany, and advocate for the refugees and others who are displaced.
2. In the light of the above, what are some of the key challenges which JRS in the region faces today?
Because of the several concerns we are also faced with key challenges. The greatest challenge is of course to continue serving those who are most affected despite the fact that some of our colleagues have to face the same hostilities. Recently with great reluctance we had to suspend some of our activities in Damascus because the situation was just too serious for everyone. Even today there is a cloud of uncertainty and our people there do not know where and when the next bomb will fall! This is painful – but this is the reality of all areas which are in the midst of war. There is a challenge of being instruments of reconciliation and peace. That is our ultimate mission: how do we build bridges when violence continues everywhere? Pope Francis’ message to all is to welcome, protect, promote and integrate refugees – we are convinced that we should all be doing that. We all need to belong to societies and communities which are inclusive. That is all easier said than done; sadly our world is becoming more intolerant, exclusive and xenophobic. Trying to address this reality is another key challenge for us. Today Syria is in fact “many Syrias” – that is a big tragedy. We were one country and one people! Unfortunately, the last seven years have also witnessed the total fragmentation and division of Syria. We have become isolated, warring pockets, but for what? It is a question which is very difficult to comprehend. So the restoration of our UNITY as one country is an important challenge for all the Syrian people.
3. What substantial actions can and should be taken by the global community to help alleviate the situation and restore normalcy in this part of the world?
How does one respond to such a question? The whole world is aware that there are many players in the war in Syria. This is no ‘State secret’! The global community should act expeditiously to halt the hostilities. Innocent people continue to suffer. What most Syrians (and all others affected by war and violence in the region) want is an immediate cessation of all hostilities by all the warring groups, the return to normalcy, and the assurance of sustainable peace. Just in February 2018, the Israelis have bombed Syria, the United States has bombed a paramilitary convoy in Syria, Turkey has bombed the Kurdish areas of Syria, and the list is endless. Our country has become the amphitheatre for the wars between other nations. The ordinary Syrian is just a victim and continues to suffer. The nations of the world are today talking about the two Global Compacts. This once again should not boil down to mere “lip service”. A concrete plan of action must be put in place and there has to be a mechanism to ensure its implementation. We have all been living in the midst of many empty and unfulfilled promises these past years – this newest commitment should not go the way that the others have gone! Then the global community must seriously address the role that the military – industrial complex – plays in this part of the world. Pope Francis has been referring to this fact over and over again. There is a proliferation of deadly arms and ammunition in our region. Where are these manufactured? How, and by whom, are they supplied? Yes several questions to be answered – once again we need a commitment at every level to address this sensitive though lucrative issue.
4. Given the references to the refugees/displaced in GC 36, the recent Letters of Fr. General on Discernment and the stand of Pope Francis , what ‘more’ should the Society of Jesus be doing for a more concerted response in this specific mission?
Ever since Fr Pedro Arrupe founded the Jesuit Refugee Service on November 14, 1980, JRS has been rendering yeoman service to all those who are fleeing war and persecution in the hotspots of the world. The work which was begun in this region (in Syria to respond to the plight of the Iraqi refugees) ten years ago in 2008 continues today in some of the most difficult situations. It was very heartening therefore to note that Decree 1 of GC 36 “Companions on a Mission of Reconciliation and Justice” referred to the refugees and the displaced (#26). Besides GC 36 also sent that very warm message “Witnesses of Friendship and Reconciliation” which has meant so much to us Jesuits and our collaborators living in this part of the world in the midst of war and conflict. Encouraging words and significant steps that keep us all motivated all the time. We have our own brother Pope Francis who has been so unequivocal in his stand for the refugees, migrants and others displaced persons. Fr General has also invited all of us to discern on our Universal priorities and respond to the suffering of the refugees and the displaced. This gains new emphasis in this process of discernment. But all of us Jesuits are motivated by the ‘magis’: what more can we do for Christ? And yes, I do believe that we as the Society of Jesus can do much more. We need the concern for the plight of the refugees and displaced to permeate all our institutions; we need many younger Jesuits to serve full time for the refugees and the displaced. Above all, this work should not be just the ‘prerogative’ of a handful of Jesuits. When Fr Arrupe envisaged this Mission in 1980, he was clear that he wanted it to be the responsibility of as many Jesuits as possible.
5. What are your hopes/ expectations for the future?
My hope is that peace and normalcy returns to our region that our people will no longer suffer because of war and violence. My hope is that in our attitudes and actions we demonstrate the compassion of Jesus to welcome, protect, promote and integrate the refugees and the displaced. My hope is that all of us ultimately realise that we are all children of one loving merciful God.
Whose war is it anyway?
The war in Syria completes its seventh year on March 15, 2018. Nobody however is cheering and celebrating the anniversary of this bloody and violent conflict which has resulted in the deaths of thousands and caused the largest displacement in recent human history. After seven years of experiencing widespread destruction and insecurity, there is a natural frustration and a sense of fatigue. Most Syrians are ready to clutch at any straw for normalcy, to fan any glimmer of hope. They yearn for peace and stability; they want their united Syria of the past to be restored to them. They desperately want the bombardment and the air strikes (which have been taking place with frightening regularity in some areas in and around Damascus even today) to stop now. A cloud of uncertainty has gripped most Syrians today. They do not know from where and when the next bomb will fall; they do not know whether they will live to see tomorrow!
February has been a very bad month – particularly for Damascus. The capital city has been till recently, a relatively secure area during these years of war; the conflict has been focused in Aleppo, Homs, Al Raqaa and some other areas. There seems to be a last ditch effort, these past weeks, from the besieged areas of Eastern Ghouta, in rural Damascus, from where some have resorted to indiscriminate bombings resulting in many fatalities and other casualties. Damascus, once a thriving metropolis, bears the appearance of a ghost town – with very little movement in the streets. To top it all, the United States, Israel and Turkey are playing their own dubious and questionable roles and have been bombing both civilian and military areas.
This is tragic indeed! It looks as though some of the so-called ‘big powers’ are really not serious about peace returning to Syria. At some stage there was a modicum of hope, but now all that is destroyed with this latest round of violence – which is apparently the worst bout since the outbreak of hostilities in March 2011. The years of war have torn families apart, destroyed businesses and shattered livelihood. Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says, “It is a collective failure. Ultimately, Syria’s conflict isn’t about numbers – it’s about people”
According to the latest statistics of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Over 5.4 million people have fled Syria since 2011, seeking safety mainly in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and beyond. There are at least 6.1 million more that are internally displaced within Syria. There are approximately 13.1 million people who are in need in Syria of which 2.98 million still live in hard-to-reach and besieged areas. It is estimated that more than 3.5 million children under the age of seven know nothing but war. Host communities are constantly under great strain as they shoulder the social, economic and political fallout. Hundreds of thousands have made perilous sea voyages seeking sanctuary; but no one is sure how many may have died at sea. While many have sought refuge in Europe, Canada and the United States, only a small percentage have actually been welcomed. The world is painfully aware of the rise in xenophobia, racism and exclusiveness of right-wing politics in many countries across the globe.
At this moment fear, helplessness and hopelessness seem to be the lot of many a Syrian today. The other day as bombs rained in Damascus a friend of mine from there called saying, “I am trapped. What do I do? When will this war ever end?” There are obviously no answers and no words of comfort can ever change the grim reality which people there have to face, day-in and day-out. One can only ask loudly and boldly, “Whose war is it, anyway?”And one can only pray that peace and normalcy returns to Syria as soon as possible!