Relief efforts uphold dignity of life, priest says

Catholic Relief Services photo

Msgr. Jack Schuler spotted a woman making the sign of the cross before she sang a song for guests at a Catholic Relief Services-supported program that helps migrant workers and refugees in Lebanon. He reached out to her and gave her a blessing.

The Catholic Church's concern for the dignity of all is seen in its response to the humanitarian crisis that resulted from the war in Syria, said Msgr. Schuler, Catholic Charities of St. Louis chaplain and pastor of St. Cronan Parish in south St. Louis. More than 70 percent of Syrian refugees are women and children, according to CRS.

Msgr. Schuler recently returned from a trip to Jordan and Lebanon to see the work of Catholic Relief Services with refugees from Syria and elsewhere. CRS works with local Caritas agencies — part of Caritas Internationalis, a body of the universal Church responding to the needs of the poor, vulnerable and excluded — to provide critical assistance to Syrian and Iraqi refugees and other poor people. This assistance includes basic health and psychosocial services, education and emergency services.

He spent a week in the Middle East along with several other guests of CRS, the overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. bishops. His flight from the U.S. landed in Amman, Jordan, and he boarded a plane to Beirut, Lebanon. Next to him were Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch Ignatius Joseph III Younan and Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman of Baghdad. Discussions between the three helped Msgr. Schuler gain an insight into the Catholic Church in the Middle East and the effects of the war and the U.S. boycott.

The St. Louisan visited two schools in Lebanon that serve some of what Caritas estimates as more than 1.7 million refugees in the country of about 4.5 million people. The United Nations reports that Lebanon is the country with the highest concentration of refugees per capita. Lebanon did not set up formal camps for the refugees. Most are scattered across the country, living in precarious conditions in informal tented settlements or dilapidated buildings in the poorest neighborhoods.

Msgr. Schuler visited a school in the Bekaa Valley close to Syria with programs for refugee children supported by Catholic Relief Services, including trauma counseling. The director is Good Shepherd Sister Amira Tabel, and it is an oasis of order and cleanliness, Msgr. Schuler said. "It's a highly structured environment with young, enthusiastic, dedicated teachers who are very professional."

He was surprised to find faces of happy children — rather than downtrodden — though some were expressionless, possibly traumatized from the war. "The majority were just being children, singing, dancing, answering questions," he said.

The center for Syrian children living with their parents in Deir al Ahmar also serves Lebanese children in the area. The children receive basic education and after-school care. In addition, CRS and the Good Shepherd Sisters have provided food, shelter materials, blankets, heaters and other critical supplies to people living in the informal shelters.

"That structure sister set up dissipates some of the trauma. In their previous lives, they never knew when a bomb was going to go off, a bullet was going to hit the house, whether a parent would come home or whether they'd have food or not," Msgr. Schuler said.

Msgr. Schuler also visited a retention center where CRS provides assistance to migrants who are being held for immigration status violations. "Again, we were amazed at what the Catholic Church is doing," he said.

At another center, he heard the stories of domestic workers who'd been abused.

He met with six Caritas staff members providing services in Syria. Among other things, they told of the struggles people have as a result of the boycott of the country.

In Jordan, he visited a medical clinic and school. The school provides help to Syrian refugee children who are far behind in their schoolwork because they were unable to attend while caught in a war zone, Msgr. Schuler said.

Jordan hosts more than 1.3 million refugees, according to its government. In Jordan, CRS works with the local Caritas to provide critical assistance to more than 68,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees and poor Jordanians each year.

Pope Francis says "there must be no family without a home, no refugee without a welcome, no person without dignity." Msgr. Schuler called the Church's response impressive: "For them, it's not a job it's a mission." 

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With the war in Syria in its seventh year, more than 400,000 people have been killed and 11 million people uprooted from their homeland.

Syria is now the largest displacement crisis in the world since World War II. More than half the country's pre-conflict population has been forcibly displaced. Around 6 million people have been forced to flee their homes inside Syria and nearly half of them are in besieged or hard to reach areas.

Children make up more than half of Syrian refugees in the Middle East, and they are paying the heaviest price, according to Catholic Relief Services. Many have witnessed violence and the loss of homes or loved ones; the vast majority have been out of school for years.

Catholic Relief Services supports the efforts of Pope Francis, who has appealed for "an end to the violence and the peaceful resolution of hostilities" in Syria.

Catholic Relief Services and its Caritas partners in the region are providing assistance with education, counseling and care for children, housing and livelihood support. Programs provide basic necessities and support urgent medical care and emergency relief for tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in the areas most affected by the conflict.

To donate to the relief efforts, visit Donations also may be sent to Catholic Relief Services, P.O. Box 17090 Baltimore, MD 21297-0303 or made by phone at (877) 435-7277. 

Cardinal Dolan visit

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York visited Lebanon in April along with retired Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver as members of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

The association offers support to the fragile, small Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, centered mostly in the Mideast. Lebanon, Cardinal Dolan wrote in his column in Catholic New York, "is a particularly radiant example of a country, in the otherwise dark landscape of the Mideast, where there is a religious diversity, amity, peace, and a large Christian population."

The Catholic population of Lebanon belongs to one of four ancient rites: Maronite, Melkite, Syrian, and Armenian. There are also about 120,000 Latin Rite Catholics, mostly foreign workers, including from the Philippines.

Cardinal Dolan praised the work of the Near East Welfare Association. Catholic Relief Services, Aid to the Church in Need, and the Good Shepherd Sisters. "This is really what we came to see: the good work that you, the Catholic people of good will in the United States, are doing for the people in need here in Lebanon," he wrote.

Overall, Cardinal Dolan stated, "There's a lot of suffering here, the tears of refugees and the memories of war. But there's also hope, confidence, joy, and life." 

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