If we could see them in a picture, we would have a colorful, diverse and hopeful image: They are tall, small, and medium-sized; they dress in blue, yellow, green or any other colour; they are women and men, young and not so young. They are the staff and volunteers of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Syria. And they are some of the hidden heroes in a country bleeding from an armed conflict which has entered its fourth year.
Heroes in mass media are frequently depicted armed to the teeth, skillfully using force and violence. Fearless and facing adversity alone, they go around fighting, defeating and killing their opponents. And people get excited with them – for different reasons. But this is different.
Our heroes are certainly immersed in a violent context, but they have decided to stop the vicious circle of violence by means of compassion and service, through active nonviolence. It is as simple as that, and as difficult as one can imagine. Difficult? Unfortunately, numbers seem to be well-known to the world: In Syria’s war more than 150,000 people have been killed, more than five million people are internally displaced, and around three million have fled the country and are refugees in neighboring countries. Many people talk about lost generations in Syria because a great number of those people are children.
Invited by Pax Christi International, Fr. Mourad Abou Seif, from JRS Aleppo, Fr. Zihad Hilal, from JRS Homs, and Fr. Ken Gavin, from the JRS International headquarters were recently in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to accept the Pax Christi International Peace Award 2014. They also took time to share with us their life and work.
The JRS in Syria is made up of multi-ethnic and multi-religious teams of volunteers who are serving more than 300,000 people. Day after day, they provide hot meals, deliver educational programs, and accompany people in need of solidarity. But above all, they are fostering hope and reconciliation.
In Aleppo, JRS leaders are in continuous dialogue with religious representatives of all traditions to promote collaboration among humanitarian agencies. And it is no secret that at JRS facilities Muslim communities feel at home. JRS also strives to facilitate mediation processes between members of the state army and opposition fighters when this is needed and possible.
Fr. Mourad shares that “the real revolution we want is a revolution of renewing our values of being together, of working together.” He adds that at JRS “we are not Christians working for Muslims or for Christians; we are Christians and Muslims, and Kurdish, and Armenians… All of us Syrian people mobilising ourselves to help Syria getting out of this war. In working together we have been discovering each other in a new spirit and the people of Aleppo can see this.”
In the city of Homs, JRS serves around 6000 families in three churches and four centers while around 3000 children are learning peace and reconciliation through “life classes” in which they acknowledge and value the diversity of their communities. JRS has earned the respect of the population in such a way that they were called to join the UN in accompanying the evacuation of people from the besieged city center.
The Jesuits have paid a significant price for accompanying their people in Syria. In April, Fr. Frans van der Lugt, 70, originally from the Netherlands, was killed in front of his house in Homs. He was shot twice in the head. His crime? To be a man of peace! He had helped in the negotiations to break the siege in the Old City of Homs. “There is nothing more painful than watching mothers searching for food for their children in the streets,” he declared in a video released in February. “We love life, we want to live. And we do not want to sink in a sea of pain and suffering.” He could have left the city but he decided to stay: “I have learned about the generosity of the Syrian people,” he told a reporter. “If these people are suffering now I want to be in solidarity with them. As I was with these people in their good times, I am with them in their pain.”
Another Jesuit, Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, 58, originally from Italy, has been kidnapped since July 2013. Crime? Again, to be a peacemaker, he had been pleading – inside and outside Syria – for a peaceful democratic transition in the country.
Fr. Mourad acknowledges the importance of the award received from Pax Christi: “It is telling people that our project is possible, that we are building something new, and that this is very important to build peace in our country.” Fr. Mourad emphasises that JRS is in Syria to be with Syrians and they will continue to be there, no matter how high the risk may be.
I believe they will stay. And I certainly believe that the commitment of those heroes is already bearing fruit, somehow, for the new Syria in the making.
Pax Christi International Secretary-General