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Professor visits refugees abroad

Kristen Durbin | Thursday, October 25, 2012

In the Bible, Moses is given a vision of the Promised Land atop Mount Nebo.

But as Fr. Daniel Groody stood atop the same ridge in Jordan, he saw the antithesis of that divine vision.

“We looked to the south and saw issues of trafficking. We looked southeast into Iran and Iraq and saw persecution of religious minorities. We looked north into Lebanon and saw the situation of undocumented refugees,” he said. “We looked further north into Turkey and saw people fleeing violence there. We looked all around Jordan and saw refugee camps and unaccompanied minors fleeing Syria without parents.”

As a member of a seven-person delegation sent by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Migration and Refugee Services committee, Groody traveled to Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey last week to get a firsthand perspective on the situation of Syrian refugees fleeing the country’s ongoing civil war.

“It was no longer a CNN report,” Groody, a Notre Dame theology professor, said. “There were actually people right there in front of me, who I could touch, see, feel and hear.”

To gain a comprehensive understanding of the plight of Syrian refugees, Groody said the delegation met with government officials, ambassadors, Vatican officials, church leaders, ministers of foreign affairs and several faith-based organizations, including the Red Crescent, Caritas and Catholic Relief Services.

“It’s a major humanitarian crisis going on,” Groody said. “We looked at coalitions of governments and organizations trying to have concerted responses to the situation … and tried to get their takes on what’s happening and how we can advocate for issues in the U.S.”

But more important than these diplomatic meetings, Groody said, were the conversations with the refugees themselves in official camps in Jordan and unofficial sites in Lebanon.

“The stories of these people meant the most in all those conversations. There, the statistics became human,” he said. “The people you saw in front of you were facing a level of vulnerability I’d never seen before. They had such a thin line of protection and, in some sense, no protection at all.”

With more than 100,000 registered Syrian refugees each in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and an estimated 150,000 Syrians living in Egypt, the magnitude of Syria’s violent internal conflict now extends throughout much of the Middle East, Groody said.

In all, more than 359,000 Syrians fleeing the war have registered in four neighboring states, including Iraq, since conflict broke out between the Syrian government and opposition groups in the spring of 2011, according to an Oct. 23 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The majority of refugees living in camps are women and children, Groody said, many of whom lost one or more family members during the conflict.

“In one camp, we sat down with one extended family that included three women who married three brothers, all of whom were killed in the war,” Groody said. “Their fourth brother had been jailed the day before, and the mother found out her grandson was just killed.”

Groody said unaccompanied refugee minors and young women, especially widows, face additional hardships in the camps.

“This was just a sea of children, of women who, in that culture, have very few opportunities and are unable to work at all,” he said. “Now they’re undocumented refugees, not simply migrants, facing a very unknown future.”

The “hardest part” for Groody is not knowing when the conflict in Syria will end because the longer it continues, the longer the refugees he met will be living in a state of limbo with no stability in any aspect of their lives.

“There were some common threads in our conversations with refugees,” he said. “They told us, ‘We are not safe. We have no home to go back to. We want to return to our country. The winter is coming. We have no food. And we are human beings.'”

Groody said the Catholic Church has been working “on the front lines” to provide immediate food and medical relief for refugees, assist with registration of refugees in United Nations records and create schools. These initiatives benefit any refugee, regardless of their religious affiliation.

“[The Church] isn’t asking questions. If anyone is in need, if anyone is hurting, if anyone is suffering or if anyone is in pain, the Church is there for you because you’re a human being. You’re a child of God and you’re loved by God,” Groody said.

In the case of a refugee camp playground in Jordan, Groody said the Church created a space for children to “develop some sort of identity” in the midst of their emotionally and physically taxing displacement.

“The Church serves as a safe place to reestablish communities and connections and help people begin to develop their education and knowledge,” he said. “But I think part of the message is that the Church is … engaged in this, but most of us don’t have the awareness that this is going on, and we often don’t know what to do. We can’t do everything but we can do something.”

Additionally, Groody said the delegation was “impressed” by the high level of involvement of neighboring state governments.

“We were impressed by how much the government of Jordan is willing to take on refugees at great costs, how Turkey is not only providing tents but also areas for heating and insulation,” he said. “They’re not just giving out handouts. They’re providing space for refugees to be treated as human beings.”

But the common denominator among refugee relief efforts, Groody said, was the emphasis on maintaining self-worth and human dignity “for people whose lives are completely shattered.”

Upon returning to the U.S., the USCCB delegation is working to promote awareness of the refugee situation by holding congressional briefings to influence policy, writing about refugees’ stories and possibly creating a film, Groody said.

“Listening to those stories, seeing those faces, meeting those people was more than seeing people in poverty. It was seeing people with absolute vulnerability that simply cried out for some kind of solidarity and help,” Groody said. “What’s important for the Notre Dame community to understand is the actual scope of the conflict and its human costs, as well as the desperate plea for humanitarian assistance.”

Despite U.S. and USCCB resettlement efforts and the U.S. government contribution of more than $100 million to refugee relief, Groody said more international cooperation is crucial.

“We’re left with the sense that there are many ways to be motivated to respond to this. Faith groups are responding, but even that cannot be done without the support of governments,” Groody said. “The needs are so much greater that we need a concerted effort from the international community to bring about some kind of durable solutions for folks in this kind of pain.”

Even more than a sense of motivation to act, Groody was left with the images he saw from Mount Nebo.

“The question is, have we really crossed the Jordan into a Promised Land where all humans can live in dignity … and develop and grow as God intends? That faith vision is something that still has yet to be realized.”