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‘These are our brothers and sisters’

| Friday, November 7, 2014

For months, the Islamic State group commonly referred to as ISIS has made shockwaves in the Middle East and around the world with its swift, merciless and religiously-motivated violence. On a recent trip to the Middle East, Notre Dame professor of theology Fr. Dan Groody witnessed the human face of the victims of the Islamic State group’s brutality so he could share their story with Catholics in the United States and the Notre Dame community.

Syria ChildrenPhoto courtesy of Fr. Dan Groody
‘Christ gives me peace’

“When we were in a Bulgarian refugee camp, this guy came up to me and said ‘I’m a Christian.’ … I didn’t have my clerics on, but he said ‘I’m a Christian,’ and so I said, ‘Tell me more,’” Groody said. “And he said ISIS asked him if he was a Christian and he said yes, and they asked him why he was a Christian and he said, ‘I don’t find peace in Islam. I want to find peace. I’m tired of the fighting, I’m tired of the violence, I’m tired of all the hatred. I want to find peace and Christ gives me peace.’

“He said he came back later than evening and [ISIS] killed his mother, his father, his sister and his two brothers. He said ‘I have no one else left in the world.’ He was very much alone in the midst of Bulgaria. He couldn’t go back to his homeland, and he really couldn’t go forward at this point, either.”

Groody travelled to Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece from Sept. 21 to Oct. 3 with a delegation of six people from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) that focuses on migrant and refugee ministry.

As Christians visiting the region, Groody said the delegation faced some of the same threats the refugees they encountered did, but nothing compared to their reality.

“There’s always a risk. Life’s a risk,” he said. “I didn’t feel threatened at any time, but we were aware that some of the towns we were in, ISIS was there, and even some of the houses we were in it wasn’t clear who we were dealing with.

“But still, our job was not to play it safe. Our job was to find out what was happening, and unless we were able to hear the stories of the people where they work, we really couldn’t offer anything substantial. But whatever risks we took, they were nothing compared to what people we were talking to were going through. … Anything we faced was just so miniscule in comparison.”

Groody said members of this committee travel to different parts of the world with pressing migrant and refugee issues each year. In the past two years, they have been to Central America to examine the issue of migrant children coming to the U.S. and the Middle East to address the overflow of refugees from the Syrian Civil War.

On each trip, Groody said delegation members meet with high-level United Nations (U.N.) and government officials, aid workers with groups such as Catholic Charities and the Red Cross and with refugees themselves.

Groody said these encounters with refugees were the most moving aspect of the experience. He said a medical student from Syria fleeing ISIS violence with his brother, both of whom Groody met in Greece, told him a particularly powerful story.

“I asked, ‘Was God present at any point’ and the one brother, who was Muslim, said, ‘Yes, absolutely. We were constantly looking death in the face, and death was in front of us everyday,’” Groody said. “This is someone who was a medical student in Syria and now a refugee in Greece. I said, ‘What did you say to God or what did you hear from God?’ And he said, ‘I prayed everyday, and it was this: you are my God, my life is in your hands, help me.’ It’s those kinds of stories, for me, that are particularly important.”

‘These are our brothers and sisters’

Unlike the United States, Groody said countries such as Turkey, which has about 1.7 million refugees, willingly accept large volumes of refugees.

“I’ve often asked the government leaders — we’ve met with Prime Ministers and Secretaries of State on previous visits — why is it that you accept [the refugees],” he said. “I mean, [the U.S.] goes crazy over 60,000 children coming across the border.

“So I said, ‘Why do you accept them?’ They said ‘These are our brother and sisters.’ So it’s really rather striking to see the level of humanitarian commitment they have, even with the political costs that are involved. And that was one of the things I paid close attention to. If you look at the calculus between humanitarian costs and political costs in both Turkey and in the United States, Turkey — even though I’ve got a lot of issues with Turkey — Turkey has really said, ‘We will welcome these people even if there’s nothing to gain politically because they are our brothers and sisters,’ whereas we’ve said, ‘Because we have something to lose politically, we will not do anything for these people.’”

Groody said United States and the USCCB still do accept and help resettle millions of refugees, making the delegation an important tool for understanding where the refugees come from.

“The United States resettles more refugees than any other country in the world, and the Bishop’s conference resettles more refugees than any other organization in the United States,” he said.

“If you just took the number of resettled refugees that the Bishop’s conference resettles, it would be larger than any other country in the world other than the United States. So it’s a tremendous amount of work that the Bishops do, so these kinds of delegations are important because they give us firsthand accounts of what’s going on with the refugee situation in various parts of the world.”

‘What more can Notre Dame do’

Though he travelled with the USCCB and continues work with them, Groody said he also made the trip to the Middle East as a Notre Dame faculty member with an eye towards the University’s role, or lack thereof, in the refugee crisis.

“While I went as a member of the Bishop’s conference, and while I went as a member of the committee, I actually also went there as a member of the faculty, and I can’t help but go to these places and continually ask, ‘What more can Notre Dame do, and what can we do as human beings, as Christians, as Catholics,’” Groody said.

When he visited a school on the border of Turkey and Syria, overflowing with 3,000 refugees, Groody said a classroom full of young girls told him what they would want to tell the U.N.

“They looked at me and said, ‘First of all, don’t forget about us, but secondly, what we really want is an education, and we want to have a future with hope. We want to have a peaceful place to live,” he said. “What I heard again and again is they want an education. I ask what can we do to contribute to that.”

Groody said he could envision Notre Dame playing a role in establishing satellite learning opportunities for refugees. He also said he thought the Alliance for Catholic Education could help give migrant and refugee children an education in the United States.

Overall, Groody said the refugee crises in the Middle East, Central America and other parts of the world call Catholic communities such as Notre Dame to examine their role as advocates for the marginalized.

“I think the presence of the refugee crisis is very significant right now,” he said. “We live in age of migration and we live at a time when there are pressing human needs. And I think it’s a time when our government is doing something — it is trying to respond to some of these issues — but it raises the question of how much of a responsibility is upon us to not be indifferent and to really rise up to the humanitarian challenge that’s there, and I think even more so from a Christian perspective, to see how central that is to our own life of faith.”

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About Jack Rooney

Jack is a 2016 graduate of Notre Dame, and The Observer's former managing editor. He is currently spending a year living and working for the University in Ireland, and writing columns to keep him busy. For more random thoughts and plenty of news links, follow Jack on Twitter @RooneyReports.

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