By Liz O’Neill
From northern Iraq to the Bekaa Valley to the streets of Gaza, Catholic Relief Services is helping people in dire situations recover from debilitating, life-threatening conflicts that have changed their lives forever.
Because of our long-standing relationship with partners in the Middle East, CRS has been able to help these families on the front lines, working in arduous conditions to provide urgent relief as quickly as possible. The challenges are many, with severe insecurity in some areas and a rapidly changing context in others. Many families are living in the elements, with dangers overhead or circling their cities and towns. They are afraid, grieving and hungry. CRS is working to meet their urgent needs: safe shelter, clean water, food, hygiene, medicine, education and care for their children, and the means to establish a semblance of stability and live in dignity.
Escalating violence in northern and central Iraq has caused devastation and mass displacement of 1.2 million people since January. Fear looms as the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS) has taken control of large swaths of the Ninewa, Salah Al-Din and Diyala provinces. Religious minorities, including Christians and Shia Muslims, have been singled out for attack. People’s journey for safety is not without danger: Families are stripped of their possessions, even the rings off their fingers, at ISIS checkpoints. Many are living in empty houses, schools, clinics, church compounds and abandoned buildings, with living conditions deteriorating.
Kris Ozar, CRS head of programming in Egypt and Iraq, is now working in Erbil, in northern Iraq. “Our Catholic partners are working tirelessly to help. They have welcomed thousands of families on their grounds and are doing their best to provide all of the assistance they have available to them. You should also know that Iraqi communities are coming out to help, too–bringing bottles of water and warm, cooked food. The solidarity expressed by fellow Iraqi families here is stunning. But what they have to give barely scratches the surface. The conditions people are living in remind me of the forts I would build with my brothers in the suburbs of Detroit: find a bush or tree, crawl into a tiny sliver of shade to escape the heat, see what is around that we can use. Only this is as far from that experience as you can imagine,” said Kris.
Kris even met a former Caritas Iraq colleague who was forced to flee his home because of the violence. “I was visiting a Catholic Church compound near where I’m staying in Erbil when I was stunned to find former colleague there, living and sleeping on the grounds among hundreds of others, disheveled and displaced. We had learned a few days ago that the offices of our Caritas partners in other parts of the country had to be abandoned due to the violence, and that some of our Caritas colleagues were forced to flee their homes and towns,”said Kris.
“And, here was Bashar, protecting his family, including four children, under a small tree. This is a colleague who had I had come to know in previous visits, in far better circumstances. He had graciously welcomed me and other CRS colleagues over the past two years as a professional and warm-spirited peer in our work to help others in need. And now here he is, with nothing but the clothes he was wearing, sleeping on the dirt. We greeted each other warmly and I sat with him near their small tree, all that they can claim as shelter now. He showed me a video on his phone of the harrowing 10-hour journey it took to get his family here. His children were sleeping resting on the ground next to us in the only clothes they had. Despite all that Bashar is going through, they treated me as a guest there in the open air. They boiled water to offer me tea. Their hospitality was so deeply generous, it reminded me of the grace of humanity.”
CRS priorities in Iraq are to provide food, water and essential living supplies; social support and trauma counseling; education for internally displaced children and to prepare for longer-term resettlement. We’re committed to helping an initial 30,000 people, hoping to expand our reach with further resources and support. CRS has committed an initial $1 million in private funds and hopes to more than double that with public and private funding in the next year.
As CRS’ Matt McGarry said, “Gaza is on the brink of collapse.” As the Country Representative for Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, McGarry has been working on the front lines of delivering aid with the CRS Gaza team to help families in desperate need. Whole neighborhoods in eastern, northern and southern Gaza have been demolished. The entire population of Gaza has limited or no access to running water. Sanitation systems are barely functioning, causing sewage to mix with water. Fighting and evacuation orders have forced 25 percent of people from their homes. Air strikes have hit public spaces, hospitals and shelters.
“As is almost always the case in conflict, it is the civilians who are bearing the brunt of loss. We continue to call for a longer-term cease-fire so that we and the rest of the humanitarian community are able to reach people who need urgent help, and so there is space for a lasting solution to this devastating conflict,” said McGarry
CRS has committed $5 million in private and public funds to help civilians in Gaza recover. CRS is currently providing living and hygiene supplies to families, as well as fuel and medical supplies to Gaza City’s al Ahli Hospital and several clinics. The agency will employ 1,300 sanitation workers cash-for-work activities at 45 schools serving as emergency shelters for 120,000 people. Cash-for-work programs will also support the cleanup of destroyed neighborhoods.
In addition, CRS will provide families with vouchers to use in the local markets so they can replace what they lost in the violence. Vouchers provide people with the dignity of choice and help support the local economy. Resettling thousands of families whose homes were destroyed will be an enormous challenge. CRS has begun identifying priority needs for innovative shelter support in the Gaza context.
The Syrian war has entered its fourth year and devastated the lives of millions of innocent civilians. More than 140,000 Syrians have been killed, at least 7 million are displaced inside Syria and 2.5 million more have sought refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Armenia and Bulgaria. Half of all Syrian refugees are children.
There was a bright spot for Syrian children in Lebanon this summer, a sort of oasis in the middle of the desert sun. During July and August, CRS and our partners used puppet methodology to help Syrian children heal from their devastating trauma. In partnership with the No Strings International— an organization founded by the masters of the original Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock—CRS creates short films and related training modules that carefully help Syrian refugee children address the deep, painful issues of trauma and fear. The short films are tools facilitated by trained counselors and teachers, often Syrian refugee themselves, that help children, and many of their parents, start the process of healing.
“You see the tell-tale signs of trauma among these children: stuttering, bed wetting, the fear of things they didn’t fear before, not wanting to get out of bed,” explains Randa Zoumot, a counselor with Catholic Relief Services’ local partner, Caritas Jordan. “If they hear a simple thing, they panic—thinking it’s an explosion or someone coming to get their Dad.”
Across the region, CRS’ goal is to help 350,000 war-affected Syrians with comprehensive care and relief. That includes educations and counseling for children, shelter and rent assistance for families, food or cash and vouchers to help Syrian families purchase food of their choice, access to clean water, soap and hygiene supplies, opportunities for men and women to earn a living, and immediate medical care for life-threatening wounds and chronic diseases. Caring for pregnant women, new mothers and babies is a priority.
“So many women lost their husbands, their family members, their friends,” Zournot says. ”They don’t know what is to come and their greatest worry is their children. We try to help mothers know how important they are to their children’s stability and healing. So many mothers feel helpless. They need a spark, a hope.”
Liz O’Neill is a CRS communications officer covering Asia, Europe and the Middle East. She is based in Baltimore, Maryland.
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