Irmina Nockiewicz

The situation in Syria stabilises, but remains unsafe. Moreover whole cities have been destroyed, which is posing further challenges to the voluntary and sustainable repatriation. Despite all difficulties, some Syrian refugees are returning. When the Muslim families from the Syrian refugees camp in Zahlé were asked about returning to Syria, they all lifted hands shouting “YESSS!”. Christians are even more motivated to return. To make their return possible, the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical Foundation of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) assists and supports Christians is Syria in the reconstruction effort. About 100 houses have already been restored and the renovation of the other 100 is currently under process.

Cardinal Dolan led a delegation of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) who visited a Melkite Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Zahlé and Forzol in Lebanon. On 17th of April 2018 the CNEWA group including Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver, British Columbia, and retired Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre together with Archbishop Issam John Darwich, BS, went to meet refugees who benefit from their help in one of the many makeshift Syrian refugee settlements that pockmark the countryside of Zahlé, in the Bekaa valley.

The Cardinal reported : “We went to visit a Melkite archbishop in Zahlé, which is about good two hours ride from Beirut, with the view of Mount of Hermon covered with snow, as described in the Bible. Zahlé, in Bekaa Valley, is receiving many refugees, as this neighbourhood is sandwiched between Syria and Israel, with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia being close”. According to estimates some 1.5 million Syrian refugees took shelter in Lebanon to flee the war lasting already 8 years (since 15th March 2011), this number corresponds to 30% of the Lebanese population. This threatens a delicate political balance in this country, where the governance is shared among the main religious communities providing with peace, tolerance and religious freedom.

Syria is very close, located just behind the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, but the road back from Zahlé to Syria is blocked. It may also serve as a metaphor for the situation of many Syrian refugee families who do not see a return perspective. The situation in the country stabilises, but remains unsafe. Moreover whole cities have been destroyed, which is posing further challenges to the voluntary and sustainable repatriation. Some Syrian refugees are returning despite all difficulties. Needless to say, they are pushed home also by the harsh living conditions, poverty, barriers to accessing health and education services. Archbishop Darwish told Aid to the Church in Need that it is a priority for the Muslim refugees to go back to Syria as soon as possible. When he visited, with Cardinal Dolan and the two bishops, the Syrian refugees camp hosting Muslims, they spoke with some families gathered there with their children and youth, and asked them: “Who would like to go back to Syria?” They all lifted their hands shouting “YESSS!” “I saw a smile on their faces – says hierarch – so it was obvious they really meant it”.

According to Cardinal Dolan Christians are even more motivated to return. “The Christians are a little bit scared about to stay in the UN controlled refugee camps, because of the Islamic majority. All they worry about is going back home in Syria where tragically Islamic neighbours persecuted them, so the Melkite Catholic Archdiocese puts them up in these tiny little apartments. We visited those beautiful families: longing to be back home, but happy through what they got”.

As per Archbishop Darwish the greatest hope for Christian refugees is to return to Syria. “They would like to return and this is what they shared with the Cardinal. The biggest challenge now would be to help Syrian Christians to find safety and dignity upon return, leaving officials debate policies in their faraway offices”- says Archbishop Darwish. He explains: “Giving a shelter to the Christian refugee families in our diocese, it became crystal clear, that they would need to reconstruct their homes back to Syria. The Church needs to assist them and help with what they need. The discussion to convince national community to bring all refugees back to Syria should come, but we cannot just sit on our hands waiting”.

Humanitarian parachuting will probably do no good, as the reconstruction effort requires a coordinated action. This is the reason why the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical Foundation of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) assists and supports Christians is Syria in their reconstruction effort. To manage the initiative ACN created an appropriate tool allowing the reconstruction data monitoring, reporting and controlling for transparency purposes. About 100 houses have already been restored and the renovation of the other 100 is currently under process. Will 2018 be the year of Christian families return to Syria? ‘Inshallah’, if God wills.

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (Zahlé)

Bishop William Murphy and Archbishop Bashar Warda Conversation with Cardinal Dolan to talk about their trip to Lebanon.