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In Syrian snow

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Irish Jesuit Fr Gerry Clarke is in Beirut as part of the Rapid Response unit of the Jesuit Refugee Service. Here is his latest report: “Owing to very real safety and security issues concerning the Jesuits in Syria I don’t feel I can… mention their names, activities or even movements. I have met them and they, with their lay volunteers of all creeds, are nothing short of heroic. So I’m keeping this short piece to activities in Lebanon where I’m based in the Jesuit Residence, Beirut.

The situation in Syria is very worrying and there seems no possibility of a peace deal being brokered. New waves of refugees cross borders fleeing the fighting as Syrian neighborhoods become unsafe. But now a new enemy, as UN leaders have put it, is a bitter winter. A week ago many parts of the Middle East found themselves under snow for the first time in years.

The mountains behind Beirut were deep in snow, making entry to the Bekaa Valley impossible. Access to many arriving refugees was hampered by these difficult conditions. Meanwhile in Syria’s capital, Damascus, the snow fell too. This had one advantage in that the roads to the border were not so carefully policed by checkpoints, making access to the border easier for Syrians. But camp conditions in sub-zero temperatures are miserable. I visited one in the Bekaa and surprisingly the refugees were smiling: they had camp cookers, blankets and even a stove under the canvas. Around about, the snow was turning slushy so I took my shoes off before entering and enjoying a warm Chai as I used sign language and much laughter to share precious moments of communion.

The Jesuits and companions have mobilised here in the Middle East and are bracing themselves for the new influx forecast by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Jad, a Lebanese scholastic is planning interventions with children living in a village on the Lebanese side of the Syrian border. At least half of the people affected by the conflict are children and these ones can’t attend Lebanese schools so Jad is organizing an accelerated learning programme in French, English and Maths to prepare them to enter the Lebanese schools in September. But the big challenge is funding. In December the UN appealed for $1.5 billion to meet the needs of displaced people within and outside Syria, but the response has not been fast enough to keep up with the needs.

And unfortunately another big winter storm is forecast in a few days time. Once again the region will rest under a cold white blanket. Hopefully more people will enjoy the comforts of a stove and gas cooker as they sit out the cold under canvas tents.”