“It is astounding to see the resilience people have built up in very difficult situations”. So says Michael Zammit SJ, Middle East Regional Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, just returned from Aleppo in Syria. In this interview with Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications he tells of how the people there cope with bombings when even their hospitals are directly targeted. He says that as soon as the bombings start, the locals go to shelters and stay there until the shelling ends. They then emerge and go about their daily lives with great dignity and composure.
Aleppo was once a city of five million people, now only two million remain – mostly the ones who were too sick, too feeble or could not afford to leave. When the fighting erupts they go to ground. Sometimes the only open road in and out of the city is closed by one or other faction and their food supplies are cut off for anything up to a month. But as far as possible the residents of the city try to get on with their everyday lives. The Jesuits there provide a place where students can come to study and they do so like any normal group of students would do. “It is amazing to see ordinary life continue like this in the midst of the chaos of war”, says Michael Zammit.
The Jesuit Refugee Service employs 350 people in Syria and in Aleppo some of those workers help out with emergency relief. “Everyone needs help in Aleppo so JRS staff have a kitchen where they cook meals for eight thousand people every single day. The food is given to over thirty five aid agencies who distribute it,”. He says only two of these agencies are Christian and he believes it is very important to have a Church presence there showing solidarity and support.
JRS also provides a clinic where people with chronic illnesses like high blood pressure or diabetes can go. This is an important service given the targeted bombings of the hospitals in the city and the shortage of medical staff overall.
At this stage most of Syria has been touched by the war but there are still one or two coastal resorts that have remained safe and untargeted. Unfortunately people from Aleppo are not allowed to go to them and won’t be allowed into the cities even if they try.
Lebanon was once a place where thousands of Syrians fled to, though at present the country cannot handle anymore refugees. There are one and a half million there at present in small tented communities and one in every four of them is Syrian. According to Michael Zammit tension is mounting as the sheer number of Syrian refugees is putting a strain on the school system and Syrian workers are now competing with Lebanese workers for jobs, driving wages down. The JRS is working with refugees in Lebanon helping to provide education and ‘psycho-social accompaniment’.
Last year Michael Zammit visited Kurdistan in Iraq where the JRS are also educating and accompanying huge numbers of displaced peoples in particular the Sunni Muslims, Christians and Yazidis who are fleeing from persecution by the so-called IS.
He says the Catholic Church there has done a lot to organise the reception of fleeing Christians and likewise the Muslims are looking after their own. However, JRS in the region are reaching out to everybody in need no matter what their creed as they believe that is what Christ would have wanted. And according to Michael Zammit they are coming under criticism for this stance.
When asked if he is a person of hope after all he has witnessed, he gives an interesting response. In Syria he takes hope from the ceasefire which is unsteady but holding. He believes one day “the madness will end”. But last year he also visited a refugee camp in Chad in Africa as part of his work. There were 35,000 children sitting on the ground trying to learn, poverty was endemic and war was on their doorstep. “I am much less hopeful about Chad”.
Whatever happens, the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service will continue and that work, he says, is funded by organisations such as Caritas International, Jesuit Mission Offices (including Irish Jesuit Missions) and Trócaire.