CRS correspondent says hope endures even in most dire situations

Categories: DMD

dmd_flagCaroline Brennan is senior communications officer for the humanitarian response department of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency. In her role as a foreign correspondent on the front lines of crises, she has visited regions ranging from the war-torn Middle East to the typhoon-devastated Philippines. Earlier this month, she returned from a trip to eastern Ukraine where she met with families displaced by the conflict there.

The Visitor recently interviewed Brennan, who will present “A Field Update from Today’s Top Humanitarian Emergencies” at Diocesan Ministry Day Aug. 31 in St. Cloud. The following is an edited version of the interview.

Q: What work is CRS doing in eastern Ukraine?

Brennan: CRS is working with a local partner, Caritas Ukraine, which is the Catholic social service organization within Ukraine. Together we are really ramping up the size and scale of the response and providing essential humanitarian relief: food, blankets, clothing, cooking sets, utensils — anything for people to be able to live with dignity.
Also, right now, because people are fleeing having to carry different kinds of material with them, we’re providing families with a cash grant so they are able to purchase winter materials and the items they need the most and to help cover their shelter costs.

Q: We’re hearing a lot about the plight of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East who are being victimized by ISIS and forced to flee as refugees. How is CRS working with them, and what can Catholics here do to help?

Brennan: I think so many American Catholics would be proud and impressed by the role that the Catholic community is playing in northern Iraq and in Jordan and Lebanon where Syrian refugees and Iraqi refugees are fleeing.
The church is playing such a critical role in providing humanitarian services. In northern Iraq, Catholic Relief Services is working very closely with the local church in the Kurdistan region, where really the church grounds have become a hub and a destination for so many people fleeing attacks by ISIS.

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Caroline Brennan visits with Fadwe Almasre in front of her destroyed home in Beithenoun, Gaza. Catholic Relief Services is providing support to thousands of families in Gaza to start the long process of recovery and rebuilding after intense fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in summer 2014. Photo by Shareef Sarhan for Catholic Relief Services

Obviously the Christian population, and other minorities — the Yazidi community and also Shia and Sunni Muslims — are being targeted as well and are seeking help. Many are going to the church grounds, which essentially look like a refugee camp. They’re covered in tents. Across the city you see families in abandoned buildings that have no walls and they are just seeking shelter wherever they can find it.

How can people help? The humanitarian needs facing families are so severe. Catholic Relief Services is able to respond because of the generosity of people here at home. We’re essentially providing basic living supplies — blankets, food, water, cooking sets and utensils. Now, we’re really moving into the area of care for children in northern Iraq. For Syrian refugees over the past two years we really have been investing tremendously in the care of children because children make up half of the Syrian refugee population.

We know that the longer a child is out of school, the less likely he or she is ever going to be able to go back. The last thing Syria needs is its next generation receiving no education.

At the same time, part of that care and education for children is counseling. Because, if you’re 5 years old and you’re a Syrian child, almost your entire life has been in the backdrop of war. A lot of children are arriving in these other countries incredibly traumatized, but also conflicted. They don’t know how to handle their emotions or their anger. So, we are providing counselors in our education program that can help children deal with issues of trauma.

People’s generosity, their donations at any level, to this kind of humanitarian work goes such a long way. There was a young Sunni Muslim girl in an education program in Jordan. She was probably about 7 years old and she actually thought the word “catholic” meant “help” because she associated it with the education and care she was receiving within a Catholic-supported program. It’s an incredible impression that the church is making across this region.

Q: The theme of the conference this year is “Voice of Hope.” In your travels you see people in very difficult circumstances. Where do you draw your hope from?

Brennan: I get my hope from the people who I meet. I’m in a career that some might presume is heavy or hopeless, and yet I am constantly coming face to face with hope and light because, when you see people who literally are going through their darkest moment and have been stripped of everything they own or built in their life, you see the character of the person.

What I see time and again is the pursuit of people to preserve who they are and their identity despite what they’re dealing with. So, when I’m meeting with Iraqi families in northern Iraq who have just fled horrific attacks and now are displaced, they welcome me into their tents.

They give me a kiss on each cheek, they ask me about my family, and they offer me a bottle of water, which is in scarce supply there, and they apologize for not being able to offer more to me as a guest in this temporary home.

The kindness, the generosity — even if they have nothing to share, they share what they have. What I have been so privileged to see in so many different backdrops is that people are hopeful, even in these difficult circumstances. Time and again that has given me hope.