Syrian refugees share untold stories of civil war

Categories: Around the Diocese

Field correspondent for Catholic Relief Services passes on tragic reports at stops in the diocese

Nov. 15, 2013, edition
By Sue Schulzetenberg-Gully

In countries bordering Syria, women tugged at Caroline Brennan’s sleeve, pleading with her to listen to their stories.

Their stories, the strife, struggles and reality of women refugees fleeing unrest in Syria, are often missing in the news, said Brennan, an overseas field correspondent for Catholic Relief Services.

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Caroline Brennan

“They all talk about wanting to go back home,” she said. “They will describe the Syria that was. They want you to understand how wonderful they had it before and how this, what is happening in their country, is not who they are. They will say, ‘Do Americans know that we do not want any of this? We just want peace and want to go home.’ ”

Brennan documented refugees’ stories near the Syrian border in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. She told of their reality Oct. 29 and 30 when she visited the St. Cloud Diocese and spoke at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, St. John’s Preparatory School in Collegeville and St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud.

Four million people have been forced to leave their homes and are displaced in Syria, and two million people from Syria have fled the country, Brennan said. Many are middle-class citizens and had lived peacefully with people of other religions for many years.

The war took them by surprise.

They have difficulty in comprehending that their peaceful neighborhoods have become the sites of massacres, disappearances and bodies lined up on the streets.

“They are people whose lives were very similar to ours just a year or two ago,” she said. “Many Syrians had nice houses, land and jobs. Syria has been for decades the most stable country in the Arab region. It was seen as the country that would help other people in need.”

Desperate situation

About 30 percent of the Syrian refugees live in refugee camps. The others live in crowded apartments or houses of relatives or friends of friends. As many as 21 people might live in two small rooms.

Because most of the adults do not have paperwork with them, they cannot work. Their Syrian money is almost worthless in the neighboring countries, so they drop from middle class to poor very quickly, Brennan said.

About 75 percent of the refugees from Syria are women and children, Brennan said. She heard many stories of husbands telling their wives, “Take the kids and run!”

One of the women she met was eight months pregnant when she was searching for a place to stay with her two boys under five. She knocked on the door of the nicest house she could find and said that she would work there for free if she and her children could stay there. Without money, the woman gave birth to the baby in her room in the house.

Brennan visited the woman along with a social worker and a nurse. The group told the woman of a CRS sponsored clinic and brought her there. The woman was extremely grateful and murmured during the drive, “I can’t believe you are doing this for me!”

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Mohammad, 11 months old, is carried by his sister across an informal refugee settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Caroline Brennan, overseas field correspondent for Catholic Relief Services, recently returned to the United States after documenting the stories of refugees living in countries near Syria. Photo by Sam Tarling for CRS

CRS is helping in the region through many ways. It provides medical assistance for acute immediate needs and long-term health concerns as well as counseling.

It gives families vouchers for food that they can use in the local market and distributes basic hygiene products to prevent diseases.

The organization also provides recreational activities for children to defuse their aggressiveness and allow them to physically move and be children.

CRS to the rescue

One of the men Brennan met attended a CRS sponsored clinic with his 7-year-old boy. The father and son did not know where the rest of their family was, and the boy desperately missed his mother. The man sought counseling for his son but also received it for himself.

When he was sharing his struggles, the little boy was given crayons. He drew a picture of a man with a gun shooting a woman.

“The kids have seen things that no one should see at any age,” Brennan said. “So a large part of our program is not only providing education for children but also the counseling element.”

When Brennan visited women, they often wanted to give her gifts and felt ashamed they did not have much to give her.

One woman said, “If you sit next to a Syrian, you will surely be well-fed and entertained. I’m so sorry we can’t do this for you here. Please know the Syrian people are generous and helpful. We are going through a difficult time. We hope people will be kind to us.”

Brennan encourages people to remember the civilians of Syria.

“These are the people who are at the heart of what’s happening in Syria and these are the people who are going to be rebuilding their country,” she said.

“What they want most is to be seen and understood and valued. Your thoughts and prayers mean so much to them.”

To make a gift to assist Catholic Relief Services, visit crs.org/united-states/syria-crisis-assistance-for-refugees/.