Beirut, 6 March 2013 – As conflict in Syria deepens seems and becomes more entrenched, the thought it is increasing less likely a peace deal will be brokered in extremely worrying. New waves of refugees fleeing fighting cross borders as security in Syrian neighbourhoods deteriorates. To make matters worse, there is another enemy, as UN leaders have put it, the bitter winter.
A few weeks ago many parts of the Middle East, such as the mountains behind Beirut and the Syrian capital of Damascus, found themselves under heavy snow for the first time in years. Access to the many arriving refugees was hampered by these difficult conditions.
Camp conditions in sub-zero temperatures were miserable. Yet, while visiting one in Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon I was surprised to find the refugees smiling; they had camp cookers, blankets and even a stove under the canvas. The snow was turning slushy outside when I entered a home in the camp, taking my shoes off before enjoying a warm cup of shai (tea) 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 refugee agency (UNHCR). Given that approximately half of the Syrians affected by the conflict are children, the response of JRS Lebanon teams, still in its nascent phase, seeks to support children living in a village near the Lebanese-Syrian border.
In Lebanon, Syrian refugee children are frequently to unable to attend local schools where the language of instruction is not Arabic, but English or French. In response, JRS Lebanon is organising a remedial language and maths classes to prepare them for enrolment in September. But the greatest challenge is funding. Although 1.5 billion US dollars was recently pledged by world leaders to assist with the humanitarian crisis, there is no guarantee of when or where these monies will arrive.
As JRS volunteers do our best to respond effectively to the needs of refugees in Lebanon, teams in Syria continue to work around the clock as bombardments rain around their homes, and the JRS centres. Their commitment to helping their fellow citizens, under such difficult circumstances is nothing short of inspiring.
Gerry Clarke, JRS Middle East Africa and North Africa Acting Assistant Director
As part of the Rapid Response Team (RRT) recently established by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) to respond to international emergencies, Gerry Clarke SJ finds himself in Beirut, far from his hometown of Dublin.