DAMASCUS, Syria (CNS) — About 150 Iraqi Christian refugees gathered with excitement outside the Melkite Catholic compound in Damascus. Many of the women were dressed in black, a sign of mourning for a husband or family member lost to violence in Iraq — the reason why each of them is now a refugee.
The women had come to see North American Catholic leaders, who were being given a tour of the compound that includes a health clinic and dispensary for the poor, classrooms and a kitchen where a daily meal is prepared for more than 400 families — mostly Iraqi Christian refugees.
Taking the visitors to the kitchen, Melkite Archbishop Isidore Battikha emphasized that the food program is set up so that each family can share a meal in their own home. A family member comes to the center with containers to collect the food each day.
The archbishop lifted the lid of one of the four massive pots atop burners to reveal that day’s hot meal: steaming rice mixed with minced meat and peas.
Nearby, a woman poured olive oil from a huge container over a large bowl of shredded cabbage and chopped tomatoes. In all, 440 pounds each of cabbage and tomatoes had been chopped that day for the salad.
Following the tour, a nun led the group into the gathering hall to meet the church officials, hushing young and old alike to calm them. Soon all eyes were riveted on the North Americans, who represented the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
Through a translator, one of the refugees asked the church leaders, “What can be done for Christians who are being uprooted from Iraq?”
“I think the most important thing we can do, first of all, is to be here and to see you and to let you know that you are in our hearts,” said Msgr. Robert Stern, secretary-general of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. He emphasized that although the visitors represented the Catholic Church and the Vatican, “We are not politicians.”
“Even though we live in Western countries, we cannot control the policies of the countries or the United Nations,” he added.
Approximately 150,000 Iraqi Christian refugees live in Syria. Their circumstances are a microcosm of the approximately 250,000 Iraqi Christians who have fled their homes, settling also in Jordan and Lebanon. Nearly every family has experienced the terror of violence that has ensued since the 2003 U.S.-led military invasion.
Based on the experiences of their fellow Iraqi refugees, many displaced Iraqis realize that only a small number are likely to be resettled to other countries by the United Nations, and the wait for such a move can take years. In the meantime, with no legal status, they remain in limbo.
Some Christian refugees have returned to Iraq, only to flee again after facing violence. They warn their fellow refugees that it is still not safe to go back home.
A middle-aged man in the group told the church officials that he, like other refugees, is ready to go back to Iraq if there is security.
“Our aim is not just to get a visa and go to another country,” he said. “Our hope is to go home, but it is not safe. In the meantime, there is tremendous suffering.”
“How can you help Christians stay in the Middle East?” he asked them.
One woman, crying, shared how two of her children were kidnapped in Iraq and she does not know anything about them.
“You can be sure that your situation will be presented at the October Synod of Bishops on the Middle East,” U.S. Cardinal John P. Foley, grand master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, assured the group.
“This is so very good for us to learn more about you,” added New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan.
“But many people in America don’t even know there are Christians in Iraq or Syria. We bishops know that, and we try our best to help. But what we must do after having our hearts touched by you is remind our people that they have brother and sister Christians in Iraq and Syria,” Archbishop Dolan said.
Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa assured the refugees, “People who know about the situation are praying for you.”
A refugee then expressed his frustration with the waiting. He said his children are not able to get a basic education, and families are being torn apart — some family members remain behind while others get resettled, often to different countries.
Seattle Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett said that in his archdiocese there are 10,000 Vietnamese refugees as well as 400,000 from South America, and in many cases the man is sent back home and the wife and children are left alone.
“Families are broken up. We deal with this problem every day,” he said. “We try to find ways of reaching out to refugees. I understand this is a big problem everywhere in the world.”
As the session came to an end, Archbishop Battikha reminded the group how the church leaders “came all the way from the U.S. (and Canada) to listen to us and to carry our message to American Christians.”
He urged the refugees to keep praying.
“God will answer your prayers,” he told them.
As Archbishop Dolan left, a woman approached him, tearfully explaining how she is alone in Syria with her son and has a sister who has been resettled in the United States.
“America, America,” she pleaded with the archbishop, who listened attentively, then promised that he would share her story back home and blessed her forehead.
After the visit Cardinal Foley noted that Pope Pius XII had said, “Nothing is lost with peace; everything can be lost with war.”
“We unfortunately have a situation in which not only are there deceased victims of war, but there are displaced victims of war, and many of them are Christians,” the cardinal said.
Commenting on the meeting with the refugees, Archbishop Brunett said, “Unfortunately the questions they’re raising are not new questions. The most serious problem in our generation — we’re talking the last 100 years — is refugees thrown out of their country. The world is filled with them. At the present time, it doesn’t seem like there’s any kind of a program set up to be able to handle the issues that were raised there.
“In America, we do that in our dioceses, we set up programs to deal with the kind of issues they’re talking about,” he added.