The history books will remember 2014 as a devastating year for people of the Middle East. The Syrian Civil War, now considered the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, counts three million refugees and seven million persons displaced.
The Islamic State emerged from Syria to take the Iraqi city of Mosul and, in August, the Nineveh Plain, forcing more than 120,000 people — mainly minority Yazidis and Christians — to run for their lives.
We also witnessed a brutal confrontation between Hamas and Israel that left Palestinians in Gaza with 110,000 homeless and 2,300 dead — including 513 children. About 8,000 Israelis had to evacuate their homes, while 66 soldiers and five civilians lost their lives.
The region is in crisis mainly because unresolved conflicts are tearing it apart. This has created a political vacuum, where the most violent groups have become a major threat to the whole region and, eventually, the world.
This past January, I travelled to meet families affected by these terrible conflicts, as well as some of the humanitarian workers who accompany and help them.
In Gaza, I met Mrs. Yousif, a teacher at the local Catholic school. She said non-stop explosions over 51 days have shaken her family deeply. The material loss is one thing, but there is also the lingering psychological suffering. While crying, she told me, “We can’t go through this again.”
In Jordan, I met with Sister Jahola, 76, a Dominican sister. She was in the Nineveh Plain when ISIS attacked and, like everyone, she had 30 minutes to leave — 44 sisters left with dozens of orphans in their care. These kids have only known war. It is inhumane.
In Lebanon, I met with Mariam, Ra’ed and their three children — a family of Syrian refugees from Aleppo. “We lost everything and lived in hunger for months until we came across to this camp in Lebanon,” Ra’ed told me. “Will we ever go back home?”
The message from everyone I met was loud and clear: “We have suffered enough. We need peace, not war.” Indeed, a ceasefire in Syria is imperative in 2015 in order to stop the bleeding. But instead, all the countries in the region as well as Europe, Russia and the United States are involved in fanning the flames of the conflict even more. It is clear now that there can be no winner.
We hear our political leaders in the West talking about war and security, but what about diplomacy? Beyond diplomatic skills, we need imagination and courage to find a solution to the drawn-out Syrian Civil War. We also need a strong Iraqi government coalition respecting all its diverse religions. Only then can the Islamic State be stopped.
Our world desperately needs to renew its approach and institutions to truly reach peace. The United Nations could and should play this role but, unfortunately, the voices of peace are so few that many people I met have become pessimistic.
Still, peace is the only possible option — we only need the political will to achieve it. The alternative is already unbearable for millions. In the meantime, the need for humanitarian assistance remains great. The organizations I represent — religious sisters, Church communities with open doors, schools, orphanages, clinics and hospitals — appeal to Canadians to continue their generous support, so that they can provide direct assistance to those most in need.
Carl Hétu is the Canadian National Director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.