|Fr. Nawras Sammour, SJ|
In the autumn of 2010, Fr. Nawras Sammour, SJ was appointed Regional Director for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Middle East and North Africa, based in his home country of Syria. In response to his reservations of being inexperienced for the role, he was told not to worry. “It’s just a small region with no major problems. This is nothing compared to our larger projects in Africa.”
Four months later, in March 2011, the Syrian Uprising began. This “small region” overseen by JRS now accounts for almost 35 per cent of the organization’s financial and human resources. Fr. Sammour spends his days overseeing programs aimed at establishing peace in a conflict zone.
JRS began its work in the Middle East and North Africa in 2008 in response to the huge number of Iraqi refugees fleeing conflict in their country. Since 2011, JRS Syria has focused primarily on emergency and medical relief to those in need and educational activities to enhance reconciliation and co-existence among people of different socio-economic and faith backgrounds.
JRS Syria operates on the premise that children are the gateway to peace-building. “Parents care a lot about their children,” Fr. Sammour said. “When they come to our centres and talk about being hungry, they say ‘our children are hungry.’ The most important thing for them is the children. Once we get the trust of children, we get easy access to families, to adults, to parents. [Then] we can organize something for adults: informal meetings or breakfast for 20 families in one of our centres. We discuss everything except politics.”
Fr. Sammour has witnessed adults eradicated from the same village who would have been hostile to each other months earlier, sharing a meal together and engaging in friendly conversation. Establishing relationships that bridge cultural gaps is the first step to creating a peaceful future in the Middle East, he says.
In Damascus, where Fr. Sammour lives and works, JRS’ short-term goal is to help children cope with the unimaginable trauma caused by war. JRS enrolls students in “catch-up studies” and engages them in sports and the arts. These activities provide opportunities for normal and healthy childhood experiences. They also oversee literacy and other training groups for mothers.
The work undertaken by JRS in Syria has strong ties to the Canadian Church and to the Archdiocese of Toronto. A JRS clinic in Aleppo is primarily funded by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP) -- a ShareLife agency and the Canadian arm of Caritas Internationalis. During this time of crisis, Syria has experienced a serious “brain drain,” with doctors, engineers and other professionals now in short supply. Providing a clinic with access to reliable medical care is a huge asset to the community.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, the faithful of the Archdiocese of Toronto have responded with great generosity, donating over $123,000, which has been distributed to aid agencies on the ground. To date, Canadians have given $2.7 million to CCODP, which, in turn, has helped over 200,000 people affected by the crisis.
In 2013, Canada’s federal government pledged to resettle 1,200 Syrians by the end of 2014. As of mid-November, about 700 refugees had arrived. Some refugee advocacy groups argue Canada needs to loosen restrictions to welcome more Syrian refugees. In the Archdiocese of Toronto, the Office for Refugees has helped over 130 parishes bring refugees from around the world to Toronto through private sponsorship. Many of these Middle Eastern families, including the Makhoo Family, featured in our blog last year, come to Canada by way of Syria.
Fr. Sammour emphasizes escape isn’t the solution for everyone. Ideally, Christians in the Middle East would stay in their homeland with their own people, customs and traditions. And some have decided to stay, even though they are free to leave. However, with an uncertain future and constant danger, seeking refuge abroad is the right decision for some.
“When I’m in front of someone who says ‘I’m going to leave’ I say nothing. When they say ‘I’m going to stay’ I say nothing. Except, ‘did you think very well about that opportunity so that you are able to face the consequences of your decision?’ That’s my only question.”
As a priest who lives under constant security risks and provides pastoral care for children who are the casualties of war, the lives of Canadian Catholics must seem far removed from Fr. Sammour’s raw experience of a lived faith.
But not so.
While our primary daily concerns differ, we all have an important role to play to establish peace. The crisis in Syria shows no signs of improvement. Both Fr. Sammour and CCODP staff urge Canadians to continue their generosity in prayer and material assistance. Together, we can lay the foundation for peace.
Fr. Sammour speaks highly of Canada’s longstanding tradition of welcome and peace building. He admires our priority of peace over progress and urges us to continue this practice. “Please do everything for building peace, not for doing war.”
Despite the ongoing conflicts in the region today, Muslim and Christian children are playing peacefully alongside one another as their parents share a meal at the JRS centre in Damascus.
In the depths of the coldest winter, there is hope of spring.
Marlena Loughheed is a communications coordinator in the Archdiocese of Toronto’s Office of Public Relations and Communications. She spoke with Fr. Sammour in Toronto on his Canadian visit to JRS partner organizations and government officials.
To donate to CCODP’s work in Syria, click here.