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3 million Syrians uprooted

Originally published in Catholic San Francisco

03-27-2013

3 million Syrians uprooted
March 27th, 2013
By Rick DelVecchio

More than a million Syrians have fled the Middle Eastern nation’s two-year-old civil war and 2 million have been displaced within the country as a widening conflict threatens to destabilize the region, the director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in neighboring Jordan said.

“There’s no safe place in Syria now,” the director, Colin Gilbert, said in a talk March 20 at the Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Studies and Social Thought at the University of San Francisco.

Asked how the refugee crisis compares to what followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq 10 years ago, he said “a lot of people are saying this is looking like it’s going to be worse. There’s no sign of peace.”

The spread of hostilities in the capital of Damascus, with a population of 7 million, could send a new wave of refugees into Beirut, Gilbert said.

Rebels are fighting a war of attrition against the government of President Bashar Assad but lack the force to prevail. Civilians have been swept into the violence throughout the country, as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights noted in a March 4 website post titled “More than 260 people killed in Syria so far today.” The post describes the dead as 44 civilians (including 4 children), 76 rebels, 32 unidentified rebels, 108 regular forces and one defected officer.

A terrorist attack in a Damascus mosque March 21 killed 40 people, including a senior Muslim cleric, and was strongly condemned by members of the U.N. Security Council.

Also on March 21, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced his decision to launch an investigation into a possible use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Schools have closed throughout Syria and villages and cities have been destroyed. Gilbert quoted one refugee from Homs as saying that Syria’s third-largest city, shelled and contested in heavy urban fighting, “is no longer a place; it is just an idea.”

“The entire fabric of society is falling apart,” Gilbert said.

With fighting nearing the border of Lebanon and threatening to spill over into Iraq, Antonio Guterres, a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative, warned a U.S. Senate hearing on the Syria crisis March 19 that an “alarming escalation” in the number or refugees threatens to exceed the ability of the international community to respond on the political, security and humanitarian fronts.

Every night 1,000 to 3,000 more Syrians flee into Jordan, where the Jesuit agency provides humanitarian aid and helps youths continue their schooling through its Higher Education on the Margins project, Gilbert said.

He said a critical part of the faith-based organization’s effort is to help the refugees, many of whom are women, maintain the hope and the strength to return home one day to resume meaningful lives.

Amid the destruction and dislocation, “there’s a deeply rooted hope that there’s something beyond that,” he said, adding that the Jesuit project is “not to give handouts but to empower people to transform their reality, to rebuild the country someday.”

Gilbert described the Jesuits’ work as “accompanying refugees” as individuals and serving those who have been forcibly displaced through a “mission of listening.” The organization’s website says lay and religious in the service also advocate for refugees’ justice and rights to protection.

Written by Rick DelVecchio