In March 2011, pro-democracy protests broke out in Daraa, Syria after the arrest and torture of teenagers who had painted revolutionary graffiti on a school wall. The violence that followed spiraled into the nearly six-year long civil war in the country, forcing millions of people to chose between leaving their home and facing unrelenting violence.
Among those who decided to leave Syria is a family, originally from Daraa, who moved to the Washington area in August. The family, whose last name is being omitted for safety, has four children who came here with them, ages 20, 17, 14, and 7, and four children who did not travel with them. Their two oldest sons are now living in Germany and Saudi Arabia, and their two oldest daughters are still in Syria, where they are both teachers.
During the violence that followed the 2011 uprising, the family frequently saw people being shot in front of their home. During an interview with the Catholic Standard, the family recalled through an Arabic interpreter how they “lived in a killing field.” The father said that the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, would send soldiers into the streets to fire their weapons, and the gunfire killed people indiscriminately. Their son, who now lives in Germany, traveled there in order to avoid being drafted into the Syrian army.
About six months after the uprising, the family left their home and moved to Jordan, where they set up camp, and eventually moved into a small house. Soon after fleeing to Jordan, they applied for refugee status in the United States, and began the multi-step process of being vetted for entry, which includes biometric scans, interviews, security checks by four different intelligence agencies, and medical checks for communicable diseases.
Three and a half years after initially applying for refugee status, the family was given permission to resettle in the United States. Now, the family is living in an apartment community where many other refugees have been resettled. Their apartment is simple, with a few couches, a few tables, and a makeshift overhead light hung on the ceiling.
St. Rose of Lima in Gaithersburg is one of three faith communities who are working together to sponsor this family as a part of Montgomery County Interfaith Refugee Resettlement Neighbors, which consists of about 20 mosques, synagogues and churches in Montgomery County. The Islamic Center of Maryland and Temple Beth Ami are sponsoring the same family as St. Rose. The family members, who are Muslim, said that they did not know any Christians in Syria.
On Jan. 2, parishioners from St. Rose gathered inside the family’s home so the two groups could get to know each other. As the family introduced themselves to their visitors, Najah, the mother, told them through the interpreter, “You are all welcome in our home.”
As a sign of this hospitality, Najah, with the help of her 14-year-old daughter, prepared a meal of Syrian food for their guests, as St. Rose parishioners talked with the family. After everyone had eaten, the family served hot tea for dessert, and was sure to clear everyone’s plates for them.
St. Rose parishioners brought with them “welcome cards” that the seventh grade religious education class had made for the family, along with bedding and clothes that had been donated. When they asked if the family needed any more clothes, Salah, the father, told them that they did not, and that other people may need them.
The parish helps out with basic needs like paying the first few months of rent, donating clothes or furniture, arranging for ESL education, helping find employment (Salah and his oldest son have started working at local restaurants), and getting pro-bono dentist work set up. But Bob Cooke, a member of the parish’s Pax Christi group, a Catholic peace movement, said their main mission is “trying to be friends and neighbors” to the newly resettled families.
“If God is the Father of all of us as we believe, we need to start living more like brothers and sisters,” Cooke said. “This is one small way we can be brothers and sisters to people.”
They had originally thought about helping the family move to Montgomery County so they could be actual neighbors, but the family is enjoying the community of being around other refugees who are facing similar circumstances. The family’s seven-year-old daughter said she has six friends who live nearby and take the bus to school with her every morning.
When parishioners asked what the family was surprised by when they moved to the United States, Salah said through the interpreter, “I never expected such nice treatment and such nice people.”
St. Paul in Damascus and St. Francis of Assisi in Derwood are also doing work to help refugee families. St. Paul had an alternative Christmas gift program, where in place of traditional Christmas gifts, people could buy items such as a $50 metro card for a refugee family as a gift to a friend or family member.
St. Francis of Assisi is sponsoring another Syrian family originally from Daara, whom they also visited on Jan. 2. Mary Kate Ryner, a member of the St. Francis Pax Christi group, said the family is in need of assistance with scheduling and attending doctors appointments after three years of living in a refugee camp with poor sanitation, no medical care, and a shortage of water. A nurse who is a member of St. Francis Parish agreed to accompany them to appointments, since the language barrier makes it difficult to communicate with the doctors.
“It is clear that these folks need to start a new life, and I think working in an interfaith model is the way to go,” Ryner said.
While these parish groups are helping the families meet basic needs, Ryner said the main goal is to make sure the family can become independent.
“They want self-sufficiency as much as we do for them,” she said.
Sister Rosemary Mangan and Sister Janet Stolba are members of the Religious of Jesus and Mary and are assisting St. Francis of Assisi Parish in working with the refugee family. Working with Syrian families is particularly important to them, because there are several RJM sisters who are currently in Syria. They had been working in a school in Aleppo, and are now based in Damascus, where they are helping refugees from other parts of Syria.
On Oct. 17, one of these sisters, Sister Annie Demerjian, talked to the British Houses of Parliament about the horrors that they witness every day in Syria.
“It hurts to wake up in the wee hours of the morning and hear the sound of rockets and shells heaped on residential areas, and find yourself among the piles of rubble and dirt and then having to see, running everywhere from the intensity of the fear and panic. ... “ Sister Demerjian said. “We have seen children among the wreckage, instead of receiving education in the warmth of the school, they face instead the harshness of life turn on them and make them homeless on the pavements.”
As of June 2016, 65.3 million people were classified as “displaced persons” or refugees, according to a report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is one out of every 113 people in the world, and an increase of 5.8 million over the 2014 figure.
“It is certainly one of the greatest social problems of our era,” said Sister Mangan. “…The number of people who are displaced, seeking a place of safety…it is overwhelming.”
The family being sponsored by St. Rose still has contact with their two daughters whom remain in Syria. Through an interpreter, the family told the Catholic Standard that their daughters are still alive, but suffering. They are stuck in Syria, unable to leave, and under siege – with the government blocking access to food, water, and health services. The two daughters told their family that they are hungry, without enough food to feed themselves or milk to feed their babies.
While working with refugees, Sister Mangan said she thinks of the verse, “show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19), which is speaking to the Israelites, who after escaping from slavery in Egypt, lived without a home for 40 years.
In his encyclical Amoris Laetitia ( “The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis likens the plight of refugee families to another Bible story. Referring to how the Holy Family left their home of Nazareth to avoid Herod’s violence, Pope Francis said this is an experience that “continues to afflict the many refugee families who in our day feel rejected and helpless” (30). Pope Francis has continually encouraged Catholics to respond to the call to help refugees, and in April 2016 brought 12 Syrian refugees back to Rome with him after a visit to a refugee camp in Greece, which is part of what inspired parishioners of St. Rose to get involved.
Currently, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of the 11 organizations that the State Department depends on to assist refugees after they have been approved for resettlement. Then, the USCCB relies on local organizations, like Catholic Charities, to help welcome them to the area, find them a place to live, and get them started in their life here.
Deacon Jim Nalls, the executive director of the Family, Parish & Community Outreach Department of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, is working on applying for the archdiocese to be approved as one of these local organizations to help resettle refugee families. If this is successful, local parishes will then have the opportunity to step up to be sponsors for individual families. In the meantime, Catholic Charities does have a Refugee Center, which provides services such as ESL tutoring and job training.
“The more of us who are able to connect with one other family, or even one other person…at least it is an action toward helping,” said Sister Mangan.