October 23, 2015
ost Americans don’t understand the scale of the conflict in Syria and the humanitarian crisis it has caused, said Cullen Larson, Southeast regional director for Catholic Relief Services.
The fighting in Syria and the widespread destruction has displaced millions of Syrians from their homes. Many are living in refugee camps in neighboring countries, such as Lebanon and Turkey, which are being overwhelmed by the number of refugees seeking assistance, said Larson, who was in Nashville on Friday, Oct. 16, visiting Bishop David Choby.
Half of the population in Lebanon is now refugees, said Larson. And in the past few months, the number of Syrian refugees making their way to Europe looking for a safe place to live has created a migration crisis the continent has not seen since World War II.
Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is working in the Middle East and Europe to help the refugees, Larson said.
“The huge challenge is the Syrian conflict and the related but distinct conflict in Iraq,” Larson said. In addition, the rising tensions between Israelis and Palestinians has caused new concerns for Catholic Relief Services, he added.
Catholic Relief Services is in 93 countries around the world “working against poverty, for justice, for peace,” Larson said.
“We’re in the places where people are the least served and the most vulnerable,” Larson said. “When people are poor and vulnerable we as Catholics are called to serve them. Regardless of what (religion) they are, we’re called to serve them because we’re Catholic.”
“Our entrée into any country is an invitation from the local church,” Larson explained. After receiving the invitation to provide relief in a country, Catholic Relief Services looks to partner with Caritas Internationalis, the global network of Catholic humanitarian organizations, and local agencies, Larson said.
Catholic Relief Services has three main areas of focus:
• Emergency response and recovery from natural and man-made disasters, including war and armed conflict.
• Agricultural livelihoods, especially for small scale farmers.
• Health care, including maternal and child health and prevention and treatment of major diseases like malaria and HIV.
In the Middle East, Catholic Relief Services has helped about 600,000 refugees, and in Europe another 63,000, Larson said.
In Europe, Catholic Relief Services is providing temporary help for people as they move from one country to the next on their way to their final destination, Larson said. People are trying to reach a permanent location before winter, he added.
Relief workers have been providing emergency assistance like food and hygiene kits to the refugees, Larson said. “In the meantime, they’re making decisions that will affect the rest of their lives, in places where they are unfamiliar with the language and their legal rights,” he said. Catholic Relief Services also is trying to help with those issues.
Most of the people forced to flee their homes by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are not in refugee camps, Larson said. Catholic Relief Services is trying to help those people as well.
When member of the Yazidi minority group were forced to flee their homes in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State, many ended up in northern Iraq, where Catholic Relief Services has been trying to help them find housing.
There are many buildings in Iraq which were started soon after the start of the Iraq war but were left unfinished, without doors or windows, when the situation in that country deteriorated, Larson explained. Catholic Relief Services worked with local leaders and the owners of the buildings to arrange to finish the construction in exchange for two winters of occupancy for the Yazidi refugees, Larson said.
Catholic Relief Services is now working on long-range issues facing the Yazidis, including the education of their children, Larson said. Many hadn’t been to school for a couple of years before they started attending school in the Kurdish region of Iraq. The Yazidi children whose native language is Arabic, weren’t familiar with the Kurdish language used in their new schools, he said.
Catholic Relief Services has established children friendly spaces where they can play, receive help with their schooling, and counseling for the trauma they’ve witnessed, Larson said.
The agency has established about 10 of the centers, but is looking for funding to open more.
Catholic Relief Services receives much of its funding from donations by American Catholics, Larson said. The agency also receives grants from the U.S. and other governments as well as private foundations, he said.
There are several ways Catholics in the U.S. can help, Larson said. “First, pray. We really believe in it.” The prayers of the faithful during Mass should always mention global needs, he said.
“Second, we need continual financial support,” Larson said. People can earmark their donations for specific programs or countries, he said, but Catholic Relief Services prefers non-restricted gifts, which gives the agency the most flexibility to address needs as they arise.
Parishes can host fundraisers, Larson added. For more information about making a donation, visit www.crs.org.
Another way Catholics can help is to lend their voice by contacting elected officials, Larson said. “We have the right to say what we believe because of our faith,” he said. “The message is simple. I vote, I’m Catholic, I care, fix it.”
If Catholics don’t speak up “elected officials don’t think we care. And why would they if they don’t hear from their constituents,” Larson said. Catholic Relief Service can provide sample letters for people to send to their elected representatives.
He noted that Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and has influence over the U.S.’s response to the Syrian conflict and the resulting refugee crisis.
“There is no military solution in Syria,” Larson said. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services are urging the president and Congress to pursue “bold and persistent diplomatic efforts with all parties involved,” he added.