Catholic Near East Welfare Association is working with local Churches in and around Syria to help refugees and those who have been displaced by the country's civil war, now beginning its third year.
“Our concern is not just for the Christian community, but for all people who are caught in the middle; the vast majority of people in Syria, as in any part of the world, just want peace,” Michael La Civita, the association's communications director, told CNA March 18.
“They want to get back to normal, to rear their families, and cope as best they can, and of course this makes it quite difficult for them, because the violence is just getting worse and worse.”
The Syrian conflict marked its second anniversary last week. On March 15, 2011, demonstrations sprang up nationwide, protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president and leader the country's Ba'ath Party.
In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters. Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war.
United Nation's estimates show that 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict. More than 1 million refugees have flooded into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq, and inside Syria another estimated 2.5 million are internally displaced.
Catholic Near East Welfare Association works through local Churches to help the poor and partners with the Jesuits, Armenian Catholics, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, and Melkite Greek Catholics.
“They come to us with needs, let us know what they need, and we provide them with the resources, whether its food, gear for children or schools,” La Civita said.
The group helps internally displaced people in Syria, those who have been forced out of their homes. These families are mostly from Homs and Aleppo, in the north and west of the country.
“They lived in the older quarters, and now they're either in the suburbs or they've fled to a place called the valley of Christians, which is still in the hands of the government and is reasonably secure,” he explained.
The Association has worked with a Jesuit priest to help some 1000 Christian families from Homs who lost all their belongings.
“We provided them with emergency relief supplies – food and water, emergency relief kits, cooking oil, rice, things of that nature, sanitary napkins, what people need when they're flushed out of their homes and they have nothing.”
“We've been providing a lot of displaced children with winter clothing, and school supplies and books. These are children mostly from Homs who have been displaced, and the Jesuits and Paulist Fathers have set up temporary schools so these kids would not lose, despite the war, a year in their education,” said La Civita.
The agency is also helping with refugees who have fled Syria altogether, notably at the town of Qaa in Lebanon, which is less than seven miles from Syria, and less than 35 from Homs.
Qaa's parish priest, Father Elian Nasrallah, serves the Greek Catholic community there. La Civita recounted that many Christian families have fled there, and are being joined now by Muslims as well.
“We've been assisting them with everything from classes for children to providing counselling for kids suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, providing wool blankets, mattresses, food, detergent – again, emergency relief.”
Fr. Nasrallah's family supports a medical clinic, where the papal agency has been providing help so that the wounded can be cared for.
La Civita explained that Catholic Near East Welfare Association does not work in the large refugee camps, but rather works for and through eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox.
Most Christians in Syria who have fled their homes turn to their family networks for help, or Christian institutions, who in turn receive assistance from the agency.
The group, founded in 1926 by Pius XI, is a registered charity in the US and Canada, and is an agency of the Holy See. Those who want to financially assist Catholic Near East Welfare Association can donate at cnewa.org.
La Civita said prayers for peace in Syria are needed as well.
“It's not black and white there; the rebels aren't necessarily all good guys or bad, and nor is the regime. There's a lot of grey,” he explained.
The Syrian rebels are divided among secularists who support a Western-style democracy, and Islamists who may impose sharia law on the nation.
“Any increase in ammunition” he said, will make things more difficult for the Christians in Syria, as well as the Alawites, Druze, and Shi'ites, all of whom are religious minorities there.
The European Union has levied an arms embargo against Syria, but some are calling for it to be lifted. Both Russia and Iran are believed to be arming the Syrian government, and recently both the UK and France have indicated a desire to arm the rebels.