Activists aid Christian refugees from Syria

Monday, April 10, 2017 - Updated: 4:00 pm
By Jennifer Monahan Correspondent

Part 1 of a series.

While most Americans are aware of the complicated civil war in Syria, many do not realize that 10 percent of Syria’s population is Christian and the target of some of the worst violence and persecution.

The outlook for Christians in Syria is dire. Jennifer Allison, an attorney and member of Allegheny Center Alliance Church on Pittsburgh’s North Side, is working to assist Syrian refugees through the nonprofit Ananias Mission, based in Cranberry Township. She said that under the regime of President Bashar al-Assad prior to the war, the religious groups lived in separate communities mostly in peace. Tensions between the various groups existed, but Christians in the region experienced relative religious freedom when compared to other countries in the Middle East.

There is no "good side" for Christians to join among the warring parties in Syria, Allison said. Many of the factions are recruiting and forcing men to fight; Christians tend to be sent to the most dangerous jobs, although — and perhaps because — they don’t want to fight, she said. The only option for their survival in Syria is peace.

Ed Wethli is the founder of Ananias Mission and a member of SS. John and Paul Parish in Franklin Park/Marshall Township. He said Muslims are tortured by Islamic State fighters if their beliefs are not in line with the fundamentalist terrorist group, but Christians in Syria face impossible circumstances.

"Christians can’t go to the refugee camps because they are persecuted by the other people in the camps," Wethli said. "Before the war, Syrians will tell you that people got along. While they were hyper-segregated, people lived in relative peace in communities in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Now, Christians can’t go to a refugee camp because they won’t be accepted. Rapes and persecution are common."

Stories of atrocities

Wethli and Allison have heard horror stories from the refugees they have helped. In one family, a young man was pulled off a bus by ISIL militants and beheaded when he refused to renounce his Christian faith and was unable to pay jizya, a tax on non-Muslims. Another relative was shot in the back. A grandmother regularly hid in her hallway because of snipers shooting into her apartment.

The stories that Wethli and Allison report are consistent with the news coming from larger aid agencies. Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian organization of the Catholic Church in the United States, reported, "The war in Syria has killed as many as 400,000 Syrians, and has uprooted more than 11 million people. Children, who make up more than half of Syrian refugees in the Middle East, are paying the heaviest price: many have witnessed violence and the loss of homes or loved ones; the vast majority have been out of school for years."

Both Wethli and Allison said the situation for Christians in Syria has parallels to the persecution and murder of Jewish people during the Holocaust.

"I was doing some work with passport photos (for Syrian refugees)," Allison said. "The photos reminded me of what I saw at the Holocaust Museum. I realized that if we don’t do something to help these people, not all of them will survive the war."

Wethli echoed that same concern.

"Both the United Nations and the United States government have designated the situation in Syria as genocide for Christians," he said. "What happened in Rwanda, in Armenia, in the Holocaust — it’s happening right now in Syria," he said.

What the Catholic Church is doing locally

In an open letter to all Catholics in Pittsburgh on Jan. 31, Bishop David Zubik had a clear message for all of the faithful about the church’s stance on immigrants and refugees. He wrote:

"To those living in fear, I want you to know that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, the Church of Pittsburgh and I support you. You have our prayers and our pledge to stand with you, whether you are of our faith, of a different faith or of no faith at all.

"We must now stand up for those immigrants and refugees who are looking to come to America. Some of them are quite literally fleeing for their lives."

Attorney Anna Torrance, diocesan secretary for external affairs and a board member of Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh, said that Catholic Charities is in the final stages of reorganizing its immediate assistance to immigrants and refugees.

Until recently, she said, Catholic Charities had focused its efforts for refugees on resettlement programs. Following a recent re-examination of services, however, Torrance said that the organization’s leadership realized two important things: other agencies were effectively handling refugee resettlement, and there is a need for ongoing refugee support after the 90-day resettlement period ends.

With that understanding, Executive Director Susan Rauscher decided to refocus Catholic Charities’ efforts on service for refugees after the initial 90-day resettlement. Torrance said one of the most pressing needs is providing assistance to refugees who have been through significant emotional trauma. Counseling services for traumatic stress and helping refugees readjust to life after relocation will be a key component of the group’s focus moving forward, she said.

Services such as coaching for parents, budgeting and working in the U.S. also will be part of Catholic Charities’ support, Torrance said. These services are often difficult to access for people who do not speak English, she said, but they help refugee families to become self-sufficient.

Cathy Niebel, director of program effectiveness for Catholic Charities, said the services will target practical areas of need, including employment services, such as helping refugees find better employment and training them about what to expect from employers and what employers will expect from them.

Another focus will be on removing language barriers. For example, Niebel said many immigrants and refugees have difficulty sorting through mail because it can be challenging to distinguish between legitimate, important communication about bills or legal issues and promotional/advertising materials.

Niebel said Catholic Charities plans to launch its revamped services as soon as possible; the organization is currently hiring and training staff to do this work. Niebel emphasized that the organization will assist anyone who walks through the door in need of services.

People interested in learning more about efforts to assist refugees in Pittsburgh can contact Catholic Charities at 412-456-6999 or on the web at https://www.ccpgh.org.

Next week: More about Ananias Mission and how you can help.

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