November 6, 2015

‘Please don’t forget us’: Assisting millions of Syrian and Iraqi refugees is a way of expressing faith, CRS director says

Cullen Larson of Catholic Relief Services speaks on the topic of Syrian and Iraqi refugees at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood on Oct. 14. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Cullen Larson of Catholic Relief Services speaks on the topic of Syrian and Iraqi refugees at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood on Oct. 14. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

GREENWOOD—Cullen Larson sat back comfortably in his chair, calm and relaxed.

One would never guess the responsibilities resting upon his shoulders in his most visible role with Catholic Relief Services (CRS)—serving as the organization’s director of the southeastern United States and as acting director of the Midwestern states.

But most impactful to him of late was his temporary role as country representative in Iraq in February and March.

The experience gave Larson insight into the recent wave of refugees seeking help in Europe, as well as an up-close view of CRS’ humanitarian relief efforts in Iraq.

Rather than viewing these events as remote to Indiana, Larson sees clear and simple ways that the people in central and southern Indiana can help those who have had to flee their homes overseas due to violence or poverty. (Related: How to help victims of refugee crises)

He spoke about these three areas during an interview with The Criterion and during a presentation he gave at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood on Oct. 14.

Refugee crisis ‘has been going on a long time’

The news has reported lately on the masses of Syrian refugees seeking help in Europe, and being turned away from one country after another.

“They call it Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis,” said Larson.

“I don’t think that accurately describes what’s going on because there’s nothing new. The people displaced by the war in Iraq, the violence in Syria and elsewhere are just now coming to the attention of Europe and the western media. But it has been going on a long time.”

According to Larson, CRS has been helping refugees in Syria, Iraq and the countries nearby for the last four years.

Part of the problem with the refugee crisis that has now come to Europe is a matter of semantics.

“A refugee is someone who leaves their home country typically because of violence,” Larson explained. “A migrant is someone who typically leaves because of poverty.

“The reason some governments will avoid recognizing some people as refugees [and instead label them as immigrants] is because [the designation of refugee] under international law triggers obligations to help them, and they don’t want to face that.”

Because the refugee crisis is finally becoming relevant to Europe, he said, the Iraqi refugee crisis is now gaining attention. It is a crisis that Larson witnessed firsthand earlier this year.

‘Let that phrase sit with you—“safety in Iraq” ’

In the far northern tip of Iraq, near the border with Iran, Syria and Turkey, lies the Kurdish region of the country.

Due to a 1975 agreement with the Iraqi government for more autonomy, Larson explained, “The Kurdish region has tended to be the more stable part of Iraq.

“That’s where people fled when ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] began a little more than a year ago. … A quarter million Syrians fled for safety in Iraq. Just let that phrase sit with you for a while—‘safety in Iraq.’ ”

But the Syrians were not the first to flee to the Kurdish region, said Larson. Due to war in Iraq, there were already 2.5 million displaced Iraqis who fled to the area.

“The Kurdish region has been hospitable, but they’re really under a lot of pressure with these vast numbers,” he said.

Enter Catholic Relief Services.

“About one-third [of the refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons] stay in what you would imagine as a refugee camp—a government-sponsored, white-tents-in-rows, fenced-in camp,” Larson explained. “They tend to get more attention and services from the government and from non-government organizations.

“CRS focuses on the least served and most vulnerable—so the other two-thirds scattered around the region.”

That population is composed primarily of Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Turkmen and Yazidi, he said. Their ethnicities, religions and reasons for fleeing cover a broad spectrum.

“The biggest misconception is that you can take a broad brush and interpret everything in the Middle East the same way, that the situation is the same in all countries, and all the Muslims want all the Christians out,” said Larson. “That’s not true.

“Most often, the violence has little to do with religious belief. It is power hungry folks using religion as a tool to separate and divide, and set one people against another.”

But he agreed that there are some Christians who are persecuted solely for their faith.

“There are people who do that, and it’s tragic and horrible and wrong,” he said.

“But that’s not the situation everywhere, and most of those affected are not Christian. But our role as Christians is to serve everyone in need.”

Providing humanitarian relief to these millions of people seeking refuge in northern Iraq is a CRS staff of around 60 people—consisting almost entirely of locals, refugees, migrants and displaced persons due to their language, regional and technical expertise. They work in Erbil, Kirkuk and Dohuk, a city located less than 20 miles from the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul.

In the Kurdish region, CRS provides refugees with food, hygiene kits, kerosene, blankets, translation services, legal advice and shelter—a difficult thing to come by for 2.75 million homeless people.

‘A more dignified living situation’

As Larson travelled from Erbil to Dohuk for his one-month stint as CRS’ temporary country representative in Iraq, he noticed hundreds of unfinished buildings with no doors or windows.

“Some were small, others were as tall as 20 stories,” he said.

He learned that they were started in the mid-2000s, then abandoned as war started and progressed.

Despite the lack of windows and doors, said Larson, “people took shelter inside these places to get out of the rain and snow. The area is brutally hot in the summer, and brutally cold in the winter.”

So CRS and Caritas Iraq—the Church’s local arm of humanitarian assistance—negotiated with the owners of the abandoned structures. In exchange for two winters of occupancy by refugees, migrants and displaced persons, Caritas and CRS installed windows and doors, and weatherized the buildings.

“Families are really crowded in there, but it struck me as a more dignified living situation than the camps, even though very basic,” Larson said.

The two charitable organizations managed to renovate more than 1,500 buildings, enough to house about 26,000 people.

During his presentation at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish, Larson showed slides of pictures of families who are living in the structures.

“I asked them if they can see themselves returning to wherever they came from, and they can’t. They’re too traumatized. They’ve seen too much, and there are too many unknowns.”

The trauma healing and peace building will continue long after the immediate survival needs are met, he explained. He knows this from experience.

“I’ve worked in Bosnia, and we’re continuing to do that kind of work 20 years after the war ended—still moving people into shelters, still dealing with trauma, still dealing with peace-building dialogue among the different factions.”

‘An oasis of joy in the midst of loss’

After the basic needs of food and shelter have been met, Larson said the next logical steps for healing involve finding jobs and providing education.

Neither is easy.

“There are no jobs,” he said. “And even if there were, there is no transportation.”

Providing education to the estimated 800,000-1 million school-aged refugee children is difficult, too, for several reasons.

First, said Larson, is a lack of space. He stated that 500 Kurdish schools are currently being used as shelters, and that about 130 other school buildings are being used for military purposes.

“But even if there were space, there is the problem of language and the educational requirements that differ between Iraq and other countries,” he explained.

And for these children who have seen and endured so much, trauma can interfere with the learning process.

“The children can’t sleep,” Larson said. “They have nightmares.”

But there is hope. Using large tents provided by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, CRS has been able “to provide a place for kids to be kids, a safe place, a happy looking place where they can learn a little bit and express what they’re feeling, and work through some of that trauma,” he said.

He went to celebrate the opening of one such child-safe place while he was in Iraq.

“They were having sack races and singing,” Larson described. “It was just an oasis of joy in the midst of loss.”

‘Thank you, and please don’t forget us’

“It’s easy to be overwhelmed by some of the numbers and some of the need [of the refugees],” Larson admitted. “We can become paralyzed by inaction, choosing not to do at least one thing that we can do, … thinking that it doesn’t count. That’s not true. It all adds up.”

Larson listed several tasks people in central and southern Indiana can do to help.

“Keep yourself informed,” he advised. “And don’t just use one news source. Go to several for different viewpoints. And go to CRS for news—we’re on the ground. You can sign up for informational e-mails [from Catholic Relief Services] about what’s going on (see related sidebar). And share what you learn.”

Another step Larson said members of the archdiocese can take is to serve as advocates.

“CRS and the USCCB [United States Conference of Catholic Bishops] are communicating with elected officials in Congress and the president and administration all the time,” he said. “But their voice cannot be heard unless the voices of millions of Catholics are heard as constituents.”

To help individuals in this effort, CRS’s advocacy arm, Catholics Confront Global Poverty, allows online users, by typing in their zip code, to send a pre-written but modifiable e-mail directly to their specific representatives in Congress.

Larson said individuals’ advocacy support is needed to promote the three-pronged goal that CRS and its parent organization, the USCCB, are asking of the U.S. government: strong, consistent humanitarian assistance; robust and persistent diplomacy to resolve the root cause of the crisis; and allowing 100,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. this year, plus 100,000 refugees from other countries.

“Foreign aid is about .06 percent of the federal budget,” said Larson, using a figure backed up by a 2013 Kaiser Family Foundation poll. “That’s just a piddly amount, and we have to fight for it every year.”

As for the number of refugees, he said, 200,000 “is a considerable boost,” considering that the ceiling for the number of refugees allowed entry into the U.S. in fiscal year 2015 is 75,000, according to the American Immigration Council. “But it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the worldwide need.”

Larson also said Catholics in central and southern Indiana can pray about the situation.

And finally, he said, “The work needs money. We ask you to consider donating. It’s a way of expressing your faith.”

He recalled his visit to refugee families living in one of the refurbished abandoned buildings in Dohuk.

“I asked the people what I should say to the people back at home. They said, ‘Thank you, and please don’t forget us.’ ” †

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