Friday 6 September 2013

As a realist, there is nothing to do, as a Christian there is everything

Pe. Nawras Sammour
Transcrição integral e no inglês original da entrevista ao padre Nawras Sammour, responsável pelo Serviço Jesuíta dos Refugiados (JRS) no Médio Oriente, que se encontra na Síria. A entrevista e respectiva reportagem são da autoria de Matilde Torres Pereira.

Full transcript of the interview with Fr. Nawras Sammour, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the Middle East, currently in Syria. Interview and news item by Matilde Torres Pereira.

What is does your work entail?
I’m in charge of the work of JRS in the region, Middle East and North Africa, which means I’m in charge of the coordination of the JRS work in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. So we have projects in different countries, working with different nationalities, refugees coming from different countries.

But mainly now because of the Syrian conflict, it’s been the most important [situation], as well as the Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and refugees coming from Sudan and  Saudi Arabia, those countries have many problems.

So you have people coming from all around the Middle East and also from Africa?
In Jordan and Turkey, yes. In Lebanon and in Syria our work is a little bit with Iraqis, because we started working in 2008, the first project we had was after the Iraq crisis. Now the main work in all countries is with Syrians, but we also get those who are in trouble, like Iraqis, like Sudanese.

How is the JRS dealing with this massive influx of refugees at the moment? Do you have means in the field to help all these people?
In Syria, we started dealing with the Syrian crisis and with the big number of displaced people within Syria, we started very small, with local solidarity, for instance, but it’s not enough at all. And then we are supported by the Church, Caritas, other organizations; and the Society of Jesus.

Now we are able to do something, but compared to the volume and size of the crisis, I could say it’s a small drop in the ocean. The crisis is huge, we are talking about millions of people who are in need. So yes, we try to do our best, work, volunteers and the staff, so far in Syria we have 500 staff and volunteers, from different communities, and we work for everybody and with everybody, in coordination with other associations and foundations, based on the principles of humanitarian work, which is neutrality, impartiality and working with civilians.

Based on these principles that you have, how difficult has it been to keep safe during the course of your work? Since the beginning of the conflict, I imagine that things have been harder and harder to cross borders, to travel, I imagine it hasn’t been easy at all.
Actually, yes, that is our main concern, the security of our people. When they go around visiting families, we can have mortars, we can have bombs sometimes, so far, thank God, we didn’t lose anybody except two friends who came as volunteers to help in Damascus, they got caught in a blast of a car, in the center of Damascus, and it was by accident.

But yes, I would say the main problem is security. For us it’s a conviction, to work for everybody and with everybody, regardless of background or whatever, but it’s a kind of guarantee, because since we are neutral, we are not stopped, we are respected by everybody, and people know that we work for helping those who are suffering and without any background or idea beforehand. People really appreciate it.

So it’s an advantage for you to be Christian?
Yes, because they know we don’t have an agenda, but it’s not because we are Christian, it’s because our people, who are from different religions, and communities, they are convinced of our mission. So they are Muslim, but they do it with a profound conviction. We are appreciated and respected.

So you’re saying that there’s a real network of solidarity between different religions, basically people that just want to help people who are suffering?
In our project yes, in our network, the Syrian Red Crescent, with other foundations, in diferent areas, with civilians also. We don’t work with other different civilian groups, that’s not our work.

Have you, in the course of your work, found reasons to hope that even if you are working within a drop of the ocean, that you are helping to make the daily life of Syrians a little bit better? Is it easy to keep going, psychologically, in the middle of this conflict?
We are really tired. All our volunteers, all our staff, all our friends, we are really tired.
Because when I talk about a drop in the ocean, it’s about something like 30,000 families we help with direct impact, it’s not a small number, it’s something like 250’000 people.
But it’s still small, because at the end, I only help covering some needs for people.

Whether it’s about food, whether it’s about items, our work with children, for psycho-social support, those activities, sometimes yes, it can help with medical support, but the need is huge.

So the network that we have to cover all the facilities, its huge, but compared to the size of the problem, I’d say we are never going to be, and we are never going to pretend to be, the saviors.

Does the work of the JRS in the field involve, do the volunteers get spiritual preparation?
Actually, we used to have some counseling, spiritual and psychological for helping those in need, but now we really don’t have enough time. It’s useful to be in the service of our own people, our own friends and volunteers, it’s a pity, but the pace of events, the velocity, the speed, it’s very illogical, so we are not always able to stay in the same region. That’s why we are so tired. I would say yes, our people are tired.

Now they just came back, all of them, from holidays. We stopped activities for two weeks. I asked them to go to their own village, to be somewhere else. It was good. In Lebanon we tried to have a guesthouse for our people. Just to help them recover a little bit, to take a fresh breath.

Now it’s very tense, with the chemical weapons. We are waiting to see the consequences at the beginning of next week. We are going to restart our activities. So I would say it was a kind of holiday. If we see someone who is really tired, we send them home. To get away from the pressure. We had spiritual exercises last year that were good, but this year it was impossible to find time. My own spiritual exercises I did it last night, it was my holiday. It’s an inner battle.

These families that the JRS are helping, the least someone can do is try and find solutions to small daily problems, because, as you said, the pace of things is changing very quickly. Have you seen signs of hope in this crisis, or is it hard to see how this is going to develop in the future?
In a very, very realistic way of seeing the reality, I would say, in a very rational way, there is nothing to do. Really nothing to do. But that’s in the realistic way. As a Christian, I would say there is a lot of things – not a lot – everything to do. Everything should be done. Everything should be redone.

From that point of view I would say yes. We are in our place and we are trying to make a difference, to make a change, without saying that we are the best. That’s the reality, we are trying to do our best.

And for me, to see the young people, our volunteers, from different religions, communities, different social belongings, cultures, ethnicities, and they are able to work together, and because of the crisis they somehow found it in their own life a capacity of being a human in service to others and with others, that’s great. It gives a lesson to others.

Where there is an abundance of sin, there is an abundance of grace. So yes, from that point of view, from faith, I would say there are a lot of signs of hope. Especially our volunteers, they are very committed, very generous.

And the hope I can see in the eyes of children, and their tendency to be creative, in spite of all difficulties. In the middle of a drama, the children are playing, are even studying. I can see hope.

Politically speaking, I would say there is nothing to do, but in spite of that, we have to do everything. Absolutely everything.

Father Nawras, you are from Aleppo, is that right?
I’m originally from Aleppo, but I am based in Damascus, and I go around different countries and cities.

So you are seeing something happen in your own country, you are not somebody from the outside. I imagine that for you it is especially difficult to see this happening to your brothers and sisters.
Exactly. I used to work with Iraqis, refugees in the past, before 2011 in Syria, God knows I was trying to do my best for helping and doing my best to accomplish my mission.

The mission given to me by the Society. But now it’s something different. It’s about my own people, it’s about my family, it’s about my friends, about my country, about my history. The feeling is different. I would say that in the past I was a little partial. But the feeling now is about my own life. My own life.

How do you view a possible intervention by western powers? Will this help Syria, or will it make the whole situation worse?
It’s good if it ends the violence. It’s not going to be the solution. I’m not able to say that it could bring a solution. It could finish a problem. Not for a long time. I’m convinced, this is my deepest conviction, if there is a solution it should be political, through dialogue.

It’s not about war. That’s not going to make a difference. Whether by the West or by the East, I couldn’t understand that it could be a solution. I couldn’t imagine that Syrians could hope that a solution could come from an outside force. It’s a foreigner doing the work in our country, I couldn’t imagine that.

The work the Pope has been trying to do with leaders of government in the Middle East to try and open a way for dialogue, do you think the Pope can help?
One of the paradoxes of our postmodern society is that everybody thinks that the Church has something to say and to do. I would say the opposite. But when it’s about problems, yes, I could see that. The Church always has something to say and something to give to people as a source of hope. This is the Gospel. And the Gospel says this is the moment for us Christians of Syria to answer: are you a believer or not? Do you believe in God or not? So you believe in a world divided in problems? This is my faith, my credo if you like.

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