God • World • Human Family • Church
The Middle East Iraqi Families on the Run Trauma in Gaza A Coptic Cultural Comeback
Exodus Iraqi Christians confront a harsh reality by Don Duncan
Shell-Shocked: Growing Up in Gaza Healing the children of war by Hazem Balousha
Sister Wardeh’s World Syrians fleeing war find peace by Amal Morcos
Coptic Renaissance After the revolution, a resurgence for Egypt’s laity by Sarah Topol
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Connections to CNEWA’s world People Sister Hoda Chakar Assal by Sarah Topol Focus on the world of CNEWA by John E. Kozar
t Fadia Matti shows her family album, containing memories of life in Qaraqosh before ISIS forced her family to flee.
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Volume 40 NUMBER 3
Can you imagine the Middle East without Christians? Help preserve Christianity in the place where it began
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38 Front: Displaced people fleeing violence in Iraq walk toward the Syrian border. Back: A sister leads displaced Iraqi Christians in prayer inside a school housing refugees in Erbil. Photo Credits Front cover, page 5, CNS/Rodi Said, Reuters; pages 2, 7-11, 15, 17, Don Duncan; pages 3 (upper left), 30-31, 35, 37, Holly Pickett; pages 3 (upper right), 18, 20-21, 23, Shareef Sarhan; pages 3 (lower left), 4 (upper), 38-39, John E. Kozar/CNEWA; pages 3 (lower right), 3 (far right), 24-25, Tamara Abdul Hadi; page 4 (lower), CNEWA; page 13, back cover, CNS/Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters; page 22, AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis; pages 26-27, Gianluca Grossi/Demotix; page 27 (far right), © JAMAL SAIDI/Reuters/ Corbis; pages 28-29, Amal Morcos; pages 33, 36, David Degner; page 34, CNS/Asma Waguih, Reuters. ONE is published quarterly. ISSN: 1552-2016 Publisher Msgr. John E. Kozar
24 Editorial Staff Paul Grillo Deacon Greg Kandra Michael J.L. La Civita Elias Mallon, S.A., Ph.D. J.D. Conor Mauro Timothy McCarthy CNEWA Founded by the Holy Father, CNEWA shares the love of Christ with the churches and peoples of the East. CNEWA works for, through and with the Eastern Catholic churches to identify needs and implement reasonable solutions. CNEWA connects you to your brothers and sisters in need. Together, we build up the church, affirm human dignity, alleviate poverty, encourage dialogue — and inspire hope. Officers Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Chair and Treasurer Msgr. John E. Kozar, Secretary Editorial Office 1011 First Avenue, New York, NY 10022-4195 1-212-826-1480 www.cnewa.org ©2014 Catholic Near East Welfare Association. All rights reserved. Member of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada.
to CNEWA’s world
Grants Awarded for Work in Ukraine In October, the Canadian government’s Office for Religious Freedom awarded grants totaling $226,630 for CNEWA-sponsored initiatives in Ukraine that promote religious freedom and other democratic values. The projects — which run until November 2015 — include short-term student exchanges, summer classes, public panel discussions and lectures for university students. “The initiatives,” said Carl Hétu, CNEWA’s national director in Canada, “will help enhance the culture of dialogue among future Ukrainian leaders of the western and eastern regions of different cultural and religious backgrounds.” More than 1,000 Ukrainians will benefit from these activities. CNEWA’s outreach to Ukraine — spearheaded by Mr. Hétu (shown above with Msgr. Kozar in Ukraine) and his Ottawa-based team — has been assisting the churches in Ukraine in a variety of ways, including support for the poor, the elderly and people with special needs, as well as assistance for the formation of seminarians. To support these and other efforts, and to learn more about these projects, visit CNEWA.ORG.
Aid Rushed to Syria In October, CNEWA’s Beirut-based regional director, Michel Constantin, published a detailed report highlighting CNEWA’s efforts to help those displaced by the civil war in Syria. Through the local churches — CNEWA’s primary partners — a number of unmet needs were addressed, including the provision of milk and diapers for newborn infants, daily breakfast and school kits for 5,000 displaced students, and winter clothing and blankets to some 2,500 displaced families around Damascus, Homs, Latakia and Tartous. To read the full report, visit CNEWA.ORG/WEB/ REPORTONSYRIA.
Clinics to Open in Kurdistan An independent Catholic family foundation, Raskob, has awarded CNEWA an emergency grant to help open two additional clinics serving Iraqi Christian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan. According to CNEWA’s partners on the ground,
the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena and Syriac Catholic Archbishop Boutros Moshe of Mosul, there are pressing health concerns for the 4,530 Iraqi Christian refugee families living temporarily in the cities of Dohuk and Zahko. For a full report of CNEWA’s relief work in Iraq, visit CNEWA.ORG/ WEB/REPORTONIRAQ. “Desperate” in Gaza “The situation in Gaza continues to be very desperate,” said Sami ElYousef, CNEWA’s Jerusalem-based regional director. Mr. El-Yousef has made multiple visits to the embattled region since war in Gaza broke out on 7 July, launching an emergency appeal that, thanks to
OUR WEBSITE onemagazinehome.org OUR BLOG cnewablog.org our generous benefactors in Europe and North America, quickly raised more than $1.2 million. A massive coordinated intervention was implemented among Catholic aid agencies to support Christian medical facilities purchase fuel to keep generators operating and to fund medical care aiding thousands of the injured. Though hostilities ceased 16 August, the situation remains grim. Reconstruction efforts have been spotty, and electrical outages continue, averaging 18 hours a day. Unemployment among the young hovers at more than 70 percent. Some 110,000 people have been displaced and with winter approaching, Mr. El-Yousef fears the humanitarian crisis will only worsen. To read more about the war’s impact on children in Gaza, see “Shell-shocked: Growing Up in Gaza” on Page 18. And to support CNEWA’s efforts to help the people of Gaza, please visit CNEWA.ORG. Farewell to a Friend In September, longtime friend and supporter of CNEWA, Catherine Walsh of Brooklyn, entered into eternal life. Ms. Walsh supported the agency for many years, touching many lives by her love of the church, her commitment to the poor and her generous heart. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and all those who loved her. Thanks to her generosity, the legacy of Ms. Walsh will live on, enabling the priests and sisters she loved to continue their service to God and his people.
The Middle East It is no secret: This has been a time of tremendous turmoil for so many in the Middle East. War this summer in Gaza left thousands dead, an overwhelming majority of them civilians. At the same time, violence exploded in Iraq, as radical Islamic jihadists — from their base in Syria — began their assault of Iraq, targeting Christians and other minorities. Hundreds of thousands of people found themselves literally running for their lives, fleeing to mountain refuges, or to better secured cities, such as Erbil, Baghdad, Amman and Beirut. This edition of the magazine brings vividly to life the hardship and the hope of so many who live in the land where Christianity first began. Our special coverage begins on Page 6. Pope Francis expressed the fervent hopes of all of us in July, when he said of those suffering in the Middle East, “May the God of peace arouse in all an authentic desire for dialogue and reconciliation. Violence cannot be overcome with violence. Violence is overcome with peace!”
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There is more to discover about CNEWA’s world online: • A report on a recent visit to a Cistercian monastery in Ethiopia supported by CNEWA • A look at how CNEWA is helping Dalit children in India • Exclusive videos about our world, featuring interviews with CNEWA’s regional directors
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Requiscat in pace.
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EXODUS FLEEING TERROR, THEIR LIVES SHATTERED, IRAQI CHRISTIANS STRUGGLE TO START OVER BY DON DUNCAN Editors’ note: Some names have been changed at the request of the families to protect their safety.
efore he goes to sleep at night, Wissam Abdul Hadi, 21, watches videos on his mobile phone for comfort. His favorites were taken just two months ago and depict him acting with his friends in a comedy on stage in Qaraqosh, his hometown in northern Iraq — the largest Christian town in the country, with a onetime population of some 55,000. In the videos, Wissam stomps across stage in a red and white keffiyeh, or headscarf, waving his arms in vaudeville style, berating another character for misbehavior. There are giggles and guffaws from the audience. On stage, he seems to be in his element. But now, expelled from his hometown and stranded with his parents and two brothers in a camp for the internally displaced in the
city of Suleimaniyah, some 170 miles away, these videos of comedy have become a tragedy. “I feel like it is all a bad dream,” says Wissam. “Losing my house, losing the community I was a part of, losing my friends. It feels like it is not real somehow.” For two months, Wissam and an estimated 120,000 other displaced Christian Iraqis have been slowly coming to terms with a harsh reality: They are now a displaced people, they have very little money, and there is no sign they will be able to go home any time soon. On talking to many Christian families and individuals who have taken refuge in cities across Iraqi Kurdistan, the master narrative is the same: ISIS, the jihadist Islamic terrorist movement seeking to create a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, had made rapid advances across large swaths of Iraq, and by early August, seized the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq — a historic Christian stronghold.
The sixth day of August promises to be a date that will be seared into the Iraqi Christian psyche for quite some time: That is the day Iraqi Christendom finally — and maybe definitively — succumbed to extremists and much of the population was sent fleeing. The exodus was rapid and frantic, beginning in the evening of 6 August. Families recount how they had 15 minutes to half an hour to grab what they could and leave, ahead of the rapid arrival of ISIS. The roads were choked with families in cars and on foot — Chaldean and Syriac Catholics, Copts and Armenians, but also Yazidis and Shiite Muslims from all over Nineveh — all fleeing the particular brand of ISIS fundamentalism. They headed east, to Iraqi Kurdistan and the protection of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces there. By the next morning, the heartland of Christian Iraq was firmly in the hands of ISIS.
Children play in one of the stairwells of an unfinished building opposite St. Josephâ€™s Church in Erbil.
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Sister Nizak Matty walks among families in the basement of an unfinished building in Erbil now used as a shelter for displaced Christians.
“My father sold his own mother’s gold and took a loan from the government so he could build our house, and then everything was gone in 15 minutes,” says Wissam Abdul Hadi. “He worked for years and lost everything in a few minutes.”
he sense of loss and the incomprehension of the sudden, new reality are common to many of the displaced families. Beyond the shared narrative of expulsion, the personal
stories issuing from the camps, church grounds and repurposed schools and social centers housing displaced Christians are varied and many. Take Sister Maria Hanna, mother superior of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, who said a final prayer in tears in the Qaraqosh convent’s chapel before fleeing it with 40 of her sisters. Then there is Basmina Rahimo, who fled Mosul for Qaraqosh in July and then had to flee Qaraqosh for Erbil. Her son remained in
Qaraqosh as it was seized by ISIS. She has heard no word from him since. “I cry every day,” she says. “I pray and I am fasting, but still there is no sign of him so I am simply hoping.” Tissa Raffo, 34, who was paralyzed in 2006 when she was caught in the crossfire between U.S. forces and insurgents, suffered disturbing flashbacks as she and her family fled in the dark of night, surrounded by artillery fire. Ibtihaj Rifo, a mother of three from the Christian town of Bartella,
“FOR THE FIRST WEEK, MANY PEOPLE WERE SLEEPING IN CHURCHYARDS WITHOUT SHELTER, USING EACH OTHER’S STOMACHS AS PILLOWS.”
remembers having to climb out of the car and crawl beneath it at one point of their exodus to avoid the gunfire exchanged between ISIS and the Peshmerga. Christians from the major towns of Qaraqosh, Bartella and Tel Afar, as well as from villages all across the Christian plain of Nineveh, are now scattered across cities in Iraqi Kurdistan, such as Erbil, Dohuk, Kirkuk and Sulimaniyeh. At a distance of 46 miles, Erbil is the nearest Kurdish city to Qaraqosh and, therefore, received the largest
number of displaced people, currently estimated at more than 60,000. Most of them descended on the Christian neighborhood of Ain Kawa over the span of just a couple of days. Because of the overpopulation, living conditions for displaced Christians are the worst in Erbil. Any and all resources were tapped so as to offer the displaced shelter and food. The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, the Ephremite and Franciscan sisters, the Little Sisters of Jesus as well as Chaldean and Syriac priests and bishops were all mobilized. For the first week, many people were sleeping in churchyards without shelter, using each other’s stomachs as pillows. They complained of the scourge of ants at night and of the strong, beating sun during the day. Within a week, all had been given temporary housing. Tent cities sprouted around most churches in the main cities of Iraqi Kurdistan. Social centers were converted into improvised shelters. After the first week, the Kurdish authorities lent some schools in a bid to ease the situation. In Erbil, several unfinished buildings have been used as temporary shelters, where improvised tents made of tarpaulins and plastic sheeting have been set up to offer families some semblance of privacy. In one such unfinished building, the living conditions deteriorate markedly as you descend each
floor, like Dante’s Inferno. In the basement, people subsist in poorly lighted quarters separated by plastic sheets. They live with the constant smell of their own excrement, which is collected in an open sewer not far from their dwellings. Their morale has eroded so severely that many simply aspire to attain living quarters on the first or second floor of the same building. Around camps and churches across Iraqi Kurdistan, an improvised network of commerce and retail has sprung up. Displaced Christians have opened little shops for the new tent communities. Some offer ice-cutting services. Others cut hair. The gold merchants of the major cities have seen a boon in gold at rock bottom prices; Christians who have arrived are desperate to liquidate their few heirlooms in what has quickly become a buyer’s market.
t night, above this landscape of abjection reigns a scattering of glimmering crosses. On the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, celebrated on 14 September, Iraqi Christians erect illuminated crosses on top of their buildings and leave them there for several weeks. The crosses they left behind in Qaraqosh and Bartella have most likely been taken down or destroyed, but crosses seem to have redoubled across the recently overpopulated Christian enclaves of Iraqi Kurdistan.
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Despite their fear, they have faith Keep their hope alive Support Iraq's Christians www.cnewa.org
While the presence of the crosses certainly brings hope to the faithful, the harsh reality grinds on: It has been months since their expulsion and they are still languishing in churches, tents, abandoned basements, unfinished buildings, repurposed schools and social centers. “The most difficult thing for us is to handle this psychologically,” says Faraj Abdul Hadi, Wissam’s father, who brought his family to a temporary shelter in the basement of St. Joseph’s Chaldean Church in Suleimaniyah. “We feel like we are in a prison. This is a small room we live in and we are a big family. All we can do with our days is to go out and walk around the church. That’s it.” Not surprisingly, health care has become a major issue. The health center established at Martha Schmouny camp, next to St. Joseph’s Church in Erbil, is inundated with cases related to the poor living conditions of the displaced: fevers, diarrhea, stomach aches, headaches and respiratory problems. “We have some tuberculosis cases as well,” says Sister Diana Momeka, a Dominican who helps run the center along with the Rev. Behnam Benoka, a Syriac priest. “We also
had a leprosy case a few weeks ago but, thank God, we were able to overcome it.” The center treats between 400 and 600 people a day with a rotating staff of 20 doctors and three cabin-clinics for children, men and the general population respectively. CNEWA provided funds for two of the cabins as well as a large tent, which is used for taking blood samples and blood pressure readings. What is conspicuously lacking, however, is psychosocial care for a population that is traumatized. “We have situations where we don’t have psychologists to treat people,” says Sister Diana, “and now we have lots of people breaking down.” Fights break out easily. Tempers fray quickly. There are cases of domestic abuse. As the various church groups and NGOs on the ground struggle to contain and improve the situation, more displaced arrive. Usually, they were trapped in their hometowns with the arrival of ISIS and have managed only now to escape. On their arrival, they are often mobbed by the media and by other displaced people, all desperate for news of their towns and homes. Savio Yakob arrived in Erbil just two days prior to our interview, in
full Islamic beard and dress. His children did not recognize him initially. During the mass exodus on 6 August, his wife and children were given the last spaces in a departing car, and he vowed to follow them in the morning. By daybreak, ISIS had taken over Qaraqosh and he was held prisoner in the city for 33 days. He witnessed a man endure 20 lashes of a whip for smoking. He saw statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary beheaded. He saw bodies of dead people in the street left to rot. He himself was forced to convert to Islam under threat of death. He acquiesced and uttered the Shahadah, the Islamic profession of faith. One of the other Christian men who was also coerced to do the same told Mr. Yakob that while saying the Shahadah verbally, he was simultaneously saying his Christian prayers internally. Once a Muslim in the eyes of ISIS, Mr. Yakob was free to move. He escaped to the safety of Kirkuk, where he went to confession and recanted his conversion to Islam. He then moved on to Erbil, where he was reunited with his family. “I have made peace inside myself that I am a Christian,” he says in a small schoolroom he now shares with another family in Erbil. “I belong to Christ.” Except for occasional escapees such as Savio Yakob, there is an almost complete lack of information from Qaraqosh and the surrounding plain of Nineveh since ISIS occupied it. Occasionally, voices come from the void to some of the displaced Christians, via their mobile phones. On looting a house or shop, ISIS fighters will call mobile phone numbers they find written near the landline phone where they are looting. “I am in your shop and I am robbing it, and I am taking everything with me,” was one such call a displaced Christian retailer
Christians gather for Evening Prayer outside St. Josephâ€™s Church in Erbil.
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CNEWA has long accompanied the Christians of Iraq in the very cradle of Christianity. Our benefactors have funded hospitals, child care initiatives and faith formation programs. Now, our attention is focused on the families displaced from their homes in northern Iraq. Since summer, CNEWA has rushed nursing formula and diapers for infants, medicines for the sick, and shelter for those with special needs. With winter approaching, we are equipping the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena to supply blankets and warm clothing, and setting up clinics. Your generosity can make a difference. To learn how, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).
received from his own shop in Qaraqosh. “They call just to be nasty and to press on our throats,” says Sister Maria Hanna. But even out of ISIS’s reach, there remains a boot of sorts firmly placed on Iraqi Christians’ throats. They had to flee very rapidly; most of them could only bring a change of clothes and some important documents. Before, the Christians were relatively prosperous, but most of their wealth was invested in land, livestock and buildings that now lie beyond their reach, confiscated by ISIS. What money they had in banks is inaccessible because the banking system in Iraq
requires they deposit and withdraw from the same local branch. In short, these displaced Christians face a major liquidity problem. The sub-zero northern Iraq winter is approaching and despite military efforts by the United States and its “core coalition,” there is no immediate relief in sight for the tens of thousands of displaced Christians. For now, most of the families are surviving on aid from the churches and a small number of NGOs and international aid organizations. The response, however, has been slow. Many of the Christians interviewed for this article spoke of a feeling of being forgotten or neglected by the world. “Why aren’t we eating better? Why aren’t we staying in a dignified place?” yelled a woman to Sister Nizak Matty, a Dominican Sister of St. Catherine of Siena, as she conducted her rounds in the putrid basement shelter of an unfinished building opposite St. Joseph’s Church in Erbil. The woman was soon joined by a group of other women, echoing her grievances. “Why are we in this miserable situation, living in dirt and sickness, not knowing where we can leave or when? Why is everyone ignoring us?”
harities such as CNEWA are rushing what they can for the relief effort, along with international organizations such as IOM, UNHCR and UNICEF. Aid is indeed coming, but not enough of it and not quickly enough, says Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Boutros Moshe of Mosul, who himself had to flee ISIS and relocated his entire administration to a prefab container in the Martha Schmouny camp in Erbil. “We expect a faster and definitive solution, and we are not getting that,” he says. “It’s slow and the situation is larger than we thought.” What’s more, now children have returned to school for the year.
Pressure is mounting to move the displaced Christians living in schools to other accommodations. Beyond the material needs — housing, clothing, food and medicine — many of the Christians are beginning to run low on perhaps the most precious commodity of all: hope. “Even if we do eventually go back to our houses, we have lost our sense of security,” says Nabil Rifo, who fled Bartella on 6 August with his family and ended up in a shelter run by the Chaldean Church in Suleimaniyah. “People from Mosul have robbed our houses. How will we ever feel secure there again?” “For minorities and Christians, Iraq is over,” says Faraj Abdul Hadi. These may seem like alarmist statements until the current upheaval is put in the larger context of the fate of Iraqi Christians since 2003. At the last Iraqi census, in 1987, the country’s Christian population measured 1.4 million, 5 percent of the total population. By 2003, before the second U.S. invasion of Iraq in a dozen years, that number had dropped to an estimated one million. In the decade since the U.S. invasion and the security crisis that has ensued, it is estimated Iraq’s Christian population has dropped to fewer than 300,000. With about half of that remaining population now displaced, and with no feasible return home in sight, emigration is now a growing concern for church leaders. In the archbishop’s prefab office in Erbil, a priest is busy stamping marriage and baptism certificates. The archbishop explains they are for Christians who left their original certificates back home and who will need such paperwork for the United Nations, so they may be resettled to third countries. The thud of the priest’s stamp punctuates the archbishop’s speech. “I love my country, really. I love my ministry,” he says with his
head bowed, “but if I don’t have a community to minister to, what would it mean for me to stay here?” Peals of music and laughter enter the container from outside, as children commence the evening's fun and games, coordinated by several Dominican sisters. The hope of return to their various towns and villages is becoming a rare sentiment. “We will go back if it gets better and if Bartella is safe again,” says Nabila Salem, a mother of four who did not manage to flee her home on time and arrived in Erbil after a month of house arrest with her husband and children. “We want to stay, but we need security.” But the growing doubt among many of these displaced Christians, is whether a sufficient level of security will ever return. In Suleimaniyah, Waseem Abdul Hadi, Wissam’s older brother, has given up on the prospect of a return of stability. He has decided, as have many others, to move to Amman, Jordan, with his wife and child, to start the process of permanent resettlement through UNHCR. The Abdul Hadi family has decided to put what money it has left on his exodus, as it may represent their only solid chance of survival as a family. To help sustain the family until his brother can send for the rest of them, younger brother, Wissam, has found a $600-per-month job as a waiter in a local hotel. At night, he still watches his videos from happier times in Qaraqosh, a glimpse at a world that has all but vanished — a sort of Pompeii, a potential Atlantis. People wonder if what is happening now is the beginning of the end of Christianity in Iraq. But they refrain from reaching any conclusion. There is still, perhaps, a glimmer of hope.
Displaced Iraqi Christians pray inside a school being used to house refugees in Erbil.
As for Wissam, he says he will continue to work at the hotel until the whole family can leave Iraq. “Emigration is not an option that I am choosing,” he says on a break from his duties making tea and coffee for the hotel’s guests. “It is something we have to do because we don’t think we will really be able to go back, and we can’t remain living the way we are now. “It is a choice that has been made for us.” A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.
DON DUNCAN WRITES ABOUT HIS VISIT TO IRAQ ON OUR ONE-TO-ONE BLOG:
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cnewablog.org/web/ donduncan CNEWA’S REGIONAL DIRECTORS IN THE MIDDLE EAST DISCUSS WHAT THEY HAVE SEEN IN IRAQ IN A VIDEO:
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Survivors of the EXODUS:
THE YADAGO FAMILY
s Ghanem Yadago, his wife Waheeda and their two sons Wissam and Fadi were fleeing their home in northern Iraq, Ghanem found he had a steady calm to support and encourage his wife to continue the passage out of danger. This was in part because Ghanem could not see the danger and chaos enveloping his family as they fled. He is blind. He lost his sight when he took shrapnel during the Iran-Iraq war, and since then he has been completely dependent on his wife and children. Their displacement from their hometown of Tel Usquf in the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq occurred on 5 August. While the experience of displacement has turned the entire family’s life upside down, Ghanem was hit “I HAD especially hard.
She draws some paper slips from her bag: electrocardiogram scans performed in Erbil since her arrival. Her doctor believes she has developed heart problems from the shock and trauma of displacement. Worried about a possible heart attack, the doctor has put her on medication. With the E.C.G. scans, several flattened packets fall from her bag: heart medicine for her and Ghanem. He has a pre-existing heart condition, one that is acute and needs to be managed.
PEOPLE’S HELP FOR
“When we arrived, we bought all of the medicine he needed until some organizations came and decided to help us,” Waheeda explains. “But not all the medicines are provided, so we still have to buy some. Some of the medicines are so expensive, we can’t afford to buy them.”
“Back in our home, I could manage by myself because I EVERYTHING.” knew the house intimately,” he says. “I didn’t need anyone to While the family is temporarily help me go to the bathroom, to separated again and Waheeda shave, to get around. However, makes her back-and-forth on moving to the tent [in the yard of St. Joseph’s Church, journeys between the camp and her husband’s shelter, Erbil], it was very difficult for me. It was a new place for Ghanem busies himself with getting the new family me, unfamiliar. I had to ask people’s help for living space ready for his family. everything.” The walls have been made from carpeting nailed to After living in the tent for a number of weeks, Ghanem wooden frames and the hall is divided into numerous and his family were offered living space in a facility sections, each of which will serve as a living space for repurposed as a refuge for the sick and disabled by the each sick or elderly person and their family. In his Syriac Catholic Church. The hall has dozens of rooms family’s assigned living space, Ghanem has arranged attended to by medical personnel. CNEWA has donated two beds and has stacked foam mattresses. On the wheelchairs, along with three showers adapted for the carpet “wall” hang a few towels. There is a folded pile disabled. of clothes on the floor. Ghanem moved into the facility, but his family remained in the camp to benefit from the food and medical aid they needed there. For now, the family lives apart: Waheeda makes the trip from the camp to Ananas Hall three times a day, and remains with her husband at night.
Sitting on one of the beds, Ghanem takes out a mobile phone and carefully fingers in each digit of his wife’s number. He checks on her in this way throughout the day, but, he says, he feels bad about the extra pressure his disability has put on her during their displacement.
“I get physically tired from coming and going so much, and I myself have developed health problems,” Waheeda says with a sigh.
Ghanem Yadago talks with Dominican Sister Nizak Matty in his new living quarters at Ananas Hall, Erbil.
“It is difficult for my wife,” he says. “She is the one who has to get the food, the ice, everything that might be distributed. She has to take care of all that I would normally do, by herself.”
The family’s youngest, Fadi, 15, is one of the many Christian teenagers whose studies have been put on hold by the ISIS violence and their subsequent displacement from Tel Usquf.
Back at Martha Schmouny camp, Waheeda and her eldest son, Wissam, are preparing for dinner. She washes some pots and pans under a tap not far from the tent and he heads off to the camp’s food distribution area to see what he can find. With Ghanem’s heart condition, the family has had to pass up on much of the food that has been cooked and distributed to the displaced Christians of the camp by aid organizations.
The Yadagos also have three daughters, but they are all married and living abroad, one in Australia and two in the United States.
“Ghanem has a special diet. He can’t eat meat, only chicken. He can’t eat fat,” Waheeda explains. “So, often, we cannot eat what is provided for us.”
While many displaced families are now beginning to consider emigration as the only permanent solution, the Yadago family is keen on staying put. “Given the fact that Ghanem is sick and I have a son who is 15 and is still at school, we are not so interested in going back to Tel Usquf and staying there,” Waheeda says. “We might return for a while, but we have realized we would prefer to stay in Erbil. We’d like to stay close to doctors so that if anything happens to Ghanem, we can find help easily and quickly.”
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Survivors of the EXODUS:
THE MATTI FAMILY
other of four and wife to Saaed, Fadia Matti reaches often for a roll of toilet paper that sits next to her. She uses the roll for tissues for her coughing or crying. Since arriving in the basement of an unfinished building in Erbil, she has developed respiratory problems, and a broken heart.
because I think of what we left behind: the churches especially, but also our memories, the childhoods of my children and everything we had.”
“I don’t believe what has happened,” she says of her family’s displacement from Qaraqosh in northern Iraq. She sits on one of the foam mattresses of the family’s new shelter, a small quadrant defined by plastic sheeting. “I cry once I remember [our home in] Qaraqosh: the churches, Communion, having parties and how we would sit with our neighbors and wait for Christmas and Easter. I am sitting here, but “WE KNOW my mind is in Qaraqosh.”
More than three months have passed since that fateful night of 6 August, when the Mattis were having supper and then suddenly had to grab what they could and flee ahead of the unexpected advances of ISIS. They managed to bring only a few clothes and some vital documents with them.
She reaches for the tissue roll, tears off a piece and dabs her wet cheeks.
WE ARE JUST WAITING
Around Fadia sit her children: her daughter Inas, the eldest; 16-year-old son Nibras; 13-yearold daughter Aras; and Diana, 10, the youngest. Her husband Saaed comes into the enclosure, removes his boots and sits next to her.
FOR GOD’S MERCY.”
Around them lie the accouterments familiar to refugees and displaced people the world over: piles of foam mattresses, plastic containers, basic gas stoves, plastic sheeting and imperishable foodstuffs. The Mattis have ended up in perhaps the worst living conditions that Erbil has to offer for the arriving Christians. While others are housed in tents in the grounds of St Joseph’s Church or in temporary structures in social centers or on floors above where the Mattis now live, the Mattis’ own living space is in the poorly-lighted basement. The open sewer for the entire building is nearby. A constant smell of refuse and excrement lingers. “My children get sick. I take them to the doctor. They get well. And then they get sick again,” says Fadia of the endless cycle of ill health that comes with living in such substandard conditions. “I was comforting my kids, telling them that tomorrow would be better,” she says, “but now I am crying
“It took us 13 hours to travel from Qaraqosh to Erbil. It was so crowded. So many cars,” says Saaed Matti of the journey that normally takes an hour. “There was shooting and fighting while we were moving.”
The family arrived in Ain Kawa, to a packed St. Joseph’s Church, on the morning of 7 August. They spent 13 days there, sleeping in the churchyard without even a tent as shelter. Then they were moved to their current subterranean abode across the street from the church. Almost all of what the Matti family has managed to collect around itself for a minimum of comfort — a fridge, an air cooler, some plastic containers — has come from church charities or NGO aid. The family has very few liquid assets and thus subsists on what aid is provided until their situation takes a turn for the better. “We know nothing,” says Fadia. “We are just waiting for God’s mercy.” While the Mattis wait, along with the other estimated 120,000 Christians who were displaced by ISIS, they are doing their best to stay healthy and in good spirits. The children get involved in group tasks around the building during the day. The Matti Family poses for a portrait in their refugee camp in Erbil.
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The RIFO FAMILY
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“I volunteer to clean the basement with other young people,” says Inas Matti. “We try to keep the toilets and other places clean.” As for Fadia and Saaed, they try their best to keep fear and anxiety from their children. Silently, though, they worry about what the future holds for them. They do, however, have one solid source of comfort when the worry seems to become too much for them. Buried deep under stacks of clothes, blankets, foam mattresses, cutlery and pots and pans, Fadia has hidden her most cherished possession that she managed to bring from their home in Qaraqosh: a photo album. She excavates it — an endeavor that takes some minutes and much dishevelment of the living quarter’s order — and sits down quietly, smiling as she turns each page. On one page, is a photo of Inas at a cousin’s wedding in Qaraqosh the year before; elsewhere, a picture of
The BASSIH FAMILY CNEWA.ORG/WEB/ BASSIH
Diana and her cousins; a family portrait from a few years back; Fadia and her sisters wearing colorful dresses at a wedding years ago; studio portraits of each of the Matti children in new sets of clothes; Saaed playing the flute at a wedding party; a kindergarten graduation ceremony. Inas’ first Holy Communion. Easter. Christmas… Sometimes Fadia’s mind is so deeply entrenched in the past, escaping the grim anxious present for the secure, halcyon days in Qaraqosh, that she simply forgets where she is. On giving instructions to her children to go do certain tasks, she frequently uses landmarks or references that relate to their house in Qaraqosh and not the basement dystopia where the family now lives. “I love Qaraqosh. It’s my spirit. It’s my soul,” says Fadia as she leafs through the album. “We hope we will go back and that Christianity will remain in Iraq. My hope is in God and in Our Lady. It is impossible that Christianity will disappear.”
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Shell-shocked: Growing Up in Gaza THE CHILDREN OF WAR STRUGGLE TO HEAL BY HAZEM BALOUSHA
welve-year-old Nesma al Haddad spent the summer in the safest part of her apartment building: the living area on the ground floor of a 12-story building. The main entrance was just a few steps away, and there were few windows. Her room upstairs, with her bed and her assortment of beautiful collectibles, went unoccupied. With Israel and Hamas at war in Gaza, Nesma tried to carry on with her normal life, hiding her anxiety from her five siblings, despite the sounds of explosions and gunfire during the bombardment of the surrounding neighborhood. More than once, Nesma and her family were forced to flee to a neighbor’s house; an apartment on the eighth floor was a target. She would leave behind her belongings, except for a suitcase, packed in advance with her favorite clothes and a toy. “I did not fear anything,” Nesma says. “I worried about losing my favorite toy that I had bought during the last war, in 2012. But I was more worried about losing one of my family members.” Hers is an all too common story in Gaza these days, and it reveals t Children sit amid the rubble of their destroyed home in the Shajaia area east of Gaza City.
the invisible scars borne by so many children of war. When talking with these children, and hearing their experiences, one learns how deeply they have been affected by the violence around them — trauma that will take years to heal fully. Psychologist Jasser Salah met with Nesma during the war several times to assess the impact of the war on children. “Those remarks are her attempt to deny her feelings of fear and anxiety,” he says, adding that Nesma feels great pressure to remain calm for her family’s sake. Such pressure, Mr. Salah adds, poses a greater challenge to the Gaza Strip’s children than its adults. At their early stage of psychological development, the stress of enduring armed conflict can leave deep and lasting impressions. Gaza’s young may be especially vulnerable. A report published in 2012 by the United Nations notes the Gaza Strip has “one of the youngest populations worldwide,” with about 51 percent of the population under 18 years of age. That same report predicted the Gaza Strip could become virtually unlivable by 2020, according to available trend data for access to food, drinking water, electricity, sanitation infrastructure, health care and schooling. A shortage of clean water alone could create a crisis as early as 2016, due to the accelerating
depletion of groundwater wells and inadequate sewage systems. Additionally, the Palestinian Ministry of Education lists hundreds of schools as damaged, and dozens destroyed entirely. The scope of the devastation is vast. “The needs are much greater than what we can provide,” says Sami ElYousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, who has been working with numerous Catholic aid agencies operating in the region to coordinate aid, ensuring that scarce resources are not lost to duplication and competition. Though emergency relief efforts are still underway, making a prosperous future a possibility for Gaza’s youth will require development initiatives for years to come — possibly, even, for decades. “Gaza,” explains Mr. El-Yousef, “has to remain a priority for the foreseeable future.”
ver the past seven years, Gazans have endured three wars and an ongoing blockade by Egypt and Israel, initiated in 2007. Together, these conditions have pushed Gaza’s unemployment and poverty rates to about 40 percent each. Wissam Abu Shaqfa, 10, was too young in 2008 to remember the Israeli military incursion called
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“Operation Cast Lead.” However, he remembers clearly the fighting in 2012, which continued for eight days. He says the recent 50-day war was the worst of the two. “In the first days, I used to move in the city normally,” he says. “But as it got worse, dad forced us to stay indoors. We sometimes still went outside — I used to accompany him to his grocery store, two streets away from our home.” Psychologist Jasser Salah explains that Wissam has been suffering through a severe shock after the death of his close friend — a beloved uncle who never had children of his own and had treated Wissam as a son. The boy has since
isolated himself, preferring to remain alone. “Wissam returned to school after the war ended, adds Mr. Salah, but he felt detached.” The psychologist says it could take Wissam a long time to make new friends and cope with his loss. It is a loss many children his age in Gaza are experiencing. And it is taking a toll. According to UNICEF, more than 500 Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip were killed during “Operation Protective Edge” this summer, and more than 3,300 children were injured. Even among those who suffered no injuries, many have experienced significant psychological trauma.
p Children paint and draw in workshops.
“When I’m speaking to children today, I’m finding that they are withdrawing from normal interactions with their families, they’re having nightmares, they’re bed-wetting, they won’t let their parents out of sight,” says Pernille Ironside, chief of the UNICEF Gaza field office. “They’re truly in a state of trauma.” It is part of what she calls the “destabilizing impact” of feeling that no safe place exists in Gaza. “Children need to have that sense of security,” she says. Yet for many, such security was damaged during the unpredictable bombings. Their lives and sense of
p A man searches for his possessions in the rubble of his former home.
well-being, like the landscape around them, were shattered. When 14-year-old Tamer al Nakhala and his mother took a taxi to visit his grandmother, a bomb exploded just yards from the car. Though shaken by the event, they arrived safely. However, when the time came to leave, the two could not find a cab to take them home before the next round of heavy shelling. In the darkness, the boy ran with his mother all the way home, surrounded by the sounds of a mounting barrage of artillery. Since that night, Tamer’s family has observed differences in the
boy’s behavior. Among other changes, he now suffers from insomnia. He rarely seems to have any appetite. He has also developed a fear of the dark. “Since then, Tamer turned into someone else,” says Ahlam, Tamer’s mother. “Despite being the eldest among his brothers, he behaves as children do. He refuses to sleep at night, often waking up his siblings for company. “He sleeps intermittently during the day time,” she adds. “I was afraid of death,” admits Tamer, a shy boy who used to spend his time playing computer games. “I’m always afraid of losing my little brother, who is the closest one to me.”
he common denominator between Nesma, Tamer and Wissam is not only the psychological impact of war, but also a deep-seated need to hide their true feelings. At her home in Al Daraj neighborhood in eastern Gaza City, Ahlam al Nakhala tells Tamer: “You are a grownup, and should not fear. Look at your siblings, they do not fear. “You should sleep and eat,” she says, concerned for her son’s growth. But Mr. Salah says this attitude is commonplace. “Parents in Gaza are rooted to their inherited culture that considers fear a weakness.” This, he says, can exacerbate the problem.
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CNEWA’s Jerusalem office has long had a close relationship with Gaza’s churches and their works, especially the schools, health care facilities and initiatives for children with special needs. That support became critical over the summer.
CNEWA responded quickly by delivering emergency aid to Christian health care facilities, especially the clinics of the Near East Council of Churches and Al Ahli Arab Hospital, offering both medical services and programs to help children cope with the psychological trauma of war. CNEWA is also providing grants for counseling programs in Christian-run schools, and aid to the Myrrh Bearers Society for care for the elderly.
The need remains great — especially for the children. Help those who are suffering by calling: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).
“Raising the parents’ awareness is essential to help children to overcome their psychological trauma,” he says. “This is the reason behind conducting field visits and meetings with parents.” Nesma’s father, Nabil al Haddad, has been consulting psychiatrists about how to help his daughter process the recent events. “My wife and I tried hard to help her,” he says. Their first instinct was to shower Nesma with gifts and attention, but it soon became clear that the family needed to seek professional help. “We hide our own feelings of fear and anxiety from her,” Mr. al Haddad says, “but it was so hard to stop her from being scared, even when we would all sleep in one room.” q The Orthodox parish of St. Porphyrios provided refuge to Farha Salameh and her family.
To this day, Mr. al Haddad says, Nesma is easily startled by loud noises — even the sound of speeding cars. She has not slept in her own bed since returning to find the windows of her room shattered from nearby shelling. According to a UNICEF report, about 373,000 Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip — or 35 percent of the children there — require psychological intervention after the summer’s war. “This is an area where the need is great,” says Sami El-Yousef. “Countless men, women and children will be suffering the aftereffects of this conflict for a long time to come. “Some wounds are invisible and deep,” he adds. Psychological assistance is a key component of the programs supported by CNEWA through Gaza’s Christian institutions,
Give Gaza’s children A future filled with hope www.cnewa.org
including the YMCA of Gaza, the Myrrh Bearers Society of the Orthodox parish of St. Porphyrios, the Anglican-run Al Ahli Arab Hospital and the various initiatives of the Latin Patriarchate. The results so far show promise. At one of the institutions CNEWA supports, the Rosary Sisters School, the scene looks markedly different than other places. The students are playing, drawing and dancing, expressing and discussing their summer. Sister Nabila Saleh, the school’s principal, noticed a difference in the students’ behavior when they returned to school. The children were tense, and became more violent with one another on the playground. “It was obvious the war had a bad impact on the children, and for that reason we decided to dedicate the first week to stress release by playing, drawing, dancing and writing — in cooperation with specialists,” Sister Nabila says. “Most of the children responded positively during the social activities. Some students profoundly need additional treatment — especially those who lost loved ones, or those whose homes were completely demolished.”
assan Zeyada, director of the Gaza Community Center, which offers psychological support for children and their parents, says the continuation of the current crisis and the recurrence of the military conflicts in the Gaza Strip complicate the situation. It serves, he says, to increase the level of violence in society every day — which makes any recovery an uphill struggle. “In light of the bitter economic and political realities in the Gaza Strip,” he says, “it is hard to achieve our goals. The aftermath of the war will affect [the children’s] behavior for a long time.” In particular, Mr. Zeyada expresses concern that constant exposure to violence will lead children to feel it is normal. Ten-year-old Wissam seems to illustrate those worries, especially when someone asks him what he wants to be when he grows up. “I’m not going to be an engineer or inventor, because I won’t find a job,” Wissam says. “If I become a fighter, I’ll find work to do.” CNEWA’s Sami El-Yousef says attitudes such as Wissam’s are, sadly, all too common — and need to be addressed. “We cannot allow that to happen,” he explains. “The best way to change
this is to ensure there is a political solution leading to an independent and viable Palestinian state.” Meanwhile, 12-year-old Nesma, offers another glimpse of Gaza’s future — and her own. “When I grow up I won’t buy toys, even during wars,” she says. “I want to live in another place in the world rather than here.” Tamer, when asked about his future, gives the question long and careful consideration. “When I grow up,” he says, “I want to become rich, to buy a big house that rockets and missiles won’t penetrate.” Hazem Balousha is a journalist based in Palestine. WATCH A VIDEO WITH MORE ON LIFE IN GAZA AT: onemagazinehome.org/ web/gazavideo HAZEM BALOUSHA HAS MORE ON THE CHILDREN OF GAZA AT OUR BLOG ONE-TO-ONE AT:
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Sister Wardeh’s World SYRIANS FL E E I N G WAR F I N D PE AC E , T HA NKS TO THE WORK OF SI ST E RS I N L E BAN ON BY AM AL M ORC OS Editors’ note: Several names have been changed to protect those involved.
he heat of an intense summer sun, combined with the noise and pollution from traffic on an elevated highway, creates a stifling atmosphere in Naba’a, a neighborhood located on the edge of the bustling capital of Beirut. Two Franciscan Missionaries of Mary — one middle aged, one a novice — wind their way through a narrow alley lined with convenience shops and small cinderblock homes. Local residents greet them. The sisters are here to visit a few of the hundreds of Syrians who have taken refuge in Naba’a after fleeing their nation’s three-year civil war. But Naba’a is hardly a refuge. Since the government of Lebanon has decided not to build refugee camps, people find shelter wherever they can: in one-room homes, in crowded apartments, even in tents. The Syrian refugee crisis has been described as the largest in a generation. Of the estimated 9
million Syrians who have fled their homes since the war began in 2011, the United Nations estimates that as many as 1.5 million will find a refuge in Lebanon — a tiny nation with a population of just 4.5 million — by the end of 2014. The large number has overwhelmed the Lebanese economy. The government, which, apart from opening its public schools to Syrian children, provides no social services to refugees. Lebanon has no national health care system, and limited public assistance programs. Violence has also followed Syrians into Lebanon, with fighting erupting between Shiites and Sunnis in the northern city of Tripoli and car bombs in Beirut. In Naba’a, as in the rest of Lebanon, you are left to fend for yourself. But in a land riddled with clear and present dangers, the two sisters this day are bearing something often hard to find: hope.
ariam, a young Syrian refugee who lives in a tiny room with her husband and three children, welcomes the two sisters. Short, cheerful and henna-haired, she laughs easily though her circumstances are very hard. One year ago, a Kurdish militia forced her and her family to leave their home in the northern Syrian city of Hassake. “In a way they did us a favor,” explains Mariam, a Syriac Orthodox Christian. “They warned us that ISIS was coming to the area and ISIS would have killed us.” Mariam and her family fled to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where she found work as a housekeeper. Her husband Gabriel got a job making sculptures from molds. But when A Syrian refugee and her daughter walk to their makeshift home in Bechouat, Lebanon.
Sister Wardeh and her Franciscan Missionaries of Mary have worked closely with CNEWA in setting up a number of programs for the poor and the homeless, especially in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. Activities here included summer Bible camps for refugee children, housing and emergency aid for refugee families from Iraq and Syria, tutoring, counseling and catechesis for children and young adults, and safe houses for girls at risk. Efforts also included the development of leadership programs for the formation of young adults in the faith.
“I use Christianity not as theology but as for refugees to overcome their
To support Sister Wardeh’s program for refugees, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).
their landlord gave their home to a family who could pay more rent, they were uprooted again, this time to Beirut, where they have had to deal with the stress of an expensive, turbulent city and the lingering trauma of what they endured in Syria. “People ask me how I can be so cheerful,” Mariam says. “I tell them: ‘What am I going to do? Shall I make myself sick with being unhappy?’ ” Mariam has not always had a hopeful outlook. When she first came to Beirut she was overwhelmed and despondent. Gabriel was out of work because of a back injury, and Sonique, her 13-year-old daughter, was still
traumatized by what she had witnessed in Syria. The family lived in a tent on a roof, renting the space for $100 per month. But after she began attending a series of retreats sponsored by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Mariam found the courage to accept her circumstances and even to help others. She owes her outlook — and, in a sense, her survival — to the older of the two sisters now visiting her home, Sister Wardeh Kayrouz. Sister Wardeh knows this corner of the world intimately. It was her own experience with war in Lebanon that led her to her vocation. Born and reared in the town of Bcharri, the legendary
mountainous stronghold of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholics, she completed a degree in sociology and became a teacher and a principal in her village. In 1976, just as Lebanon’s civil war set in, Bcharri became a flash point for fighting between Maronite and Palestinian militias. During the war she met a religious sister named Beatrice who transported the dead and wounded with her car. “Sister Beatrice used to say, ‘It is not I who am doing this, but God is doing it through me,’ and I was greatly affected by this.” Sister Wardeh eventually took her vows at age 27. “My family lost everything in the war,” she says.
a means own difficulties.”
“My father and mother used to pray and they came back to the church and were able to cope with their loss and move on with their lives. “The disaster did not tear us apart, it united us,” she continues. “I want everyone to know that you can lose everything, but you can still have hope in life.” The retreats she has designed are one way she imparts that message. Sister Wardeh designed them to help refugees psychologically and spiritually heal from the war and to take charge of their lives in Lebanon. “People were handing out food and blankets, but no one was tending to their [the refugees’] emotional needs,” she says.
She has also helped Souad, a friend of Mariam’s whose circumstances are even harder. Souad, a Melkite Greek Catholic, fled her home in Aleppo when she heard opposition forces were kidnapping young girls. She feared for the safety of her 12-year-old daughter Hala. The family came to Lebanon three years ago. As with many Syrian men in Lebanon, Souad’s husband is a day laborer, but he has had a hard time finding work in a country where there are not enough jobs even for the Lebanese. They can usually meet the $400 per month in rent and utilities, but they have difficulty paying for food. At times, that has led Souad’s husband to do the
zA refugee from Aleppo lives in a moldy basement in Beirut with his parents and three siblings. p A refugee from Aleppo sells flowers at a commercial street in Hamra, a neighborhood in Beirut.
unthinkable: forcing his wife into prostitution. But that stark reality is not uncommon in a country where desperation is rampant and choices are few. Many Syrian women have turned to prostitution or have been sold into it by their families. A young woman with a sorrowful look already etched on her face, Souad says she could not find help for Melkites when she first came to Naba’a. She went to churches of
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various traditions, but was told to go to her own church for assistance. “When Sister Wardeh came,” says Souad, “I felt like the doors of heaven had opened for me.”
n the mountain village of Achkout, Sister Wardeh lives in a convent with seven other sisters. The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary began their work in Achkout in 1938, founding an orphanage. They later expanded the property to include a social service center with outreach to poor families during Lebanon’s civil war of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Here, about 20 miles east of Beirut, Sister Wardeh hosts her program. The retreats give refugees such as Souad and Mariam a break from urban life and a chance to deal with their problems in a tranquil setting. Sister Wardeh created the all-day retreats for Christian refugees, using the Gospel to teach practical life lessons.
“I use Christianity not as theology but as a means for refugees to overcome their own difficulties,” says Sister Wardeh. One session focused on how, despite being uprooted from her home, the Virgin Mary was able to triumph over adversity. Another tells the story of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham, who passed through Lebanon, but who was able to go home — reinforcing the idea that life as a refugee does not have to be permanent. A team of psychologists and social workers counsels participants on the importance of positive thinking, how to live in community, how to care for others and how to preserve family unity in the midst of difficult circumstances. Children are taught the same lessons in separate sessions that include games and theater. The retreats always end with a party, with adults and children coming together for songs, skits and dancing.
Most of the retreat is conducted through group therapy; Sister Wardeh believes individuals benefit more from hearing the stories of others. While available for one-onone counseling, she usually refers those with severe trauma to specialized organizations that can give them more individualized care. Sister Wardeh’s program includes summer camps. Tents are set up in the outdoor area of the Achkout center and refugee families can stay up to seven days at a time. She also takes participants out on all-day field trips to holy sites throughout Lebanon. Over 1,000 refugees have participated in the retreats, summer camps and field trips. It is a country Sister Wardeh knows well, though she is something of a newcomer herself. For the last 20 years, she has lived in Jordan, ministering to Iraqi refugees and poor Jordanians. While working in the camps in Jordan, she met Syrian refugees who told her of their families’ plight in Lebanon. She returned to her homeland in 2013, but it proved difficult after so many years away. Sister Wardeh had no car, no cell phone and did not even recognize the currency, which had changed in design and denomination. While she had organized successful retreats in Jordan, many of which were sponsored by the Amman staff of CNEWA, she was not certain they would work in Lebanon. “I was depressed and crying,” says Sister Wardeh, who felt powerless to help in the face of the suffering around her. “But my sisters came to my rescue and gave me a car and a cell phone.” These resources, though meager, gave her the handhold she needed to start making a difference. She hopes to secure funding so her programs can continue in 2015. She also wants to assist Iraqi refugees and provide more help to Lebanese host families. She also
Sister Wardeh Kayrouz, right, returned to Lebanon after two decades in Jordan to give emotional support to refugees.
hopes to increase the number of field trips and summer camps. “The toll on the Lebanese is very great,” Sister Wardeh says.
ack in Naba’a, the Franciscan makes her rounds through the neighborhood and checks in on Souad, who is sitting in her two-room apartment nursing her 19-month-old son, Yohanna. Photographs of Hala and her other daughter, Lina, in their First Communion dresses, hang next to a picture of Christ crowned with thorns. The apartment has no windows. Air cannot circulate, which makes the child’s asthma worse. Souad takes him to Achkout and on the field trips, and this has improved his health. “I feel more at ease with myself and more relaxed when I have a chance to get out of the
house,” says Souad. “For a little bit, I forget my troubles.” Given all she has endured, she asks for little: to see her parents who are still in Syria, and “to live in peace with my family in the presence of Christ.” Her greatest anxiety is for Hala and Lina — that they will be able to continue their schooling and not be forced into prostitution by their father. Souad welcomes visits by Sister Wardeh and the other sisters, who have become role models for the girls. “This family touched me very much because of Souad’s struggles,” says Sister Wardeh. “My hope is that they can travel abroad to another country that can provide them with more social services, because Lebanon is overwhelmed with refugees.” Indeed, many Syrians who know there is no future for
them in countries such as Lebanon want to apply for immigration to Western nations, but those countries have remained largely closed. Mariam has some relatives who were able to emigrate from Syria to Sweden, and she hopes to join them. However, her relatives would have to sponsor her, and the process costs money. Nevertheless, she is determined to make the best of her time in Lebanon. That means finding a way to raise the $800 per year in the fees required to send her children to parochial school, to find work — in housekeeping and other odd jobs, if necessary — and to stay upbeat. She welcomes the chance to go on field trips with Sister Wardeh and to visit Achkout as much as she can. “Mariam has changed from the time we started the retreats,” says Sister Wardeh. “At first, she wouldn’t talk, but now she can express herself. She is able to accept her reality. She now has inner peace.” Cheerful and positive, she goes from church to church looking for donations of food. “Whenever I am lucky, I get food and if I have extra I give some to Souad,” says Mariam. “The Virgin Mary gives me strength to go from one place to another.” Amal Morcos is a freelance writer who covers the Middle East for humanitarian aid organizations. READ MORE OF AMAL MORCOS’S IMPRESSIONS OF LEBANON ON OUR BLOG, ONE-TO-ONE:
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COPTIC RENAISSANCE After the revolution, a resurgence for Egyptâ€™s laity By Sarah Topol
A woman venerates an icon in St. Mary’s Church in the Christian village of Deir Azra in the Minya region of Egypt.
hen Hanan Fekry ran for the board of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate in October 2011, she did not expect to win. For decades, the authoritarian regime had suppressed the union. After the January 2011 revolution, many expected that would change; it seemed as though the country was on a path to reform and journalists were eager to champion press freedoms. Ms. Fekry, a bright-eyed columnist from Al Watani, Egypt’s Christian weekly newspaper, wanted to be a part of that change. She announced her candidacy knowing she faced three challenges: she is young, a woman and a Christian. All of these were strikes against her in Egypt’s patriarchal, predominantly Muslim society, in which Christians make up roughly 10 percent of the population. (Ethnic Egyptian Christians are known as Copts, derived from the Greek “Aigyptos,” meaning Egyptian.) At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood was ramping up its parliamentary election campaign and had made no secret of its hopes to also win control of unions. “It wasn’t specifically about being Coptic, but generally the atmosphere was not welcoming,” Ms. Fekry recounts from inside Al Watani’s bustling office in downtown Cairo. “I was sure I couldn’t win the first time — a lot of people were calling me the dark horse.” And indeed, she lost. When the next cycle of elections came around in March 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood controlled the government, but discontent with the Islamist group was growing among the public. Feeling its popularity slipping, the Brotherhood doubled down on union elections. When Ms. Fekry put in her name as a candidate, she expected fierce competition for the six open slots on the 12-seat governing board. Both candidates vying for the
position as chair of the board endorsed her, hoping to garner the Coptic vote. “They were using me as a decoration, like a flower on a jacket lapel,” she says. This time, Ms. Fekry won. The first Coptic woman to sit on the journalist syndicate board in decades, she had competed with 46 other candidates. Of the 2,000 or so ballots cast, she had received 800 — a margin of victory far beyond mere political pandering. “If I said this wave against the Muslim Brotherhood was the only reason I won, I would be unfair to myself,” she says. “I am a professional; that is why I won.” Hanan Fekry’s success is symbolic of the greater struggle of Copts in Egypt’s recent history. For decades, Coptic influence in Egypt has waned. Though Christians have been an integral part of Egyptian society for millennia, they have become token figures, whether in literature, television or politics. Governments have used Copts as a windowdressing for national unity, while discrimination and sectarian attacks against the group became the norm. But after the 2011 revolution and the military ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi in July 2013, Copts in Egypt are living through something of a renaissance. “Now, with the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood, we have one of the most substantial moments of a Coptic resurgence in recent memory,” says Adel Iskandar, author of “Egypt in Flux” and a fellow at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “Copts are participating in Egyptian public life with unprecedented fervor. “Before the revolution, Coptic politics were on life support. Afterward, they came to life.”
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“Before the revolution, Coptic CNEWA has long accompanied Egypt’s churches, giving a voice and offering a more promising
politics were on life support. Afterward, they came to life.”
future by supporting activities focused on assisting the poor and marginalized. CNEWA’s generous donors have funded childcare institutions, hospitals and schools — especially those that reach out to people with special needs, such as the blind. To help this important work of the churches continue, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).
odern Egypt’s relationship with Copts is complicated. Periods of nationalism and revolt have unified the country around a common enemy, but fragmentation and sectarianism have soon followed. “When the nation has a dream or a target they will never have discrimination,” says Kamal Mogeth, an Egyptian historian and writer. When the target disappears, or is achieved, he says, “this is when it all starts.” Analysts and historians see the heyday for the Copts as the period surrounding the 1919 revolt against the British, who had occupied Egypt since 1882. A national fervor gripped the population, unifying its
many factions. The Muslim architect of the revolt, Saad Zaghloul, worked closely with Christian leaders, including Makram Ebeid, Wassef Boutros Ghali and Wissa Wassef. Copts became champions of Zaghloul’s Wafd party, which opened its doors and developed into a stalwart vehicle for Christian participation in politics for decades to come. Egyptian solidarity was such that, when a Coptic priest, the Rev. Qommus Sergius, preached from the pulpit of the Al Azhar Mosque, Egypt’s most important Muslim institution, he declared: “If the British insist on staying in Egypt under the pretense of protecting Copts, let all Copts die and Muslims live free.” Yet after the military overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic in 1954, the situation for Copts in Egypt began to deteriorate. While under President Gamal Abdel Nasser attacks against Copts were unheard of, strains of radical Islamist political philosophy grew, despite state suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, Sayyid Qutb, whose writing would later resound with fundamentalists such as Osama Bin Laden, penned some of his most influential works while in prison during this period. After Nasser’s death in 1970, Anwar Sadat assumed power and
took the country in a decidedly Islamic direction, in part to counteract the strong progressive opposition to his rule. He began to release radicals jailed by his predecessor and adopted a more religious mode of discourse himself. This is when Egyptians began to hear messages of hatred coming from some radicalized mosques, rhetoric that “Christians are infidels not trustworthy [enough] to live or mix with,” explains Youssef Sidhom, editor in chief of the Coptic weekly Al Watani. Attacks on Christians became a way for radical Islamists to test the tolerance of the state, which did nothing to protect the community. Simultaneously, some of those Egyptians who had migrated to the Arab Gulf for work brought back the radical Salafi ideology of the Gulf, their Islamic fundamentalism further alienating the Christians in Egypt. As a response to the growing sectarian threat, Copts turned inward. The Coptic Orthodox Church provided the youth with social outlets in a safe environment, including sports, theater and summer camp activities, but also segregated the population further. The church — especially its powerful patriarchate — became the Copts’ main negotiator with the state, further reducing the role of laity in society and politics.
TOP: Journalist Hanan Fekry holds a press conference at the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo. MIDDLE: Political activist George Ishaq meets with protesters outside of the teachers’ union in Cairo. BOTTOM: Actor Lotfy Labib enjoys a cigarette in a restaurant in Cairo.
Under President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly three-decade rule, Islamists were suppressed but the state maintained Sadat’s religious style of public discourse, leaving Christians still feeling isolated. According to Mr. Sidhom, “Christians under Sadat and throughout the reign of Mubarak were persecuted. They were treated as second-class citizens, they were hit hard in their right to equality in all aspects of life — mainly [the right] to build churches and maintain them, as well as the right to occupy chief executive posts and high-ranking jobs in all state bodies, security services and the military.” Those Coptic politicians appointed to ministerial posts by the Mubarak regime were generally seen as powerless puppets who had been co-opted. The Coptic Orthodox Church discouraged their members from engaging in political protest, instead preferring to negotiate with Mubarak with the hope of securing its flock. Civic participation among Copts dwindled.
n 25 January 2011, Egyptians of all stripes took to the streets to protest the moribund Mubarak regime. Cairo’s Tahrir Square reverberated with chants that “Muslims and Christians are one
t Christians pray during an Easter liturgy at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo.
hand!” Coptic youth — despite the admonitions of some within the church — established a political voice for themselves outside the main religious institution for the first time in decades. Nationalism and a common enemy had again created an atmosphere of perceived equality. After 18 days, Egyptians toppled Mubarak. It was a resurgent moment for Copts, who anticipated that long-denied rights of equality and tolerance would spring from the nation’s communal experience in the square. But in the aftermath of the uprising, Islamists came to dominate national politics, and after the first free elections in six decades, the Muslim Brotherhood controlled the country. Attacks on Christians increased and many considered leaving Egypt. A palpable sense of fear of their future in their own country was widespread. Yet, dissatisfaction with the Islamist government grew quickly
within the general population. On 30 June, Egyptians once again took to the streets — Christians and Muslim alike — to call for newly elected President Morsi to resign. On 3 July, the military intervened and deposed the president. The vast majority of Copts rejoiced and rallied behind the new militaryappointed government and consequently backed the new constitution, which passed by 98 percent in January 2014. “People came to life as a result of the revolution, then the window of opportunity closed. So they stood by the window and when it reopened they barged out,” says Adel Iskandar of Georgetown. “For Coptic public life, the removal of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from the political reins of the state was important and transformative.” The new government appointed Copts to take some 20 percent of
the first interim cabinet. They appeared to have made their decisions based on the politicians’ experience. For example, Laila Rashed Iskandar, chosen as the environmental minister, built her reputation in part from her dedicated work with the Zabbaleen — a class of garbage collectors in Cairo, mostly Christian — which had earned her international accolades. Mounir Fakhry AbdelNour, a Coptic politician from the Wafd party and the founder of the Egyptian Finance Company, was appointed minister of industry. Meanwhile, Christian youth continue to demand a voice in the political scene, but there are still many battles to be fought. “The culture was a culture of discrimination until now. We are fighting for human rights in the new constitution. We have tried, but the culture still exists. You have to change the media and the channels who say bad things, change the leaders of the mosques,” says George Ishaq, a leading Coptic political activist in the Kefaya movement, the first activist group to openly challenge Mubarak in the mid-2000’s. “We must change this culture, the school curriculum, the media,” he adds, “and that will take time.”
or Copts to play an active role in Egyptian society, many say, their depiction in public culture — television and film, especially — must also change. Lotfy Labib, a Coptic actor who has built his career playing a father or uncle figure in Egyptian cinema, says his fans had no idea he was Christian until after the revolution, when he began appearing on television to champion Coptic rights. When his fans learned of his
Christian faith, Mr. Labib says he received nothing but support. He began making Coptic films when he was in his 20’s. The church funded films depicting the saints for its parishes and communities around the world. Working in these films was something spiritual for Mr. Labib. “It was more like a church atmosphere, acting was something like praying,” he explains. “The topic itself was a religious topic, the places of shooting were religious places, and we worked for free, so we were giving our spirit for that. All that prepared the atmosphere to be spiritual.” Yet in the 104 movies and 132 television episodes in which he has since appeared, Mr. Labib has never played a Christian character. Acting as a Muslim character, however, does not bother him. “I’m a professional, that’s how I make money,” he says, “My culture is Egyptian, not Christian — that’s my religion.” Mr. Labib explains that, in Egyptian cinema, most plot lines involving Copts focus on Christians converting to Islam or feature a secondary Christian best friend who appears as a bland, goody-twoshoes, without much depth. In his opinion, there are no shows on mainstream television focusing on Copts, because they would not be able to sell in the rest of the Arab market. The depiction of Copts in literature is no better. “Passive is the word that comes to mind,” says Mariam Ayad, an Egyptology and Coptic studies professor at the American University of Cairo. “Law abiding out of fear, possibly; honest to a fault in terms of how they handle money — and in fact that’s the reputation Copts have had since the Mamluk period, when they were given oversight of finances.”
Forever ancient, forever new Help strengthen the church in Egypt www.cnewa.org
For younger Copts, such stereotypes are offensive. “It makes us feel horrible,” says Gerges Saber, a 33-year-old political activist. “If you want to create something about the people, go and sit with the people, don’t use manipulation and falsities.” Mr. Saber, a coordinator of the Social Democratic Party in Giza, expresses his desire not to be defined by his faith in his political or public life. “I am Christian, but I want to be a citizen Christian, not part of an ethnic tribal group,” Saber says. “My name identifies my religion, but my religion is not my ideology.” As Copts have grown more vocal in Egyptian politics, most see their contributions and participation as irreversible. Ibrahim Ishak, a Christian researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, puts it succinctly.
Because Christians “have participated [in the events of] 30 June,” he says, “they have weight, because everybody saw that they played a role in ousting Morsi. The state institutions say they helped them a lot, so they have more respect from both sides. That will reflect on television and everywhere.” A frequent contributor to ONE, Sarah Topol’s writing has been published in The Atlantic, Esquire and The New York Times.
SARAH TOPOL HAS MORE ON THE COPTS OF EGYPT ON OUR BLOG, ONE-TO-ONE:
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from our world have your own family.” For me this is the most difficult thing, to convince them and to prepare them for the world: “You are not here to be pitied.” This is difficult. ONE: What are some of the ways you cope with this?
Sister Hoda Chaker Assal by Sarah Topol Sister Hoda Chaker Assal administers the Santa Lucia Home, which provides a loving and encouraging environment for blind children. Since joining the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross, she has served the community in a variety of ministries. From Cairo, Sister Hoda studied in Lebanon and received a degree in disability studies from the University of Alexandria in 2010.
ONE: Why did you pursue a degree in disability studies? Sister Hoda Chaker Assal: I belong to the Franciscan sisters — our order cares a lot about people with disabilities in Lebanon and Jordan, and Egypt also. I studied general disabilities, but I specialized in blindness. ONE: What do you think most people do not understand about blindness?
SH: It is a difficult situation. In Egyptian society, men are expected to make money, to provide for the family. This is a lot of pressure on every Egyptian, regardless of their situation. I always depend on giving them examples of blind people in Egyptian society who became famous, who live comfortably and are respected. For example, I mention Taha Hussein, the famous Egyptian author who became the education minister. He was blind. I mention Ammar El Sherei, the composer. He was one of the most wealthy and respected men in Egypt. He was blind. Then, I mention men who passed through here. They graduated, they make good livings, and they are blind. So I keep telling them a lot of people did it, and you can do it, too. Don’t give up.
SH: People should accept the blind as equals. Blind people are normal people. They can’t see, yes, but they are still the same. So treat them as anyone else, not as special cases. ONE: What has been one of the most challenging parts of your job? SH: The difficult thing is to convince the children of their worth, specifically boys. I try to tell them: “Don’t get depressed, you will have your own life, you will
ONE: Do boys have a more difficult time with this than girls because of this social pressure? SH: It is personal, according to the children themselves, boys or girls. It depends on how he or she is interacting with his blindness and if they have been reared from a young age to be self-dependent or not. ONE: What about children who come to the home later, or those who have internalized their blindness as a stigma?
SH: It takes time. There’s another thing we depend on: They help each other. In this community, the children form a close circle. They help each other. For example, if one is talented in history or music, they start helping the rest, automatically. They do that with each other, so this helps all of them. They cooperate. ONE: How do people react to a group of blind children on a field trip? How does society treat them? SH: When we go on a trip, I am very happy that people open doors for them and welcome them. ONE: What hope do blind children have who do not attend special schools or come to this center?
“People should accept the blind as equals. Blind people are normal people.”
SH: They don’t go to school. Maybe the child or adult knows how to work simple things, by his hands, but they don’t go to school unless they go to a special school. There are a few schools in Upper Egypt, but they are not as prepared as we are.
go to bed. Actually, they do not fall asleep then, usually not before 10 or 11. They keep chatting and joking. I hear them and stand at the door and say, ‘Go to bed!’ And they giggle and say ‘O.K.!’ But they keep talking. [She laughs.]
ONE: What is a regular day like for you?
ONE: Can you share some unique observations that people might not know about blind children, particularly your charges?
SH: I wake up 5:15 a.m. At 5:45, I wake all of the children and I go to prepare breakfast for them. After breakfast, I give them pocket money and snacks for school. At 6:45, our bus takes them to school. After that, I go to pray and I start preparing lunch and laundry. When they come back from the school around 3:30, they eat lunch. Then I take them to start homework and study. While they work, I go prepare dinner, which is served around 7. Then there is free time — they can do whatever they want during their break time. I sit with the sisters for a while. At 8:30 the young children go to sleep and at 9 the older kids
SH: Sometimes it amazes me what the children can sense. We had one boy who didn’t like to sleep without the light. I was putting him to bed. I turned off the light and left, but he started crying. Another boy told me that this boy was afraid of darkness, so I turned a faint light for him again. It was interesting; he has a sense of light, and it comforts him. One day, I remember the power cut off while the children were doing homework and they stopped studying. I asked them “Why are you not studying?”
They told me: “How can we study in the darkness?” We laughed. They are so funny and make so many jokes. They are very sweet and kind. You would love them. Another time, I forgot to turn the lights on for them. I noticed they were playing in the dark, I said: “How are you playing in the dark? I’m sorry I forgot to turn on the lights.” They told me, “Sister! Did you forget we were blind?” Sometimes, I actually forget. They have such a wide imagination and connection with their senses; they detect colors somehow, maybe by smell. The girls, when I change my frock from blue to white, they notice and tell me, “Sister, you’re wearing white today.” I don’t know how they know. I walk soundlessly — I have my whole life — but when I enter the room, they know I’m there and they know it’s me. They can tell each sister apart from the way we walk. Years go by and students still remember us from our voices. They have a very strong memory.
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on the world of CNEWA
ope Francis has articulated “accompaniment” as a hallmark of Christian ministry. He especially challenges us to accompany and walk with the poor, the less fortunate, the forgotten segments of our societies. At Catholic Near East Welfare Association, we, too, use this expression to describe our ministry as we reach out in service to our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters suffering in the Middle East, as well as those living in northeastern Africa, India and Eastern Europe. Ours is a ministry of accompaniment.
Imagine the terror of thousands of Christians who have fled the onslaught of fanatical and vicious jihadists in Iraq. They have left everything behind, including those too elderly or too infirm to flee. But their flight through the desert of northern Iraq, to relative safety in Erbil, was mediated by the accompaniment of heroic bishops, priests and especially the devoted sisters, walking with them through the desert. Imagine if you can, a child who has lost mother and father in such an onslaught, and wanders aimlessly
in search of comfort and security — and then a religious sister grabs the little child’s hand and walks with this orphan, now no longer alone. Imagine a new mother holding a sick child in the midst of such trauma — and then being greeted by a smiling and loving nurse, a religious sister, who comforts a crying child and offers a measure of hope in this chaotic environment. Imagine the long lines, the stream of sick, injured and malnourished refugees — who then receive medical attention at one of our dispensaries.
Accompany the people of the Middle East for years to come Remember CNEWA in your will
In Canada, Call 1-866-322-4441 Or visit www.cnewa.ca In the United States, Call 1-800-442-6392 Or visit www.cnewa.org
Above and beyond any physical treatment or medicinal application, these suffering souls are met with a smile and an abundance of comfort and hope, all in the name of Jesus. Imagine a bishop celebrating Mass in an open field with his huge displaced flock, which has fled with him from the city of Mosul. He walks with them. He loves them — and with them he shares the light of Christ. CNEWA stands with him. We walk with him. I have been privileged to experience firsthand the loving and abiding
presence of the church walking with the poor, the displaced and the persecuted in the Middle East. If there is any lack of clarity about who we are as church, look to our Eastern Catholic partners in the Middle East — our brothers and sisters whom we are privileged to accompany in their ministry to serve the poor of all faiths. Your generosity to CNEWA allows us to continue this ministry in the Middle East. Those same crying children who are now smiling; those elderly who now feel a little comfort; those refugees who have
no certain future home, but who now feel loved by the church — all of them share with you at least a fleeting smile and an abundance of gratitude for your charity and generosity. God bless the poor. God bless those who serve them. And may God bless all of you, our CNEWA family, as we accompany all those who suffer in the Middle East. Msgr. John E. Kozar
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