Minnesotan says he’s privileged to help Mideast refugees survive

| April 28, 2016 | 0 Comments
Syrian refugees wait at the border Jan. 13 near Royashed, Jordan. Catholic Relief Services has aided more than 1 million refugees since the beginning of the Syrian civil war five years ago, CRS' regional director Kevin Hartigan said. CNS photo/EPA

Syrian refugees wait at the border Jan. 13 near Royashed, Jordan. Catholic Relief Services has aided more than 1 million refugees since the beginning of the Syrian civil war five years ago, CRS’ regional director Kevin Hartigan said. CNS photo/EPA

Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis donated more than $600,000 last year to fund Catholic Relief Services’ work around the world. With a smile on his face, Kevin Hartigan added: “It was a pleasure to spend that money.”

Hartigan, a Minneapolis native, oversees CRS activities in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, areas where the U.S. Catholic Church’s overseas relief organization is serving a million refugees from Syria and Iraq. He spoke at the archdiocese’s Hayden Center in St. Paul April 26 to volunteers and parish staff who are involved in mission and social justice activities locally.

“I was only partially joking when I said what an incredible privilege it is to spend that money,” Hartigan said during an interview after his presentation.

Funding allows the Baltimore-based CRS to rehabilitate housing, educate children, feed families, and provide medical care and support services to people fleeing war and violence in their homelands, he said.

“We are able to do that — to serve the poor and have the resources to do that — thanks to the generosity of the people in the United States,” he said.

Hartigan, 55, who grew up in Christ the King parish in Minneapolis and is a 29-year veteran with Catholic Relief Services, described a lengthy list of involvement by 1,000 CRS staff members in the region he oversees, noting that only 50 are Americans and most are natives of the countries where they work.

Kevin Hartigan Eric Simon photo

Kevin Hartigan Eric Simon photo

“With refugees from Syria, we’re focusing on food, shelter, some health care,” Hartigan said, “but increasingly we’re shifting focus to educating Syrian children.”

He said that adult refugees typically will be able to go back to what they were doing when a crisis ends, but that isn’t the case for young children.

“Many of them have been out of school for three to five years now, so we’re looking at a lost generation,” he said.

CRS has organized trauma counseling for the children using high-end, Muppet-like puppets, he said. It has created “child-friendly spaces” — a euphemism for day care centers — and hired teachers and counselors in places people have sought refuge, including Turkey, Greece, Egypt and Jordan.

Lives in flux

In Greece and elsewhere, CRS is rehabilitating houses and apartment buildings to shelter pregnant women and their children. Many of the women have husbands who went to northern Europe intending to have their families join them, Hartigan said. With many countries’ borders closed, the families are unable to be reunited.

“When people are arriving, what we’ve found they most want is to know what’s going on,” Hartigan said.

Many have traveled through several countries to escape violence and arrive in a place such as Serbia, and the first question they ask is, “Where am I?” Hartigan said.

“We have translators to explain the legal options and give referral information about services being offered by other agencies,” he said. “The problem is that the situation is changing every day. What was good advice three weeks ago isn’t any more.”

CRS typically assists the poor, vulnerable and disaster victims through local Church organizations, Hartigan said. Some, however, are in the embryonic stage, so CRS provides management training and capacity building so those organizations can serve more people.

CRS also employs both Syrian and Iraqi refugees, who are grateful for the opportunity to contribute, Hartigan said. Among the Iraqis are displaced doctors and professors. Enabling them to work with their countrymen helps them to escape the feeling of helplessness and to know they are doing something for their fellow citizens, he added.

Remarkable respect

Hartigan said he wished more Catholics knew how active the Catholic Church is assisting people in need throughout the world, because the respect that CRS has earned from others is remarkable. Catholic relief agencies in Australia, Canada and Germany funnel money through CRS because the U.S. agency has the presence and the skills needed in many places overseas. Mormons and Muslims also fund CRS. The work of Catholics overseas and the infrastructure that they’ve developed should be a source of pride, he said.

For example, Syrian-Chaldean Catholics in northern Iraq opened up their homes to many refugees after the fall of Mosul to ISIS, he said. “It’s an amazing phenomenon of solidarity,” he said. “A lot of our local partners are living saints.”

He pointed to several orders of missionary sisters who transformed their ministries to serve the tide of refugees, and to others who, displaced themselves by war, reconstituted their schools where refugees are gathered.

“Typically where we work,” he said, “Catholics are a minority, but there are a lot of Catholic schools, and the Church is well respected because of that.”

In Jordan, for example, thousands of young Catholic schools alumni are CRS volunteers, even though they are Muslim, he said.

Hartigan’s wife, Dominique, also works for CRS, and he said they both love their work.

“We’re inspired by the exemplary people like the missionary sisters and diocesan people who are always toiling away,” he said. “We’re happy to work for a Catholic organization that’s not about solving all these problems but understands that it is a privilege to help people in need.

“The luxury for myself is constantly being in contact with extremely special people in heroic situations living out their faith,” he added.

Being “bombarded by inspiration,” as he put it, helps him and other CRS staff from losing hope.

“Wars do end, and refugees go back and resume their lives,” Hartigan said. “Look at Bosnia, where 95 percent of the people returned to their homeland after the Balkan wars.

“The key is don’t focus on the war. Our hope isn’t in when the war will end or how the peace talks are going. We focus on getting schools set up and services organized,” he said.

CRS helps people through a particular chapter of their lives, and nobody caught up in the crisis did anything to deserve this fate, he said.

“Life is long, if you survive it,” Hartigan said. “We just need to make sure they survive.

“We live in an eventful world, and there will always be people going through horrible experiences. It’s a privilege to help them through it and express solidarity with them.”

It helps, too, to have positive messages about mercy from the Vatican, he said.

“When you have somebody of Pope Francis’ stature promoting a different level of responsibility for all of humanity,” Hartigan said, “you have the possibility of picking up our game, or changing the quality of life.”

Category: Local News