Kevin Hartigan says Catholic Relief Services is partnering with church agencies to provide food, medical and other assistance to war victims
Kevin Hartigan is Catholic Relief Services’ regional director for Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. His work includes overseeing programs to assist refugees from Syria, where a civil war that began in early 2011 has so far claimed an estimated 20,000 lives. The fighting has displaced some 1.5 million Syrians from their homes, and more than 250,000 have fled to neighboring countries, including Lebanon and Jordan, where CRS is helping to meet their needs.
A native of Minneapolis, Hartigan attended Christ the King School, now Carondelet Catholic School, in Minneapolis. The following is an edited interview that Catholic Spirit editor Joe Towalski conducted with Hartigan Aug. 24 while he was visiting Minnesota.
We’ve been hearing about the situation in Syria for over a year. What is the refugee situation right now?
The largest number of Syrian refugees up to a few weeks ago was thought to still be in Jordan, maybe 150,000, but growing quickly. The estimate in Lebanon was around 100,000. The number in Turkey was smaller but now is growing very fast because of the fighting in Aleppo, the most-populated city.
Some refugees have gone back to Iraq. There are between 1 million and 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, which was the focus of much of the church’s and our relief work in Syria up to this crisis.
The difficulty [in estimating Syrian refugee numbers] is that the majority of the refugees are apparently not choosing to be officially registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Why don’t they want to be registered?
It’s hard to say. [It might be] because of fears for their security, not knowing where the information might end up and not wanting to be associated with any kind of political view that might be ascribed to them based on the fact that they fled. They are being cautious. They all have family back in Syria.
Are there other challenges as well?
Another population in Syria that our church partners particularly are concerned about is migrant workers. There were a lot of migrant domestic workers from Asia — from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines. The work that CRS has supported in Syria over the past few years has been focused on assisting those migrant workers, who are often mistreated, denied their rights, denied their wages and subject to abuse in other ways. They are a constituency of the Catholic agencies there, and they end up in an extremely needy position because often families who employ these domestic workers will flee and leave them there. It’s an extremely dangerous situation.
When I was in Beirut [in Lebanon recently], the Catholic migrant center was working with the Filipino embassy on evacuating 5,000 Filipino maids from Damascus.
What work is CRS doing with refugees right now in Lebanon and Jordan?
CRS is working with our church partners in Lebanon and Jordan [Caritas Lebanon and Caritas Jordan]. In Jordan, most of the work is medical. We’re funding clinics and outreach work in the refugee communities in northern Jordan, particularly. This is an extension of work we’ve been doing with Iraqi refugees in Jordan for many years. Much of it is focusing on women, children and the elderly. A lot of people coming across [the border] now are wounded.
The church agencies there provide primary care and then provide referrals and work together with other agencies and the government to get people hospitalization, surgery and other services. It’s essentially casework with vulnerable people and refugees with acute health needs.
There’s also some psychosocial work being done. Caritas has social workers and provides assistance for unaccompanied children, women who have been victims of violence — both using Catholic institutions and referrals.
In both Jordan and Lebanon, our partners also are providing immediate food and non-food assistance — hygiene kits, for example, basic food packages and bedding.
In Lebanon, we’re doing some medical work, but the more intense work is psychosocial and protection. [Part of the work is focused on] trying to help Syrian children get prepared to enter the Lebanese school system. The Lebanese government has announced the schools will be open to Syrian refugee children, but the curriculum is quite different. So Caritas is trying to put together intensive preparation for a lot of the kids.
Other work is focused on identifying isolated elderly people, unaccompanied children, woman-headed households, women who have been the victim of violence in the war, anyone with mental illness problems or trauma issues and then following up with them.
Talk about the impact this conflict is having on the children of Syria.
In the life of these children and adults, Syria has, up to now, been very peaceful in general. There’s no precedent in these children’s lives for this kind of violence, loss, trauma and flight. So there’s a lot of concern on the psychosocial side and then a big concern to get them some sense of normality, not to lose a year of schooling and not to have the whole population set back in terms of their education.
Do any stories from the refugees you met in Lebanon and Jordan stick in your mind?
Virtually all the refugees being served by the Catholic agencies in Jordan and Lebanon right now are Sunni Muslims — there are very few Christian Syrians [among the refugees]. There’s a considerable Christian population in Syria, but very few have left as refugees up to now.
The refugees are extremely forthcoming and very anxious even to share their experiences. Many spoke English.
There were a bunch of young men in Jordan showing me their bullet wounds and telling me about the violence they had experienced in Homs [in Syria]. These guys are just normal guys — university students, laborers, farmers. None of them claimed to be, or seemed to be, soldiers. These people were living an extremely normal, unthreatened urban existence and then their world just very quickly changed into this open warfare. They’re still kind of in shock. They talked a lot about the destruction of their neighborhoods.
The worst suffering of people in this kind of refugee situation is often the lack of information and lack of contact with family members whom they have lost touch with. It’s a situation you can easily imagine: If you suddenly fled over a border, and one of your children or your spouse or your parent had not made it, that is all you would be thinking about.
One of the interesting things we see among the refugees in both countries is that all of them immediately try to get local cell phones to try to make contact with relatives. Because the fighting is still going on, that nervousness and that fear about what may have happened or what may imminently happen to their loved ones is the real anguish.
The combination of the intensity of the fighting and the intensity of the telecommunications and the contact they have makes the reality of the war very vivid and alive within the refugee population.
How can Minnesotans help right now?
We’re asking everyone to help us support our church partners in the region by contributing to a Catholic Relief Services appeal we’ve made to assist the victims of the violence in Syria.
We need that support; we are spending our money very quickly because the numbers of refugees are increasing. Our church partners are doing a lot of work, but thus far they are pretty much relying entirely on the international Catholic community to support that, and we are relying up to now completely on private donations to support this work. We know these are hard times, and we’ve had disasters in Duluth and other places here, but we think it’s an important time to be in solidarity with the people of Syria and also with our church partners who are working extremely hard there.