Place of Desperation
Three-year stint working with Middle East refugees a vivid memory for STM student
The controversy over whether the US should accept refugees from Syria is not some abstract topic for School of Theology and Ministry student Daniel Corrou, SJ: For many months, they were people he saw every day, and whose lives he and his colleagues tried to improve.
Corrou, a Jesuit scholastic from Saratoga Springs, NY, who entered STM in 2014, spent nearly three years in Beirut, Lebanon, as part of his regency – a period in a Jesuit’s formation during which he becomes immersed in the apostolic and community life of a Jesuit province.
As it happened, Corrou’s stay in the Middle East coincided with the unfolding of the so-called Arab Spring, a series of uprisings that brought an additional layer of complexity and volatility to the already distressed region. One of its numerous consequences was the multi-faceted conflict in Syria that exacerbated an already serious refugee situation in Lebanon – one to which Corrou, as an administrator with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), bore witness.
The experience was both enlightening and troubling for Corrou, and it put an all-too-human face on a tragedy that, even with on-the-ground insight, can be difficult to comprehend.
“When I arrived there were relatively small numbers of refugees; by the time I left [in July of 2014], there were a total of two-and-a-half million, in a country of four million,” he says. “This created difficulties for us [JRS] as to how we could provide help in the short term, but also raised longer-term questions in areas like education, public safety and employment.
“The picture has changed dramatically. Earlier in the conflict, the Syrians – or others who were similarly displaced – by and large were happy in Lebanon and would talk about ‘going back home.’ But it seems that now, there’s a sense among many of the refugees that they are too far removed from their former lives, that too much has been lost – and there’s no resolution in sight.”
After joining the Society of Jesus US Northeast Province, Corrou hoped to spend his regency in a non-English-speaking country and assumed he would be assigned to Colombia or Mexico.
Instead, the Northeast Province decided to send him to the Near East Province, encompassing most of the Middle East, where the order has longstanding ties. His specific destination was to be Damascus, where he would study Arabic, but by then -– early 2011 – the Syrian civil war was in its early stages. So he went to Beirut, where in addition to his studies he was to work with Iraqi refugees and serve as a part-time teacher at a local high school.
The influx of Syrian refugees began during the second year of Corrou’s regency, and he and his Jesuit colleagues tried to offer help on an ad hoc basis, visiting with the new arrivals and organizing food and clothing drives. Then during late 2012 to early 2013, fighting between the Syrian Army and various Syrian rebel factions and Islamic militant groups intensified.
“That opened the faucet,” Corrou says. “In just a few months, the population of refugees from Syria surged to upwards of two million.”
JRS decided to establish an operation in Beirut and assume oversight of some assistance programs and initiatives that the Jesuits had cobbled together, appointing Corrou as program coordinator. These included running a school for refugee children, organizing food distribution and social services, and providing structured programs for women.
To better understand the refugees’ plight, and the challenges facing JRS and other relief organizations, Corrou says it’s important to realize there is no one-size-fits-all policy for addressing refugee situations in the region. Jordan and Turkey have established refugee camps in demarcated areas, he explains; Lebanon had decided not to, which means refugees crowd into any existing housing or abandoned space, whether residential or commercial.
“With camps, the refugees’ movements are restricted, which can certainly be an issue – but at least it’s easier to set up a system for getting assistance to people there. In Lebanon there are no distinct areas where resources are provided. You have to judge where the needs are greatest and then attract people to come where you are so you can give them what they need.”
A vital task for JRS, therefore, was to visit Beirut neighborhoods with high concentrations of Syrian refugees, says Corrou, to check on how families and individuals were faring: Did they have blankets? Were they having trouble paying rent? How was their supply of fuel?
“One of our biggest concerns was to make sure people didn’t lose track of their humanity,” he adds. “I met a mother who spoke of having no way to socialize, or to simply get out of the house. So in that regard, school wasn’t only about education, it was an opportunity for both kids and families to make social connections.
“Similarly, instead of just throwing food at people, we made the distribution points like a café with a little store attached, and with credit points for basic items. This provided at least some semblance of what their lives had been like back home.”
But the challenges kept mounting as Corrou neared the end of his tenure in Beirut. Syrian refugees that were arriving were poorer and lacking in resources compared to those before them, he notes, which made it more difficult for JRS to meet the population’s needs. Meanwhile, Lebanese authorities’ declaration that they had no space in their schools to accept Syrian children – although they are legally responsible for doing so – threatened to overtax JRS’ educational programs, which were meant to be temporary.
“Food distribution also has become a problem,” he says. “There wound up being far more refugees than we could deal with; there were always people falling through the cracks.”
In addition, outbreaks of sectarian violence in some neighborhoods created further anxiety, Corrou says, and JRS faced criticism for not hiring more poor Lebanese for their programs.
Corrou has found it difficult to readjust to life in the US. He is hesitant to open Facebook, fearing that he’ll see news of a friend or acquaintance dead, injured or missing. The volume of misinformation and misperceptions voiced in the debate about accepting Syrian refugees is depressing, he says: “It speaks of fear-mongering and a profound ignorance of the situation. The Syrians looking to move out fear the same things we do, and want the same things for themselves and their children that we do.”
But every so often there is good news among the bad. A JRS employee who had fled the hard-hit city of Aleppo decided to rejoin her parents there not long after Corrou left Beirut. He had worried about her fate – “Aleppo is no place for young women” – but earlier this fall got a message through Facebook that she had married.
“Somehow, love blossomed in this horrible, fratricidal civil war,” Corrou says, “and they even found a red sports car to drive from the wedding.”