Understanding the Refugee Crisis
A report by the Dominican Sisters of Hope
Today, there are more than 21 million men, women, and children who have been displaced from their homes due to refugee crises from around the world.
From different cultures and continents away, what can we do about this crisis?
Perhaps the beginning is to simply pay attention: no matter who or where we are, we are called to care for the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner. We are called to acknowledge them and stand in solidarity with them.
This report will help explain the events that led to the refugee crises in Syria and Iraq, highlight how people from around the world have responded to the crisis so far, and provide you with some practical ways you can help support our brothers and sisters who are suffering.
Since 2011, due to the Syrian civil war and the rise of the terrorist group ISIS, millions of men, women, and children in the Middle East have been driven from their homes in search of asylum.
Some were internally displaced within their own countries, while most fled to nearby nations such as Jordan and Turkey. The scope of the refugee crisis is so vast that it is now being called the greatest humanitarian crisis of the twenty-first century.
How did the crisis happen?
A crisis of this magnitude rarely has a single cause; it is the result of a “perfect storm” of political and religious tension that began in March of 2011 with the initially peaceful protests of the Arab Spring. The Syrian government, led by then-president Bashar al-Assad, responded to the protests with hostility that quickly escalated to violence, and rebels began to fight back.
A few months later, a civil war was underway. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took advantage of the region’s fragility and began to use his military forces to target and kill Shiite Muslims and enforce an Islamist interpretation of Sharia Law. In 2014, ISIS expanded their goals to include a worldwide caliphate in which non-Muslims (including those from minority Muslim groups) would have to convert to “true” Islam, pay a tax, or die. After doing extensive damage in Syria, ISIS moved into Iraq.
Christians in the ancient city of Mosul were among the first Iraqis to face the wrath of ISIS. Faced with the choices presented to them, they either fled from their homes or were brutally killed. This genocide continues today, throughout Iraq and Syria; ISIS targets not only Christians but also Muslims who do not meet their religious standards.
The Scope of the Crisis
65 million refuges
The UN estimates that one in every 113 people in the world are currently refugees.
Almost half of those are fleeing Islamist violence in countries like Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan.
7.6 million Christians
According to Open Doors,
a non-profit that focuses
on providing aid and advocacy for persecuted Christians around the world, an estimated 7.6 million Christians have been displaced since ISIS took control of Iraq and Syria.
The mass grave widens as innocent men, women, and children continue to die at the hand of Isis.
The UN estimates that 6.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced since 2011. Over half of Syria’s 23 million people, many of whom are now refugees, are in dire need of basic
necessities like food, water, and education.
To make matters worse, fighting near the city of Aleppo in early 2016 disrupted the flow of humanitarian aid into Syria.
Most of the refugees have fled to the neighboring countries of Jordan and Turkey, some have made the harrowing journey by boat to Europe, and a few have been allowed to enter the US.
In 2003, over 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq.
Today, the estimated population of Christians is 150,000 and falling. Most of the Christians who still live in Iraq are internally displaced refugees living in constant fear that they will have to move once again to escape certain death via ISIS.
In a joint declaration issued on the second anniversary of the capture of Mosul and the Nineveh plains, the Orthodox and Catholic Syrian patriarchs issued a statement in which they lament not only the destruction of their beloved country and people, but the state of the refugees currently living in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan:
“We observed their suffering
and the lack of the most basic elements needed for a digni- fied life, namely housing, work, health care or education for the children…We, likewise, affirm our demand for the immedi- ate liberation of Mosul and the Nineveh Plain and the return of our sons and daughters to their land and homes. They should enjoy security and stability as well as living conditions that ensure their dignity and help them restore their trust in their country and their hope in a bright future.”
Christians have lived in Iraq since the first century.
Among the Iraqi victims are the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena. After being forced out of their hometown of Mosul in August 2014, they joined fellow refugees in Erbil, Kurdistan.
“On August 6, 2014, we left our towns in the Plain of Nineveh fearing that we would have the same destiny as the Yazidis,” the sisters wrote in a presentation to the Dominican Prioresses in Rome.
In an article that describes the Yazidis as “hunted by ISIS,” The Guardian reports that “roughly 40,000 Yazidi people – many women and children” are currently held hostage by ISIS. The extremist group is notoriously killing Yazidi men and raping women as young as nine years old.
The Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena were able to escape; however, the move was laden with problems. Their Kurdistan destination was not big enough to receive all of the refugees: the sisters report that “the number of the internationally displaced persons who came to the Erbil/Ankawa region was ten times bigger than the number of the residents.”
Despite leaving their homes, not having their belongings, and living on an excruciatingly tight budget, the Sisters were able to set up a convent on the outskirts of Erbil. They’ve now devoted their daily lives to helping fellow refugees. Upon arriving in Kurdistan, they began ministering to other refugees by organizing and distributing non-food items such as blankets and refrigerators, teaching classes, offering Bible studies, and trying to give families and children some semblance of normal life.
They started a primary school in which the governmentally certified teaching sisters serve as the teachers.
In addition to providing spiritual aid, facilitating space for Masses, and serving as Eucharistic ministers, the Sisters also oversee the religious education and sacramental preparation of the children in the camps. This spring alone, they prepared five- hundred children to receive First Holy Communion. Next spring, they expect another 500 children to receive their First Holy Communion.
The Response of the Universal Church
The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena are not alone in their action on behalf of refugees. Pope Francis is one of the most outspoken advocates for refugees around the world and has even provided shelter in the Vatican to Syrian refugees, Muslim and Christian alike.
“Refugees are people like everyone, but war took away their home, work, relatives and friends,” he said after his Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square on June 19, 2016. He continued by encouraging Christians everywhere to “stand with them — to encounter them, welcome them, listen to them — in order to become together with them artisans of peace, according to God’s will.”
Francis has repeatedly admonished Catholics and all people of good will to resist giving into paranoia or fear regarding the refugees, and to approach each individual, each family, as a fellow child of God. The Catholic and Orthodox Patriarchs of Syria and Iraq are also outspoken advocates of the refugees, especially in light of the seeming indifference of other nations. The patriarchs call for decisive action on the part of these nations
to defend the human rights of the displaced Syrians and Iraqis and increased humanitarian aid to the refugees. As the “spiritual fathers” of the refugees, they see it as their duty to visit the camps, speak with the families, listen to their stories, pray with them, and advocate for them on a global level.
On the ground level, parishes, relief organizations, religious communities, and individuals are providing for the needs of the refugees. Dominican Sister of Hope Prioress Lorelle Elcock met with the prioress of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena in Rome this past May. From the meeting, she was able to learn more about the Sisters’ current situation and what they need most. According to Sister Lorelle the sisters are not asking for anything for themselves. With the help of various humanitarian organizations, they have food and housing, and they’re able to live modestly. However, the Iraqi sisters were looking for help in providing bus transportation for the children to be able to attend religious education classes.
Upon hearing this, Sister Lorelle sought to help. She connected with a group at her local New York parish to inform them about the issue, serves as a liaison to the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena, and assist with a collection that was taken at the end of the summer. Sister Lorelle lives half a world away from the Dominican Sisters who are now refugees, but, as a fellow Dominican Prioress, she can’t help but relate to their pain.
“When you’re with these women, you feel like their life was not unlike ours,” Sister Lorelle says.
“That’s what I find so touching: even though it’s a very foreign culture,” she continues. “They are Dominican women living the Dominican life doing the same kinds of ministries that we would do in the U.S.. I just can’t even imagine what it’s like to be uprooted as they have. The sisters are trying to provide as much normality as they can muster at this point in time. But it’s still not their home. It’s not a place where they have a real sure future.”
What does Christ demand of us?
In spite of turmoil and fragmentation in our world, we are called to care for the orphan, the widow, the foreigner. Even the Holy Family were once refugees in Egypt (cf. Matt. 2:13–15). Moreover, we are called to love our neighbors. How can we follow this command today during the worst refugee crisis in history?
In order to help her children love one another in words and actions, the Church has traditionally encouraged the faithful to perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, by which they extend Christ’s love to those who are most in need of it.
The corporal works of mercy aim at meeting the refugees’ most immediate material needs: providing food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, clothing for the naked, solace to the sick, and dignified burial for those who die while far away from home.
The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena are also performing the spiritual works of mercy by providing education, counsel, comfort, and above all by modeling forgiveness of those who so callously destroyed life as they knew it.
The Dominican Sisters of Hope aim to assist our sisters in Iraq by raising awareness so that they can be the face of Divine Mercy to the men, women, and children living in the refugee camps.
How can you take action now?
In a crisis of this magnitude, it is easy to become overwhelmed by numbers and discouraged by the lack of visible impact we can have. Here are some practical and powerful things that we can all do to make a difference in the lives of our brothers and sisters in the war- torn regions of the Middle East.
2. Contact Your Members of Congress
To send the message via email, enter your zip code on the House of Representatives site (http://www.house.gov/). Once you’ve found your representative, select the option to send him/her an email.
We’ve used the message below, which you’re welcome to copy:
I ask that you remember the Iraqi and Syrian refugee families who are seeking a place to call home.
As members of the wealthiest nation on Earth, we Americans—many of whom are descendants of refugees— have a responsibility to relieve the suffering of people who have lost everything: home, livelihood, and human dignity.
Please find a way forward to welcome these vulnerable families who need our help.
As people of faith, we support your effort to welcome some of the world’s most vulnerable people and we pledge to support the families who find refuge on our shores.
This is no time for indifference. Let’s keep our eyes and hearts
open to the reality of suffering for our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. After all, “the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace” (James 3:18).
3. Send a message to President Trump and ask him to reconsider his actions
- Sign and circulate this petition that HIAS is circulating long with our Refugee Council USA partners.
- HIAS has been deeply moved to see this Soviet Jewish Refugee Solidarity Sign-On Letter. If you were resettled from the FSU, please consider signing, and even if not please circulate the link to anyone for whom it is relevant and who might be interested in signing.
If you’re comfortable, please also tweet @realDonaldTrump and @POTUS to tell him that you oppose the expected policies. Here are some sample tweets you can use.
.@realDonaldTrump & @POTUS I proudly stand with 1700+ rabbis urging you to keep America’s door open to #refugees hias.org/1500rabbis
.@realDonaldTrump & @POTUS Don’t stop welcoming refugees. Resettlement demonstrates the best of our values #RefugeesWelcome
.@realDonaldTrump & @POTUS Don’t stop welcoming refugees. Resettlement demonstrates the best of our values #RefugeesWelcome