Internally displaced Syrians stand outside their tents Nov. 20 at a camp in Idlib, Syria

CNS PHOTO | AMMAR ABDULLAH, REUTERS

Internally displaced Syrians stand outside their tents Nov. 20 at a camp in Idlib, Syria

December 21, 2015
JEAN KO DIN
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

Syria's civil war has seen families pulling their children out of school as they escape the growing violence and persecution. Many children have not been in school since the war started in 2012.

Jenny Cafiso, executive director of Canadian Jesuits International (CJI), said this as a recipe for disaster.

"Right now, kids are hanging around with nothing to do in camps or inside Syria in urban areas. There's potential for them even now to be frustrated, to be angry and to be attracted to join rebel groups or other things," said Cafiso.

"Even if the war ends, you'll have a generation of people who have not been to school and that will have huge implications in terms of rebuilding the country."

On Dec. 1, CJI and the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) hosted an evening at Loretto College in Toronto where three humanitarian aid workers shared their experiences of working on the ground in Syria. All agreed that educating youth should be a priority.

Jesuit Father Fouad Nakhla works with a JRS centre in the Syrian capital city of Damascus. Established in 2012 with a staff of 12, the centre was built to serve refugees fleeing conflict in Iraq. With the conflict growing in its own backyard, the centre quickly expanded. Nakhla said about 600 new people come to the centre every month.

The centre originally focused on social work and education. Now, Nakhla said its focus has shifted to education and opening classroom spaces for children.

"Last year, we received more than 300 children per day in a small space," he said. "In September, we have a bigger house in another area, and there we have more space and we can work with about 600 more children."

BONDS OF FRIENDSHIP

Nakhla said the centre's workers can give hope to the Syrian community by working with its children. When the children have a safe place to meet and learn together, bonds of friendship grow among families across the city.

"We give them a secure place . . . and we give them an opportunity to talk and meet each other. In this way, we can reach a kind of reconciliation in the future."

For now, however, increased social tensions and no political resolution in sight have constrained international humanitarian organizations in the aid they can provide.

"Families are not fleeing violence in Syria only," said Miriam Lopez-Villegas, international programs co-ordinator at CJI. "They are also fleeing the region due to the lack of humanitarian assistance in the country and at their first place of displacement."

Lopez-Villegas said humanitarian agencies meet the needs of refugees which local government cannot. However, the agencies are constrained by a lack of resources and limited support from local governments.

Loae Almously is a Syrian refugee who resettled in Canada last June. Before arriving, Almously worked in the JRS centre in Jordan for about two and a half years. He said he witnessed first-hand how the reduction of humanitarian services in the past two years has made life worse.

"At the end of 2014, after the reduction of assistance for the (refugees in) Jordan, many people decided to go back to Syria, which was unsafe for many of them," said Almously.

LACK OF ASSISTANCE

"They said that the life became the same in Syria and Jordan because we don't have the assistance we need to live. So, we had to go back to Syria to live there which was the wrong solution for many people."

Almously said although he and his family now live safely in Canada, he cannot forget many others still are suffering back home. He continues his work here as an advocate for Syrians.

More than 120 people attended the panel discussion. Members of religious orders, local parishes, private refugee sponsorship groups and others came to learn about the plight of refugees.

"The goal (for the event) was to open a window into the reality in the region," said Cafiso.

MOST REMAIN IN MIDEAST

"As we get ready to welcome refugees here, . . . the vast majority of people are and will continue to be in the region. The people coming to Canada are a small minority and we need to remember the needs of people there."

The Canadian government pledged in September to match donations to Canadian charities up to $100 million from its Syrian Emergency Relief Fund. Last month, the government also pledged $100 million to support the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help fleeing Syrians.

Said Cafiso: "It's positive that they are also supporting UNHCR, but I would also say that it would be important for the Canadian government to support established Canadian non-governmental organizations that have a track record in the region."

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