Msgr. Jack Schuler spotted a woman making the sign of the cross before she sang a song for guests at a Catholic Relief Services-supported program that helps migrant workers and refugees in Lebanon. He reached out to her and gave her a blessing.
The Catholic Church’s concern for the dignity of all is seen in its response to the humanitarian crisis that resulted from the war in Syria, said Msgr. Schuler, Catholic Charities of St. Louis chaplain and pastor of St. Cronan Parish in south St. Louis. More than 70 percent of Syrian refugees are women and children, according to CRS.
Msgr. Schuler recently returned from a trip to Jordan and Lebanon to see the work of Catholic Relief Services with refugees from Syria and elsewhere. CRS works with local Caritas agencies — part of Caritas Internationalis, a body of the universal Church responding to the needs of the poor, vulnerable and excluded — to provide critical assistance to Syrian and Iraqi refugees and other poor people. This assistance includes basic health and psychosocial services, education and emergency services.
He spent a week in the Middle East along with several other guests of CRS, the overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. bishops. His flight from the U.S. landed in Amman, Jordan, and he boarded a plane to Beirut, Lebanon. Next to him were Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch Ignatius Joseph III Younan and Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman of Baghdad. Discussions between the three helped Msgr. Schuler gain an insight into the Catholic Church in the Middle East and the effects of the war and the U.S. boycott.
The St. Louisan visited two schools in Lebanon that serve some of what Caritas estimates as more than 1.7 million refugees in the country of about 4.5 million people. The United Nations reports that Lebanon is the country with the highest concentration of refugees per capita. Lebanon did not set up formal camps for the refugees. Most are scattered across the country, living in precarious conditions in informal tented settlements or dilapidated buildings in the poorest neighborhoods.
Msgr. Schuler visited a school in the Bekaa Valley close to Syria with programs for refugee children supported by Catholic Relief Services, including trauma counseling. The director is Good Shepherd Sister Amira Tabel, and it is an oasis of order and cleanliness, Msgr. Schuler said. “It’s a highly structured environment with young, enthusiastic, dedicated teachers who are very professional.”
He was surprised to find faces of happy children — rather than downtrodden — though some were expressionless, possibly traumatized from the war. “The majority were just being children, singing, dancing, answering questions,” he said.
The center for Syrian children living with their parents in Deir al Ahmar also serves Lebanese children in the area. The children receive basic education and after-school care. In addition, CRS and the Good Shepherd Sisters have provided food, shelter materials, blankets, heaters and other critical supplies to people living in the informal shelters.
“That structure sister set up dissipates some of the trauma. In their previous lives, they never knew when a bomb was going to go off, a bullet was going to hit the house, whether a parent would come home or whether they’d have food or not,” Msgr. Schuler said.
Msgr. Schuler also visited a retention center where CRS provides assistance to migrants who are being held for immigration status violations. “Again, we were amazed at what the Catholic Church is doing,” he said.
At another center, he heard the stories of domestic workers who’d been abused.
He met with six Caritas staff members providing services in Syria. Among other things, they told of the struggles people have as a result of the boycott of the country.
In Jordan, he visited a medical clinic and school. The school provides help to Syrian refugee children who are far behind in their schoolwork because they were unable to attend while caught in a war zone, Msgr. Schuler said.
Jordan hosts more than 1.3 million refugees, according to its government. In Jordan, CRS works with the local Caritas to provide critical assistance to more than 68,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees and poor Jordanians each year.
Pope Francis says “there must be no family without a home, no refugee without a welcome, no person without dignity.” Msgr. Schuler called the Church’s response impressive: “For them, it’s not a job it’s a mission.”