Lessons from Iraqi Refugees: An American Visits Lebanon and Syria to Study Refugees' Conditions

By Nolan, Clare | National Catholic Reporter, July 25, 2008 | Go to article overview

Lessons from Iraqi Refugees: An American Visits Lebanon and Syria to Study Refugees' Conditions


Nolan, Clare, National Catholic Reporter


The U.S. Catholic bishops call it "murder and mayhem." The National Catholic Lobby organization NETWORK calls it an "unfolding crisis." A recent conference by Villanova University law school called it "the Iraq refugees crisis." Catholic Relief Services calls it a "humanitarian crisis." My own Syrian and Lebanese sisters, members of the Good Shepherd sisters, who provide a variety of social services to Iraqi refugees, simply refer to "our brothers and sisters." By any name, five years past the U.S. invasion of Iraq, U.S. citizens have a responsibility to consider the conditions creating millions of Iraqi refugees, both within Iraq and in the neighboring countries of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

To that end, I was part of a delegation of Catholic religious women, sponsored by Catholic Relief Services, who visited Lebanon and Syria earlier this year to fact-find on the situation of Iraqis who have fled their country since 2003. Such an experience is a privilege and a burden.

To be a U.S. visitor in the Mideast is not comfortable. Early on, a Syrian woman, a volunteer social worker in a Good Shepherd service project, after a warm welcome, looked me in the eye and said: "Why can't your country do something to change all this?"

Amid such disquieting questions, our delegation moved ahead on visits with diverse service agencies, U.N. personnel, U.S. embassy personnel, religious leaders and Iraqis in various circumstances. Throughout the week every Iraqi who spoke to our delegation asked if we, as Americans, could help him or her get permanently resettled. They offered their crumpled papers and desperate tears. Our powerlessness was awkward and embarrassing in contrast to the swaggering and inordinate U.S. military power that has devastated their lives.

Months after the visit, a feeling of loss comes to me when I think of the Iraqis in Syria and Lebanon. They have lost their whole lives--jewelry, furniture, house, home, family, neighborhood, job, community, church. Everything is gone. There is no hope of regaining it. For most Iraqis we met, the loss has included spouses and children, parents and extended family.

I think of what Catholics call limbo, that state of suspended animation with nowhere to go, neither forward nor back nor up nor down, no dynamism, no progression, and a total lack of permanence, no way to know how to create an adulthood or a future other than everyday survival. …

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