Building Bridges in Syria

Dunia Saad, Regional Communications Officer for Jesuit Refugee Service in the Middle East, wrote the following article for CJI’s Bridging Borders campaign. It first appeared on the igNation website on 14 November 2018.


The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has been responding to the emergency crisis in Syria since 2011, witnessing firsthand the extent of the suffering of the forcibly displaced community. The destitute conditions these communities were forcibly placed in can never be illustrated in major media headlines, nor in the best of articles. “Displacement is not an adequate word for the suffering we have endured, says Noura, forcibly displaced and now resettled in rural Damascus.

What JRS (or any other organization) is doing to serve these communities will tragically always fall short of the actual needs and wellbeing of the forcibly displaced families.

JRS team member during a home visit to a forcibly displaced family. (Photo: JRS)

Nonetheless, accompanying the displaced families has been a great enlightening journey through which JRS teams have learnt most if not all of what they know and currently practise in response: serving, accompanying and advocating for these families.

Reconciliation has become the major pillar of our work, applied through a holistic approach that ensures the wellbeing of the internally displaced families.

For example, accompaniment, a key component of JRS work that serves as one of the main tools for building bridges with the internally displaced families, involves a home visit to assesses the needs of family members, and through it the essential initial outreach is established. Both mental and physical health needs are assessed by specially trained JRS team members, after which the team is ready to serve them accordingly.

This outreach through home visits or accompaniment and also through word of mouth about the existence of JRS services ultimately lays the foundation for other “bridges” such as our community centres.

The JRS community centre in Jaramana, in the greater Damascus metropolitan area, is one such bridge and it is actually more than the name community centre implies. It is for some children where they clutched and felt a pencil in their hands for the very first time. For others it is the sheer joy of practising their basic right to hold that pencil again. And for all children it is a safety zone, a place where they can reconnect to a sense of belonging and constancy that the war tore away from them. “My dream came true when I enrolled at the JRS Community Centre,” says Ahmad, 13 years old, forcibly displaced from Der-Ezzor.

At the Jaramana centre, families were brought together through psychosocial support, training and community engagement activities, and children reconnected with their childhood. The small community centre, known as St. Alberto Hurtado Centre, was originally established in 2008 to welcome the Iraqi refugees, and evolved since then to respond to urgent needs of internally displaced Syrians. In 2014, it was also relocated in response to the highest concentrations of internally displaced people (IDPs) who resettled in that area.

Happiness is contagious! (Photo: JRS)

As long as the centre is within walking distance, we can expect good participation. Close proximity is a major factor. For communities that have suffered a great deal emotionally and economically even the need to take a bus somewhere – even if it is to a centre they know is to their benefit – is a major hurdle, and thus they would end up not going. But word of mouth has spread from those who have experienced firsthand what it’s like to belong and be part of a community again, what it is actually like to be able to read a sign, and how invigorating it is to be able to help your child read that sign. One forcibly displaced mother of five young children told us, “There is nothing that can make a mother more proud than to have their children well nurtured and see them thriving, and they cannot thrive without their (school) certificates.”

As a result, the number of mothers, children, families wanting to join has significantly increased. In 2019, JRS will therefore re-establish St. Alberto Hurtado Centre in a bigger facility in the same vicinity, with the primary goal of increasing capacity to accommodate almost double the current number.

Prior to the conflict, net school enrollment rates in Syria were at 92% (UIS UNESCO). Today, almost 2.5 million children are internally displaced, 2 million are not in school, and 6.1 million are in need of education assistance. The average time children have spent out of school since the conflict began is 3.2 years (UNOCHA and iMMAP). In Jaramana and rural Damascus the average class size is 56 children. Such statistics scream the need for so much more work that needs to be done.

The Jesuits, with gratitude to partners and donors, hopes to be able to continue serving this destitute community, while certainly JRS will not cease advocating on their behalf.

(Banner photo by JRS: Literacy at the St. Alberto Hurtado Centre)