On 16 December 2014, Fr Nawras Sammour SJ spoke about the current crisis in Syria to a large gathering at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Toronto. The event was co-sponsored by Canadian Jesuits International (CJI) and the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.
Fr Nawras is eminently qualified to speak on the Syrian crisis due to his intimate knowledge of the situation in Syria and in the Middle East region more generally. Currently based in Damascus, he is serving as Country Director for the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Syria. Prior to his current post, he was the Regional Director of JRS Middle East and North Africa, and as such he was familiar with the plight of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and other countries. Moreover, Fr Nawras is himself Syrian, from the city of Aleppo, where some of his family still reside.
The overview of the situation in Syria that Fr Nawras gave was stark. He did not hide the fact that it is hard to have hope for either the near or distant future. The ordinary Syrians who began or joined in the Arab Spring uprising of 2011 have been completely sidelined and silenced, he said. Those who are currently fighting, spreading terror or seeking power are committed to their own group, their own ideology, their own victory, and none is committed to the peaceful regeneration of Syria as a whole or to the well-being of all Syrians.
Indeed many ordinary Syrians are themselves losing whatever hope they had. In addition to the 3.5 million Syrians who have fled the country, there are over 7 million who are internally displaced — and some of these, said Fr Nawras, have been displaced 6 or 7 times already. He felt that one clear sign that many of these victims of war were losing hope was their growing inurement to violence. No longer do many express fear or immediately take shelter when the shelling begins. They are getting used to it; they simply continue with their daily routines of survival.
Fr Nawras did not leave those who gathered at Our Lady of Lourdes in despair. He shared the very real hope that he himself has found from working with people of faith, both Christians and Muslims, and from assisting people without discrimination. When people come to JRS centres, they are brought together by their common suffering. Sometimes even enemies are brought together, he said, and then they must learn to speak to one another — and for the first time they may experience their common humanity.
JRS has a three-pillar program in Syria: emergency relief and medical aid; psychosocial services, including counselling; and education, especially for children. In his talk, Fr Nawras gave a striking example of scale of the effort now required. Whereas the distribution of monthly food baskets began with only 34 families, today JRS distributes food baskets to 35,000 families. In recognition of its relief work in the war-torn country, JRS Syria was honoured with the 2014 Pax Christi International Peace Award.
At the end of his talk, Fr Nawras made the surprising assertion, “We are all losers in Syria.” By then, however, it was fairly clear he was not returning to a place of no hope. In fact, this seemingly despondent remark is the basis of his hope for the future. As Syrians realize that no one group is going to win, that everyone has already lost a great deal, small “communities of losers” — like the ones that form at JRS centres — will emerge. Fr Nawras believes that such communities have nothing more to lose and that they are learning how to engage in peaceful dialogue and how to overcome the barriers of religion, ethnicity, politics and ideology. Eventually these “losers” will show the way to a new Syria.