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Catholic Vancouver Jan. 9, 2019

We must build bridges and tear down walls: Syrian priest

By Judith L. Watt

Father Nawras Sammour tells students of St. Mark's College about the refugee situation in Syria and the importance of building bridges rather than walls. (Sammy Tong photos / Special to The B.C. Catholic)

Damascus is where St. Paul was converted to Christianity and began his early ministry. It is the oldest continuously inhabited capital in the world. It is also currently in danger of losing its over-2,000-year-old Christian presence there.

Father Nawras Sammour, SJ, born in Syria and working there now as regional director of Jesuit Mission Refugee Service for Middle East and North Africa, came to St Mark’s parish in Vancouver for three days as a participant in the Sunday liturgy and to help lead students of St. Mark’s College, Corpus Christi College, and the University of B.C. in a refugee simulation exercise before giving a public lecture called Bridging Borders.

Students were given the opportunity to freely choose which of three circles of chairs to sit in and then were told what refugee setting they were in: Africa trying to get into Europe; Latin America trying to cross the border into Mexico and eventually the U.S.; or the Middle East trying to reach Europe. Students could then try to move on from there into countries accepting refugees.

Facing gunfire, bombs dropping, and starvation, students were forced to consider what possessions to bring with them as they fled. With limited money or insufficient space on a smuggler’s overcrowded boat, some “refugees” lost their lives, while others had to change their plans as the surrounding environment changed. Silent, frozen faces looked outwards bleakly as the young students tried to decide the safest course of action and destination. This is what refugees face daily, with some families relocating six or seven times, said Father Sammour.

The exercise ended when students had to return to class, but not before Father Sammour advised them that none of them had chosen to take their most important resource – their documentation, which represents the only way to prove their identity.

In a public lecture the following evening, Father Sammour gave an overview of modern-day Syria, saying there are three ways of reflecting on the situation in Syria.

First is the perception of the situation as one with collaborators of different religions – servant collaborators of the common good and human dignity because of the love of God and neighbour which together motivates relationship with one another. Each “person’s uniqueness is perceived” and the “dignity of human difference” is reorganized as “divine.”

The second perception is spiritual or ethical, fulfilling the mission based on the Gospel and mission of the Catholic Church in our fragmented world. Father Sammour said our greatest temptation “is to withdraw and be exclusive. In our culture, whenever I am with people like myself it is good. When I am with those who are different, they are perceived as bad.” 

Those who “dare and choose to build bridges search for others and a better world; they welcome the others and the outsider. This is a risky act. When you welcome a stranger, what might happen? The encounter with the stranger is the biblical turning point and very important for fulfillment of God.”

Where the spiritual and political intersect is the third way of perceiving the situation in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. The greatest temptation is despair, but, cautioned Father Sammour, “this is not about doing but how to be.”

The proper place is to be present in the moment, he said. No one chose to live amidst the violence of Syria; it was a moment imposed upon its citizens and an ancient civilization.

The greatest danger in Syria at the moment is not the evil but stupidity, he said. As a church, we have been historically responsible for education, including responsibility and making decisions, without which it is impossible to confront ideologies. It is our responsibility to restore education, Father Sammour said.

As for Syria today, it is quieter and the roads are more secure, but it is still divided. More than six million of its citizens live outside the country, and 90 per cent of inhabitants live below the poverty line. More than 60 per cent of hospitals and 60 per cent of schools have been destroyed. Many people have simply disappeared, with more than a million people missing. There are very few younger men because of conscription.

What will become of the oil along the Mediterranean Sea? Who will come? What is the future? Father Sammour said, “I do not know.”

But there is hope. “So we do what is most important. We want education before food. There is an incredible capacity for young people to rebound. Children and young people come into our Jesuit centres and this is now the focus of the Jesuits’ work. Psychological and social support and protection. Building bridges and reconciliation. Reach out to the foreigners. And what is the most important question today? Where is your brother?”

Today nearly 300 Catholic, Christian, and Muslim youth volunteer and work side by side with nine Jesuits there. They arrived at the Jesuits’ door and said, “What can I do to help?”

In one winter month 1,500 coats were given out to families in need – Catholic, Christian and Muslim. The last coat went to a Muslim family. The next day there was a knock at the door where the Jesuits lived. It was that Muslim family with a home-baked cake to say thank you. They were the only ones of 1,500 who returned to give thanks.

Echoing the words of Father Sammour: “Who is your brother?”

For more information about Canadian Jesuits International visit www.canadianjesuitsinternational.ca or call 1-800-448-2148.