Five Million and Counting

An American nun sees the Iraqi refugee crisis up close

CNS Photo

Shame and sorrow—those were the two words Sister Anne Curtis uses to describe how she felt after meeting face-to-face with Iraqi refugees. “The feelings were very intense,” she recalls. “As a citizen of the United States, seeing before me the suffering of Iraqis as a result of our government’s war against their country, I was personally stricken.” Sister Anne is part of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Leadership Team. In January, she was amongst a delegation of women religious traveling to the Middle East to meet with Iraqi refugees. The trip, sponsored by Catholic Relief Services, took them to Lebanon and Syria, where significant numbers of displaced Iraqis are being held.

Sister Anne says her expectations for the trip exceeded what she actually witnessed when she got there. “I knew we were going to meet with the refugees and those who were responding to their needs. I also expected to learn more about the human impact of the war,” she says. But the reality up close, according to her, was horrifying. “The word that continually comes to mind is dire. I witnessed conditions that are unseen and unheard of in the United States. These are stories that are not covered by the American media,” she says.

The latest numbers from Refugees International show that almost five million Iraqis have been displaced due to the violence. About two-and-a-half million of them fled to safer areas within Iraq while the rest are seeking shelter in neighboring Lebanon and Syria. Sister Anne notes that displaced Iraqis are in an extremely vulnerable position. “They don’t have status in the countries they’ve fled to. They’ve been forced to leave their country because of the war, and most of them no longer have resources. They’re living in extreme poverty.”

Urban Refugees
During the two-week trip, Catholic Relief Services workers on the ground in Beirut and Damascus facilitated the sisters’ visits with refugee families. Sister Anne says most of the families were ‘urban refugees.’ “They’re pretty beat up and living in crowded, urban areas,” she says. “The first ones I met were a family of eight. They were living in a cement building with others, confined to a small room without furniture, heat or electricity. There were only mats and rugs on the floor. It was cold, damp and dark.”

“The people were amazingly welcoming and hospitable—it’s very much part of the Arab culture, their sense of hospitality is very deep.”

Though understandably overwhelmed by what she was seeing, Sister Anne says she did her best to take it all in. She says one of the most blatant realities facing the refugees is the lack of the most basic of human needs. “These people don’t get enough food. They also need a decent place to resettle. They need a source of income, and the children need to be in schools,” she says. Also nonexistent is proper health and mental care. “Just think of the trauma alone—most of the refugees have witnessed shootings, car bombings and other acts of war,” she notes. “They’ll be facing very significant health issues down the line, all exacerbated by trauma and the stress of everyday survival.”

No one was pointing fingers at Americans, a fact that Sister Anne says was not at all surprising. “No one I met ever showed any kind of anger towards us,” she says. “The people were amazingly welcoming and hospitable—it’s very much part of the Arab culture, their sense of hospitality is very deep.” She believes that when called upon, Americans will respond to the refugees’ plight. “The American people are very caring about others in need, especially when there’s a relationship.” Whether you agree or not, she says Americans are tied to the Iraqi people. “Our country is responsible for the war over there,” she says. “Millions of people are being displaced because of this war’s violence, and I feel that as citizens of the United States, we have a moral responsibility to help repair the destruction.”

How to Respond

There are countless ways to respond to the Iraqi crisis, but Sister Anne says there are pressing concerns. “The different aid groups and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are struggling to meet the demand for basic needs,” she explains. “The most immediate thing to do is to help these relief agencies, like Catholic Relief Services, the United Nations and other NGOs on the ground.” She also suggests getting the attention of legislators. “We need to pressure our own government to act accordingly, and give bilateral aid to the countries who are receiving these refugees.” While she admits some of the international political maneuvering may be complicated, she says contacting congressional representatives and expressing your concerns would be a good start.
Sister Anne is also personally calling on President Bush to honor his commitment of coming to the aid of refugees. “There was an earlier commitment by the administration to provide 12,000 slots for refugees. To this point, only 3,000 visas have been handed out,” she says. “We’re not even meeting the goal we promised as a country.” She adds the government also needs to step up its aid to provide relief to those on the ground in places like Lebanon and Syria.

Back in the USA
Since returning from the Middle East, Sister Anne has been sharing her experiences in hopes of educating more Americans about the refugee crisis. “I realize there are perceptions about people from the Middle East that are not helpful. Some people see them as dangerous or not to be trusted,” she says, adding that all of us should examine our relationships with those who not like us. “As people of faith, we’re really called to love and respect the other—be it the refugee, the immigrant or some other person in need. If we don’t understand our brothers and sisters in Syria, how do we come to know them as our neighbor?” She advises reaching out to Arab communities where you live. “Get to know them and be connected.”

Through her work as a Sister of Mercy, Sister Anne spends a lot of time ministering to the plight of immigrants and migrants. Many times, she works directly with groups of young volunteers. “There is incredible energy in young adults and a great desire to help others. Out of that spirit, I encourage them to find their niche in responding to their neighbors around the world.” She is also encouraged that younger people are getting more involved politically, becoming active in social justice issues and volunteering. “We’re global citizens and we should see ourselves in a relationship with our brothers and sisters in other countries” she says. “It’s important for young adults to become involved—I think we’re seeing a wonderful upsurge now. I say more, more, more!”