“Horrified” was the only way Sister of Mercy Anne Curtis could describe her reaction to the conditions in which Iraqi refugees are living in the Middle East.
Sister Curtis, a Rochester native, was one of eight women religious to participate in a Catholic Relief Services delegation that traveled to Lebanon and Syria Jan. 11-20. In a Feb. 5 telephone interview with the Catholic Courier, she recalled how she and other sisters had to walk through an alleyway with water running through it in order to get to one family’s apartment.
“There was no heat, no electricity, and no windows,” said Sister Curtis, who serves as a councilor on the five-person leadership team of the national Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, coordinating several areas such as justice, vocation and incorporation.
The trip was the first time Catholic Relief Services had sent a delegation of women religious to view conditions in areas where the organization is active, said Laura Sheahen, CRS’ regional information officer for Europe and the Middle East.
The sisters spoke about their experiences during a congressional briefing Feb. 6 and intend to continue lobbying Congress for more funding for United Nations refugee-relief programs that provide medicine and food.
Up to 2 million people have fled Iraq to nearby countries due to political instability caused by the war, and another 2 million have been displaced within the country. The U.S. promised to accept 12,000 Iraqi refugees, but instead has taken only about 1,300 in the past four months, Sister Curtis said.
“It’s a huge strain on Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt,” said Sheahen, who accompanied the sisters on the trip and is stationed with CRS in Cairo, Egypt. She noted that schools are getting more crowded and the prices of housing and food are spiking with the increased demand.
The crisis may continue for a long time, Sister Curtis said.
“There wasn’t one family where any Iraqi said they wanted to go back to Iraq,” she stated. “My sense was that they just don’t see that there is a future there.”
Many refugees also are having a hard time creating a future in their new living quarters, and many are living solely on savings and aid from such groups as the Catholic agency Caritas because their host countries do not allow them to work, Sister Curtis said.
Sheahen said the group also toured a Beirut safe house run by Caritas Lebanon, a CRS partner. The shelter for women and children protects refugees who also are escaping abusive relationships. Inside the shelter, there was an air of peace and security, Sheahen said.
“It was as if they were taking a deep breath after a nightmare,” she observed.
The trip was eye-opening for Sister Curtis, even though she previously served as justice coordinator of the Sisters of Mercy regional community in Rochester, as case manager at Rochester’s Melita House for pregnant women, as a missionary in Santiago, Chile, and as a high-school theology teacher and campus minister at Brighton’s Our Lady of Mercy High School.
“So many people asked me was it wise to go; was it safe?,” Sister Curtis said. “I realized that in this country, we have painted a picture of a very dangerous place and a dangerous people.”
The delegation was in Beirut when a U.S. embassy car was bombed in the city.
“It’s unnerving, but I didn’t have a sense that I was in danger,” Sister Curtis said.
She said she did get a sense from the trip of how far-reaching the refugee crisis is for humanitarian agencies.
“Nongovernmental organizations and relief organizations have been overwhelmed and are struggling to meet the most basic needs: serious health issues, basic food needs, and somewhat trying to help people under pressure and struggling,” Sister Curtis said.
Sheahen and Sister Curtis said there are several ways to help Iraqi refugees.
- Make a contribution to CRS or other ministries in the Middle East.
- Lobby elected representatives in support of efforts to buy medicine and food for refugees.
- Develop a greater awareness of the consequences of the war in Iraq and displaced people.
- Ask the U.S. government to step up efforts to resettle Iraqi refugees in the United States.