Monday, March 6, 2017


Samer,  Rasha and Family
Please meet Samer, his wife Rasha, and their four children--two sons and two daughters.  They are now in a transition apartment in Athens operated by CRS and Caritas Greece, and hopefully, by the end of March, they will be going to their permanent home:  Switzerland.  The Swiss Embassy has confirmed with them their final destination, and they are in the process of that last leg of a long and harrowing journey.

Although they are very pleased to be in Athens on their way to Switzerland and a new life, the journey has been long, painful, and harrowing.  They are from Aleppo in Syria and left when confronted by an armed militia in their part of the city: three choices--join their militia as a fighter, remain and have all utilities, job, and food removed, or finally, be shot.  Samer gathered up his family and they fled in the night from Aleppo, working their way into Turkey.  From there they got a boat from Turkey over the sea into Greece.  They were actually saved by the Greek navy when their small boat began sinking.

They were then in many temporary camps attempting to reach the border with Serbia or Bulgaria in an effort to reach Germany or Sweden--two countries open to taking refugees.  On various trips to the border they found it closed, and had to retreat.

On one dreadful attempt they had gone a month and a half without a bath.  Finally, two Greek women came to their camp and offered to have them come to their house where they could all bathe and feel human once again.  They said they would never in their lifetime forget this gesture of kindness and goodness.

Samer's Family in their Apartment
Once approved for relocation out of Greece, they were given a temporary apartment in a building leased by CRS and Caritas Greece.  The building can accommodate 11 families and up to 63 total persons.  Compared to all the places they have lived over the years, the apartment seems like a "palace" to them.  They are so grateful to everyone who has helped bring their journey to a conclusion in such a positive and meaningful way.

Back in Syria Samer was a tailor and is hoping to resume his profession in Switzerland--most likely working for a clothing store there.  He knows some Syrian refugees from Aleppo now in Switzerland, and he looks forward to connecting with them soon.

Please continue your support of CRS, especially with the Lent Rice Bowl program, so that many more refugee families can reach a final destination where they are no longer in danger of being killed, persecuted, or threatened.

The journey is long and arduous for so many refugee families and families of displaced peoples in their own countries.  We are their life-line for the future.

{To support the wonderful work of CRS, please go to: ]

Sunday, March 5, 2017


Preparing for Sunday Mass

We began Sunday with Mass celebrated in Greek with the Latin Archbishop of Athens, Archbishop Sevastianos Rossolotos.  After Mass, we met with two other Greek Bishops to discuss the Church's response to the huge influx of refugees.

After Mass we had a good discussion about Caritas Greece and the Diocesan Caritas organization.  They are working closely with CRS and other Church partners to deal with the large number of refugees.  The flow of refugees into Greece has been virtually stopped with the E.U. accord whereby Turkey will handle the influx and flow of refugees.

Former Airport now rows of tents
Today we visit a camp housing refugees from Afghanistan.  It is actually the former airport buildings which have been empty for over 15 years.  The airport has been divided up into three camps, and we visited one of those.  Greek government authorities are in charge of the camps, but CRS has a good presence there offering cash assistance to the people to purchase food nearby and to sustain their families.

The old airport has been divided up with make-shift dividers affording some privacy.  Entire families live in a small enclosure, and get their government issued food from a central location.  The airport restrooms serve the people, and special shower areas have been installed.

Visiting a Family in their small space
These Afghan refugees fled their homes and towns because of the violence and persecution by the Taliban members and ISIS members.  These refugees were primarily members of smaller groups or sects--a few Christians, but most Shiites living in the midst of the Sunni Taliban and ISIS.  Taliban and ISIS fighters have no qualms about walking up to a Shiite on the street and shooting him or her.  Fear of this type of life forced them to leave, traveling first into Iran, then into Turkey, and finally into Greece.

CRS is working throughout Greece to obtain empty apartment buildings which they then fix up, and move families out of the camps into.  The families we met were mainly middle class Afghans with professions such as shoe maker, baker, and store owner.  They are all anxious to work again, and to contribute for the upkeep of their families.  This approach is similar to using the unfinished houses spread across Iraq.

One of the most urgent needs is for the children to get their education.  One Afghan young lady took it upon herself to begin informal classes for the children, and now has two Greek teachers assisting.  But life in this makeshift facility is simply inadequate for any type of normal life.

The goal of the Afghans we met was to reach Germany.  Many have a few relatives living there, and they would have a place to go if their asylum petitions are accepted.  The process is long and arduous, and months go by between various interviews and bureaucratic steps.

The universal plea and cry of all the refugee families we met across the Middle East is loud and clear:
we want a better life for our children than what we have had to endure, and we will make all the sacrifices needed to get them onto a sound path forward.

[To assist the wonderful work of CRS, visit: ]

Friday, March 3, 2017


Five Brave Dominican Sisters
Today we met with five Iraqi Dominican Sisters who had been living and ministering to the peoples up in the northwest area of Iraq, the ancient Nineveh Plain area.  It would be roughly Mosul north.  Some 72 Dominican Sisters had been working in that area until ISIS swept down from Syria and began attacking people, especially Christians, and destroying their homes.  All had to flee quickly.

These Sisters had served both Christians and Muslims for many years, especially with education programs of all kinds.  Yet, when ISIS arrived, many of their Muslim friends and neighbors turn on them and all Christians living in the region.  The Sisters helped arrange rapidly escape caravans so that they could head south and out of the danger of being killed by ISIS.

These brave Sisters accompanied the people in the midst of their fright and panic, and served as guides and beacons of hope for them.  None of the Sisters are presently in the Mosul and northern regions, although the northern area have been liberated.  The Sisters are willing to return north as soon as the security is guaranteed for them and the residents to return safely.  No one wants to return prematurely and then have to leave in haste again.

Play-Acting for Reconciliation
The Sisters now have a convent south of Erbil and are working with Jesuit Refugee Services [JRS] priests and lay staff to assist the displaced persons from the north.  Pictured to the left is a role-playing theater class whereby they learn the skills to reconcile Muslims and Christians.  These young women are acting out a scene of healing and reconciliation.

Practicing Mass Prayers

The Sisters area also teaching the children their Catholic Faith, and preparing them for First Communion.  We attended one of their sessions as the children are practicing the prayers of their Chaldean Catholic Liturgy.

Training in marketable skills is another priority for JRS and CRS agencies.  Women are taught how to become beauty salon operators, and once they have completed their training, they are given a start-up kit with all the items necessary to begin hair styling.  They can then begin earning money for their families.

Similar courses are given for cooking and baking, and once they finish the course, they receive a mixer and tools needed to begin a career in cooking--eventually working for a restaurant or bakery, and then possibly opening their own shop.

Another course is in creative sewing, and when they finish, they receive a sewing machine so that they can begin at once to hone their skills at making clothes and other items for sale.

These projects are very similar to the livelihood projects we saw earlier in Jordan.

It continues to be encouraging to witness the hands-on programs of CRS and JRS, especially as they collaborate together to avoid overlap and duplication.

[For further information on the wonderful work of CRS and JRS, visit:  and ]

Thursday, March 2, 2017


After a few days in Iraq with our CRS team, it is very obvious that one of the most serious challenges for this country is the almost total lack of trust among peoples and institutions.  Tensions among peoples in this region go back to the time of Muhammad the prophet.  When he died in 632, there was a dispute over succession to serve as the Caliph of the Islamic community across the world.

This led to two groups emerging:  Sunni Islam and Shia Islam.  Today, Sunnis are the majority in most Muslim countries--about 85% to 90%.  However, Shiites are a majority in Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Bahrain.  Neighboring Syria is about 75% Sunni, and Saudi Arabia is about 85% Sunni.

These two groups have been in conflict in various ways over the centuries and this conflict raises tensions and impedes sound working relationships.  Since these countries tend to have theocratic governments, the lack of trust runs deep.  The presumption is that the ruling group favors its peoples over the other group.

This lack of trust and increase in suspicion of each other is a very serious problem, and helps to understand why it is so difficult to navigate foreign policy in these parts of the world.  To further complicate the scene, there are many sub-sects of the two major groups.  And of course, the Christians adhere to Jesus Christ, and not to Muhammad.  They are a minority in all of the Middle East countries.

Sometimes the tensions between Sunnis and Shiites break out into armed conflict, as with the Iran versus Iraq war several years ago.  You then have to include the Kurds who dominate Kurdistan and who tend towards the Sunni traditions.  But Kurds are fiercely independent and adopt various practises from all groups.  The Pesh Merga Kurds are famous fighters and have been successful in ridding Iraq of ISIS.

It is necessary to review briefly this history in order to understand the deep level of distrust that exists.  An example might help.  We met many families who had fled Mosul because of the attacks by ISIS.  These people told us that often their neighbors, who were Muslims, pointed out to ISIS fighters that they were Christians--who then had to flee for their lives.  One man put it well:  "My neighbor, with whom I shared bread at table, turned on me and betrayed me.  How could I ever trust him again? " These stories of distrust reminded me of Jesus and Judas at the Last Supper:  "The one who dips his bread with me in the bowl will betray me."

There is a deep distrust of government authorities since they often favor their group over others.  Since Christians have no political power or great numbers, they are vulnerable to discrimination.

Distrust in Iraq is so pervasive that Iraq is a totally "cash economy."  People do not trust banks, nor the government, nor each other with their money.  Everything is paid for in cash--credit cards and checks are non-existent.  This makes it very difficult to manage larger transactions.

The displaced Christians returning to Teleskof [an earlier blog] are reluctant to go home because of many factors of distrust.  Neighboring towns are Arab majority and non-Christian.  Yet when ISIS attacked their Christian town, none of their neighbors came to help them.  In fact, after the Christians fled, the neighbors looted their homes.  Enormous distrust.

Since Teleskof is a Christian town, local government services are very slow to return.  There is little electricity and water, no functioning schools, and no health services available yet.  The Christians feel that they will be the last in their region to have services restored.

The wars in the past ten years have greatly increased the distrust across Iraq, and the political gridlock in Baghdad is the direct result of this distrust.

Re-building trust among all the various Iraqi peoples is a huge challenge, and will take many years to bridge the gaps of distrust.  Memories of betrayal are not easily nor quickly erased.

CRS has worked very diligently to create trust by hiring local peoples from all backgrounds to assist in the many services which CRS offers.  Indeed, CRS is showing the way forward for Iraqi peoples--working together for the good of all people is the best way to begin restoring trust among all groups.

[For the wonderful work of CRS, visit: ]


Today, we visited a small town named Teleskof which is about 20 miles from Mosul--an Iraqi city which ISIS attacked and took over in 2014.  Mosul is a city of 3,500,000 people--the second largest city in Iraq.

Iraqi forces have regained the northern and eastern sections of the city, and have trapped the ISIS fighters in the western region.  It is hoped that within some weeks the ISIS fighters will have been fully eliminated from Mosul.  However, at a great price.  Hundreds of thousands of Mosul residents have fled from their city, and known now as displaced persons, are in many camps scattered all over northern Iraq.

But after almost three years of ISIS occupation, Mosul will need incredible assistance to allow its residents to return.  All of the infrastructure has been destroyed and needs to be either upgraded or replaced:  electricity, water, sanitation services, security protection, health services, schools, and the like.  It will be an enormous task to restore Mosul to pre-2014 days.

A house hit bit suicide bombers
Teleskof is a Christian town about 18 miles from Mosul, and it had about 1,400 families--nearly 10,000 people.  All fled in face of ISIS, and left their town empty and vacant.

However, some 200 families have returned to Teleskof and are beginning to rebuild their homes and town.  This photo shows a house blown up by suicide bombers.  While most houses were not bombed or shot up with weapons, they were damaged in other ways.  Some neighboring Arab villagers came in and looted the homes of the Christians.

A part of the town hit by bombs

This Christian town was a hub of trade, small workshops, food processing, and government services.  But some bombed areas will require massive amount of reconstruction to return to normal.
 Some of the leaders of the group have returned and have begun to reestablish their town.

A family which returned to their home
We visited one house where the family has returned, and they are so glad to be home.  The concept of "home" is a universal gift and priority for all of us.

Inside the towns Catholic Church
The Christian Church was not damaged, and the priest comes twice a month for Mass.  However, he is planning to return to the town full-time and to encourage other members of the community to return as well.  Some of the local leaders are seen in this photo.

We then met at the offices of Caritas Iraq with a group of women from Teleskof who were living away from their town, and who were engaged in discussions about their past situation and their future.  They were outspoken in their desire to return home, but adamant about certain conditions being met:  there must be adequate security to assure them that no further violence would come to their town; the basic services would have to be restored--water, electricity, health clinics, and schools; and that some type of assurance that neighboring Arab towns would not create new problems for them.  CRS continues to support Caritas Iraq and they serve many people jointly.

A vast displaced persons camp
On the way back to Erbil we passed a very large camp for displaced persons.
Young people playing volleyball in the camp

[For more information on the wonderful work of CRS, visit: ]

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


There is a unique phenomenon in Iraq which occurred following the USA invasion of Iraq.  Since the economy was beginning to improve, there was an enormous splurge of new houses all across Iraq--literally, hundreds of thousands of them.

These houses were built from concrete and are very sturdy and structurally sound.  The intent of the owners was to make them two or three floors high in order to accommodate possibly more than one family.

And then came the Great Recession, and the rapid decline in the price of oil--one of Iraq's few natural resources.  All of a sudden the country is littered with all of these unfinished houses.  They are everywhere.

When ISIS began overtaking northwest Iraq, many thousands of families fled away from those zones of fighting and persecution.  Christians in particular were targeted and had to run for their lives.

Although most displaced persons began in camps, gradually ways were found to locate them in more permanent housing.  And one of those resources was the use of these unfinished houses.  CRS began working with the owners of the empty shells of houses, and arranged a contract whereby an Iraqi family could move into one of these houses.

A sample unfinished house in Iraq

The role of CRS became to add some of the missing items:  especially exterior doors and windows.  PVC material was used to fabricate inexpensive but sturdy doors and windows for these homes, and CRS had people install them.

Then, inexpensive interior doors were added to create privacy in the house, especially when there were two or three families living in one house.

A family inside their restored unfinished house

Electrical power, water, and sanitary facilities were added for the comfort of the families.

Most of the new residents were able to remain for two years, but as those contracts end, many will be able to extend their stay.  These houses offer a dignified place for families to stay--away from the extreme winter and summer temperatures.

Even the family's sheep and lambs live on the lower level of the house.

These unfinished structures are found all over Iraq, often financed by the wealthy Gulf States when the economy was robust in Iraq.  After the world-wide recession, these buildings now stand idle waiting for a future when they can be finished and occupied.  A few examples south of Erbil.

This program is being extended by CRS all across Iraq, and thousands of displaced families will be able to find a more permanent solution to being homeless.

[For more information on the wonderful work of CRS, visit: ]