A single, yellow wildflower plucked from the ground outside of a tent housing refugees in Lebanon is a vivid reminder to Caroline Brennan of the tragic toll the six-year war has taken on the people of Syria.
The flower was the only thing Zahaya, a young Syrian mother, wife and now refugee, could find to give her guest.
Brennan, senior communications officer for Catholic Relief Services Global Humanitarian Response, was in Lebanon to document the refugees’ experiences. She met Zahaya, her husband and young son, two weeks after they had fled their home in Homs, Syria. Inside the makeshift dwelling that Zahaya and her family now called home, Brennan found a talkative young woman who, through an Arabic interpreter, poured out her heart to Brennan, describing in great detail the beautiful home and garden destroyed in the bombings.
“One thing I find with many Syrians is one thing they want to describe for you is the house they had, how many rooms they had. It’s so important that they walk you through what they had before, and Zahaya was just like that,” said Brennan.
“She kept referring to these pictures that she had of her house, but she did not have them on her. Her house was destroyed in a bomb and at that point they were all sleeping in a park or forest nearby so they weren’t home when it happened, but she was getting very worked up because she did not have these photos to show me,” said Brennan, in an interview with the Catholic Herald. Assuring her that she could picture the home in her mind, thanks to the vivid description, Brennan also learned of the humiliation Zahaya experienced as she and her family tried to flee the violence into Lebanon.
“They were turned back twice when they tried to cross, because the guards would ask, who is the baby?” explained Brennan. They were asked for his birth certificate for proof, but the couple did not have the papers, she explained, adding that the guards then asked to see pictures of the baby, “every mother has a picture of her son,” they said. Yet, again, they had nothing to show.
“How humiliating not to be able to prove who he was,” said Brennan, adding that the word “humiliation” was one of the first words she learned in Arabic.
During her visit with Zahaya, the young woman kept apologizing to Brennan for not having anything to give to her guest, a Syrian custom.
“Hospitality is such a defining trait in the Arab world. People treat me like a treasured guest, even if they don’t have a roof,” explained Brennan of her encounters with the refugees, “and they always try to find something to give me, even if it’s their last bottle of water and maybe it’s half empty, they try to find a way to give me something. Zahaya was just like that, she literally kept looking and kept apologizing that she was not able to offer me anything.”
As Brennan was leaving Zahaya’s tent, the young woman spied the flower and plucked it in a gesture of hospitality.
Some years after their meeting, it still leaves an impression on Brennan and is a constant reminder of the human toll the Syrian War has taken on its people.
Through her work with CRS, Brennan tells the story of the crisis through a lens of humanity, she said.
Much of the information Americans receive about crises worldwide, she said, is filtered through the lenses of policy, military or security. What’s missing, however, is the human side, she added.
Brennan, 44, based in Chicago, was in Milwaukee, to speak about her experiences with CRS in an event organized by senior priest, Fr. Eugene Pocernich, a former CRS diocesan director in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, and hosted by the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. Fr. Pocernich organized the program which included a Mass and reception to highlight CRS’ Rice Bowl program conducted in many parishes during Lent.
Calling the topic of CRS’ work with refugees timely and often misunderstood, Fr. Pocernich said, “It is something our people need to better understand and then to respond to as people of Christian faith. One response will be participation in CRS Rice Bowl.”
In an interview prior to the event, a day after she returned from a week in Turkey working with refugees on the border, she discussed her work.
“We have more of a responsibility, now more than ever, as this crisis heads into its sixth year. People need to be in a safe place and it’s our responsibility to use the platforms we have to speak out for those who don’t have the opportunity to be heard or fully seen,” she said. “I definitely want to share what we see as reality on the ground on a day-to-day basis. I think people are looking for that information. It’s on us to find the best ways to share their stories with more people.”
In her 10 years with CRS, Brennan has shared the stories of refugees worldwide, including in Nepal after last year’s earthquake, in Central African Republic at the height of the internal conflict, and in the Filipino islands in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.
In the past few years she has spent much of her time, working with a videographer, covering crises in the Middle East – meeting Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey; and families uprooted by ISIS in northern Iraq – and most recently in Europe, where she followed refugees seeking safety in Greece, Serbia and Macedonia.
The message Syrian refugees would want to share with the world, she said is, “We’re fleeing the bad guys, we are not the bad guys.”
In six years of conflict, more than 300,000 people have been killed and half of the population of Syria has been uprooted, leaving nearly 5 million refugees.
“What I find so surprising still, even now, so many Syrians are still expressing such shock that this has happened in their country. For so long it was the most stable country in the Arab world. They were living middle class lives not so different from our own,” she said during her presentation.
Much of the media coverage of the refugee crisis shows male refugees, noted Brennan, yet when she visits the border areas, she said she sees mostly women and children who make up more than 70 percent of the refugee population.
As a woman, Brennan said she often gains better access to these women who are not comfortable being photographed, yet are willing to speak to another female.
It’s rare, too, said Brennan, to find a family intact. Very often, they have been separated. For example, the mother and children will flee the violence, yet wait in anxious hope to learn the fate of their other family members.
“Not knowing what happened (to the rest of the family) is a burden they carry with them. You’re never quite at peace when the people you love are not with you,” she said.
While the physical toll of the war is overwhelming, Brennan said the emotional toll is equally taxing. She spoke of children, maybe 12-13 years old, who wet themselves when speaking with her about what they have lived through, or who begin shaking when something as simple as a glass falls.
“Many have missed years of school and the longer they are out of school, the worse it becomes. The last thing Syria needs is a generation of uneducated youth,” she said, describing ways CRS is trying to provide counselors for the children and classrooms.
During Brennan’s most recent trip, she visited Greece where CRS is arranging housing for some of the 60,000 refugees stranded due to the closing of the border. Due to the economic crisis in Greece, there are numerous vacant buildings, she said. CRS is working with the owners of these buildings to renovate them to provide housing for the refugees, more than half of whom are Syrian.
Brennan said she is often asked if her job is hopeless, considering that the war is ongoing and needs of the refugees are many.
“Just the opposite,” she said. “Hope is in our DNA as a species and I am meeting people who even in their darkest moments have hope and if they have hope, who are we not to have hope? I find that the resilience that people show, really is such a reassurance in the goodness of humanity, and people are so resilient, despite the things they are facing.”
The increased interest in the plight also brings her hope, she said.
Through her reports, Brennan said she hopes that people can see themselves.
“Try to focus on the familiar. There is so much more that is familiar on how people live and are, and if people are able to see that, and see themselves and maybe remember a name like Zahaya’s and to see individuals who have been caught up in this madness, that is one of the most important things we have to give and to do. People can feel really lost and they’re longing to be seen.”
For students, she said, that might be advocacy or raising awareness on campus; for others, maybe it’s to give financially or share their time.
“The more people can share stories, their perspective and speak up, it’s so critical,” she said. “Believe me, I wish Zayaha could be here, I wish she could have the chance to be here. (Since she can’t) we are doing our best to share her perspective and share other voices from the field.”