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Aid workers battle crisis conditions in Syria, Lebano

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After six years in war zone, burnout increases among those who serve
By Jean Ko Din


Photo Caption: Hélène Tremblay-Boyko with two Syrian refugees, Ghada and Iblissam, at the Caritas Lebanon Medical Centre in Rayfoun (one of 10 throughout Lebanon) which provide medical services to refugees. (Photo courtesy of Development and Peace)

Humanitarian aid workers in Syria and Lebanon are exhausted, says Hélène Tremblay-Boyko.

It’s not the kind of exhaustion a person feels at the end of a long day. This is the kind of exhaustion where the aid workers are working in the same desperate conditions as the people they serve.

“We do not know here (in Canada) what is going on there,” said Tremblay-Boyko, vice-president of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace national council (D&P). “They need peace. They need to be able to start rebuilding their lives. We need to do everything we can to enable a peace accord.”

From Jan. 29 to Feb. 9, Tremblay-Boyko was part of a joint delegation by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and D&P. 

When a temporary ceasefire in the Syrian city of Aleppo was announced late December, D&P jumped at the opportunity to organize a trip to Syria and Lebanon to meet with their local humanitarian partners. 

“Our purpose was to show our interest and love for them, to meet with Church leaders and also to meet with some of the organizations that are helping those people that are affected by the wars,” said Tremblay-Boyko.

It was a whirlwind delegation led by two Canadian bishops: Bishop Raymond Poisson of Joliette, Que., and Ukrainian-Greek Catholic Eparch Ken Nowakowski of New Westminster, B.C.

They were joined by Tremblay-Boyko, Gilio Brunelli, D&P international programs director, and Kyle Ferguson, ecclesial and interfaith relations advisor for the Canadian bishops’ conference. 

The Canadian delegates met with Canadian ambassadors to Syria and Lebanon, the Apostolic Nuncio to both countries and the Eastern Catholic patriarchs. They also met with Caritas partners from Lebanon, Syria and M.O.N.A. who work to feed, clothe and care for the most vulnerable people affected by the conflict. 

“Right now, there is a huge humanitarian crisis,” said Tremblay-Boyko. “People are in dire need of basics. They don’t have food security. Many of them who escaped with just the clothes on their back, they have nothing and so they need everything.”

A heavy snowstorm hit the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon just days before the Canadian delegates arrived. Caritas workers have been working around the clock to provide warm clothes and heating systems to Syrian refugees who have settled in empty cinderblock homes with rectangular holes in the walls where windows and doors should be. 

Fuel shortages and crumbling state infrastructure has led to systematic power outages throughout the day. Most days, Tremblay-Boyko said the region would have electricity for three hours, then two hours without. 

“They also don’t have any central heating, so they have to have little electric space heaters,” she said. “Most of the buildings are stone ... and these are the actual offices of some of the civil organizations that are working with them.”

Tremblay-Boyko said that there is a great need for psychosocial support, not only for the people displaced by the Syrian Civil War, but also for the humanitarian aid workers. After six years serving in the middle of the conflict, aid workers are burning out. 

“They feel that they are in a dark tunnel and they cannot see a light at the end,” she said. “We would talk for a long while and they would talk about their needs… They just shake their heads and go, ‘We don’t know.’ They’re so exhausted from six years of conflict.”

Development and Peace, also known as Caritas Canada, is working with the Canadian bishops to launch an appeal within the month to send support to its Caritas partners in the Middle East.


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