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Archbishop in Lebanon Leads Outreach to Syrian Refugees

11 Oct 2013 – By Dale Gavlak

Catholic News Service

LARNACA, Cyprus (CNS) — Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Issam Darwich of Zahleh and Furzol, Lebanon, knows what it’s like to be a stranger in strange land.

As head of the Melkite Greek Catholic archeparchy headquartered in Zahleh, one of the largest predominately Christian towns in Lebanon, the Syrian-born cleric has refocused much of his ministry on providing encouragement, food and other aid to thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing their country’s two-and-a-half-year-old civil war.

Zahleh, 34 miles east of Beirut, also is just 25 miles west of Damascus, the Syrian capital. Zahleh is one of the first stops for Syrian refugees arriving in Lebanon.

“That’s why I said if we have problems in Damascus, 1 million can walk straight away from Damascus close to Zahleh,” said the archbishop, who has lived most of his life in Lebanon, arriving at the age of 9.

“In my archeparchy, we started to welcome the Syrian refugees, especially Christians since the beginning of the war,” Archbishop Darwich told Catholic News Service during a break at an Arab-Christian leaders conference in Larnaca.

At first it was 50 displaced Syrian families, totaling about 250 people. After 30 months, the Syrian refugee presence has grown to 800 families, some 4,000 people.

Archbishop Darwich said looking after the refugees’ health problems poses financial and emotional challenges for the Lebanese caretakers.

For that reason, his archeparchy is working with Caritas Lebanon, the church’s international relief agency, as well as with other Christian denominations and Muslim charities.

“We open our doors to those who want to help the Syrian refugees. We created an office in our archeparchy and volunteers visit the refugees at home to see their needs,” he said.

The archeparchy also opened a chaplaincy service to deal with a host of issues the Syrian refugees face.

“Some priests and deacons help them because many of them left their country with nothing. They are traumatized,” he said, particularly of those who have lost relatives and other devastating effects of the grinding conflict.

“I myself go to have a meal with them. We share together with the families.”

Lebanon is sheltering the bulk of the Syrians refugees, taking in more than half of the 2 million people displaced outside of the country. Lebanon is reeling under the weight of the extra numbers.

Although some Syrians register with the United Nations refugee agency for assistance, no camps have opened under U.N. auspices unlike in Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. That leaves the Syrians in Lebanon greatly dependent on the generosity of others, Archbishop Darwich said.

“They are experiencing many psychological problems because they are not accepted by all the Lebanese population. They can’t find jobs. I don’t know if they can continue like that without jobs or any financial resources,” he explained.

“That is their major problem. That’s why they always tell me they want to return to their country. They are waiting for peace,” he added.

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Tags: Syria Lebanon Refugees Melkite Greek Catholic Church Melkite