One local Catholic journalist’s eye-opening trip to see the Syrian refugee crisis was more than a thrilling opportunity to report from the trenches.
Reporter Kevin Jones of the Catholic News Agency said it was also a chance to raise awareness of a devout people torn by the brutality of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) militants and civil war.
“It’s definitely an amazing experience,” said 35-year-old Jones. “I feel more obligated now to some of the people I have met to do a little more to help out the refugee situation, to raise awareness about the people and to tell their stories.”
He told Catholic Relief Services its Egan Journalism Fellowship “expanded my horizons beyond description” by giving him a firsthand experience of reporting in a foreign country.
In October 2014, he joined three other Egan fellows for the one-week trip to Lebanon and Jordan to interview and take photos and video of the refugees.
CRS guided the journalists through areas of the country where it aided refugees from Syria and Iraq with housing, education, counseling and other needs.
With freelance writer Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, editor Barb Fraze of the Catholic News Service, and reporter Peter Jesserer Smith of the National Catholic Register, Jones interviewed refugees, Church officials, and local community organizations.
“The idea is that Catholic Relief Services takes people from the Catholic press over to a certain location where CRS is working,” Jones said. “It’s a mutually-beneficial arrangement—journalists get the experience of reporting in a foreign country and Catholic Relief Services gets their stories out into the Catholic press.”
Particularly poignant were his interviews with Muslim families who fled Syria and Iraqi Christians who fled ISIS for fear of religious persecution.
One man he met named “Mareo” stayed in an Armenian Catholic Church in Iraq with about 50 other Iraqi refugees. He shared with a translator how his father died in an explosion.
“Mareo went on to explain to me that his father had been a guard at their home parish church in Baghdad which was a cathedral that suffered many multiple bombing attacks,” Jones said. “His father died in that attack. I asked him if he considers his father a martyr who died for his faith. And he said, ‘Yes.’”
He interviewed other families who lived through bombings, injuries and displacement. The Middle Eastern crisis has impacted devastating numbers of people with an estimated 1.9 million refugees displaced by ISIS last year, and some 10 million Syrians displaced since the outbreak of civil war in 2011.
“Meeting with the Iraqi Christians who fled ISIS rather than renounce faith was a very important part,” Jones shared about the trip. “The Iraqi Christians have suffered so much.”
Jones said witnessing the consequences of war and atrocities and the people’s steadfast faith made him reflect on his own faith.
“Religion is a very deep part of (their) identity—it will certainly affect you,” he said. “You look at yourself and wonder, ‘If an ISIS-like group came through, what would I be doing? Would I be fighting? Would I be running? Would I break under pressure?’”
Jones said he was also struck by the coexistence of Christians and refugees amid great religious conflict.
“Christians are a bridge in the region,” Jones shared. “In Lebanon, the Shiites and Sunnis (Islam denominations) don’t trust each other, but they will trust Christians. So you have Christians who live with Shiites and Christians with Sunnis but not a mixed village … I think that it’s an area where Catholics can see a situation in a different way than a secular journalist.”
He wrote more than a dozen stories about his trip and the people he met, and posted the stories with photos and videos on the online social news site Flipboard. He titled the series “No Going Home? The Refugee Crisis in the Middle East,” which is available for viewing online.
“No Going Home? The Refugee Crisis in the Middle East”
A online publication of Kevin Jones’ reporting on Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon