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In Solidarity with Syria

The University community brings attention to the Syrian and broader global refugee crisis.

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The conflict in Syria has left millions stranded. It has, according to the European Commission, “triggered the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.” The crisis has sparked a sense of urgency in faculty, students and staff on campus, as well as alumni, especially those directly involved in refugee services, to support and advocate for these and other refugees. 

This fall, the on-campus community organized In Solidarity with Syria, a series of educational programs, advocacy opportunities and prayer activities to bring attention to the Syrian and broader global refugee crises. Students have written to elected officials, heard from authors on the topic, watched documentaries together, organized vigils and participated in discussions on this global issue.

“The abuse, the war, the poverty, it’s too outstanding to ignore,” said Helen Wolf, Ph.D., executive director of Campus Ministries at the University. “We reach out and do whatever we can to help on our campus, in our local community and around the world. Service is who we are. It’s a natural progression for us to address the refugee crisis.” 

University of Scranton President Kevin P. Quinn, S.J., wrote in an editorial published in the Scranton Times-Tribune on Nov. 8 that we should heed Pope Francis’ call to act generously and remember the golden rule. 

“The humanitarian needs are urgent, and our compassion should abound to help men, women and children who have fled their homes in pursuit of safety. As Pope Francis has said, ‘You are your brother’s keeper,’” wrote Fr. Quinn. 

In his article, Fr. Quinn also noted that Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) urged “all Catholics” to “express openness and welcome to these refugees, who are escaping desperate situations in order to survive.” 

Opening Doors

Bill Canny ’77, H’07, executive director of Migration and Refugee Services of the USCCB, stressed the importance of trying to assist refugees in Syria’s neighboring countries first and welcoming them here if they cannot find help where they are. 

“The USCCB would like to see more assistance go to refugees where they are, currently, like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan,” said Canny. But these countries, he said, have insufficient humanitarian resources, and without food or work the refugees have made (and continue to make) their way to Europe. “This is something that our church says a family has a right to do. If a mother or father cannot provide for their children where they are, they have a right to find a place they can.”

The USCCB has a federal contract and a public-private partnership with the Department of State to receive refugees and resettle them across the country. Their partners are Catholic charity organizations and about 80 dioceses across the United States.

“We’re actively seeking new dioceses to participate in this program, and we’re advocating with the U.S. government to take more Syrian refugees than is currently planned,” he said. 

The overall government program allowed for 70,000 refugees for the 2015 fiscal year. The ceiling for 2016 was raised to 75,000, and for 2017 the government has set that number at 100,000. Canny and other organizations are advocating that the government double that number to allow for 200,000 refugees. 

The prospect of welcoming more refugees has become a topic of heated debate in this country, even more so since the November terrorist attacks in Paris. Canny emphasizes that there is a long process from when refugees are identified to when they are resettled. It usually takes 18-24 months, with extensive interviews and security checks. “A bit of the misperception among the public is that these Syrians want to come to the United States and it’s easy and seamless to do so,” said Canny. “It’s not at all.”

Professional staff members help refugees resettle in collaboration with parishes and families associated with the church.

Canny recently spoke with Monsignor Joseph P. Kelly, former director of Catholic Social Services (CSS) of the Diocese of Scranton, to ask him to take more refugees in the coming year. CSS resettled three Syrian families in recent months, and Msgr. Kelly expects that by October of next year, the organization will resettle up to 200 refugees, 50 more than last year. 

“We’re carrying on the message of the Gospel and Catholic social teaching,” said Msgr. Kelly, who praised the efforts of the campus community for In Solidarity with Syria. “I’m thrilled with what the University is doing to advocate for refugees.” 

He hopes the University and local communities will be as warm and welcoming as they have been for the growing Scranton Bhutanese community. 

“We have found that once an international community has been established, they help others,” said Msgr. Kelly. A local Syrian family is now settled, the children are in school and the adults have jobs. This family has helped the more recent refugee families transition more easily.

Aiding Abroad

The majority of Syrian refugees are living in Lebanon and Jordan. Elena Habersky ’13 is program and administrative manager with Collateral Repair Project, a grassroots nongovernmental organization that helps Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Amman. She works with urban refugees. 

“Within my organization we have seen a huge influx of Syrian refugees,” she said. “We constantly have new families literally ringing our doorbell every day. I have been working with Syrian refugees all three years I have been living in Amman, and unfortunately, one thing I am noticing is the decline in hope that they possess.”

In her work, she often lends a sympathetic ear. “I believe any time that someone wants to share their story with me or open up to me about something that has happened in their life, good or bad, this is special,” she said. “Even things that might seem mundane to some are memories they cherish from their homeland, like the taste of a fruit or the color of a sandstorm.” Because these refugees are unable to work by Jordanian law, they almost immediately must start thinking long term. Some turn to Europe, and some contemplate going back to their countries of conflict, said Habersky.

On Campus


Though the crisis is geographically far from Scranton, the campus community is committed to making a difference. 

Anitra McShea, Ph.D., vice provost for student formation and campus life, heads the coordinating committee In Solidarity with Syria. She said she and the committee are already looking ahead to planning for the spring. They are coordinating to offer additional educational programs and talks, as well as collaborating with local organizations to provide supplies and whatever else families might need if — or when — they arrive in or around Scranton. This is all part of our mission, said Dr. McShea. 

“Our awareness and, in turn, advocacy work on these types of issues are at the core of who we are as a Jesuit and Catholic University,” she said. “Our mission calls us to recognize the privileges and opportunities bestowed upon us and to utilize our gifts, talents, and collective resources (intellectual, fiscal) to serve those marginalized and persecuted in our global community.” 

This global discussion will make its way into classrooms in the months to come. “Faculty members continue to discuss intentional opportunities to continue to keep the ever-evolving issues at the forefront of our academic conversations and discourse (both in and out of the classroom),” said Dr. McShea. 

Many students, according to committee members, are “fired up” and advocating for change in any way they can, from participating in an electronic letter-writing campaign to gathering supplies.

Students are pictured at the Refugee Crisis Event in November below. Photo: Nick Dalvano '18
Students are pictured at the Refugee Crisis Event in November below. Photo: Nick Dalvano '18

Mary Ellen Kane, a junior, is a Catholic Relief Services student ambassador who is on the University’s In Solidarity with Syria committee. Sometimes it might be easier to stay in the college “bubble,” she said, but it is this kind of crisis that should, and hopefully will, pull students out of that bubble. 

“Even though we may speak a different language or practice different religions, we are connected to these refugees because they are human beings. They are our brothers and sisters,” she said. “The refugees are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends, teachers, students, business owners.” 

For more information on the University’s educational and advocacy efforts, visit: and

Bearing Witness
Stories from the Holy Land

by Elena Habersky

Excerpt from   America Magazine 

I never realized the power of stories until I began working with refugees in East Amman. The stories I hear vary. Some are extremely happy, filled with vivid memories of times that were present with love and laughter, enough to fill a large Middle Eastern sitting room. These are the stories where you see people’s faces light up, their bright brown eyes becoming as large as a full moon hanging in the desert sky to light the secrets of the mysterious terrain that would otherwise be clothed in darkness. When people tell these stories, their whole bodies move, contouring to the universe in a way that almost transports them back in time. It is a place they desperately want to go back to—and they want to take you, too. Yet it will always be secret, always be special to them. These are the things they can carry when everything else they carry will be a burden. 

Read the full story  here.

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