CANTON – Students from Stark County Catholic schools gathered Feb. 15 with Bishop George V, Murry, S.J., to learn about, pray for, and help those fleeing and those enduring the war in Syria.
Twenty-five students from the 10 Holy Cross Academy elementary schools and the two Catholic high schools in Stark County were present at the chapel of St. Gabriel Book store and Living Bread Radio for a prayer service for Syria and to hear the testimony of a Syrian family who described the hardship of the people in the war-torn country.
Bishop George V. Murry, S.J., presided over the prayer service, assisted by Salvatorian Father David Bergner, diocesan vicar for social concerns, and Ben Walther, a local musician, worship leader and Catholic youth leader. Several priests and school administrators from the area were also present.
Following the prayer service Mary Abou-Zakhim, accompanied by her husband, Fares, and their son, Nick, recounted their experiences in living amidst the raging conflict in Syria (see sidebar, on Page 19).
“We’ve been planning this since before Christmas and our teachers have been talking about the terrible turmoil that the people of Syria and the refugees have been suffering and many have read about it in the papers, but this really brought it home,” said Jackie Zufall, Holy Cross Academy president.
“This brought up some very strong feelings and I think the students were moved. They asked questions, very good questions, I thought,” Zufall continued. “One particular little girl asked if the Abou-Zahkim family hopes to return to Syria.
“Mary [Abou-Zakhim] said it would be too dangerous now but she would like to return someday to see her home and friends. Another question was about the relationships between people of different faiths.
“Mary said that she had friends of all faiths in her neighborhood and there was no division among them. When the war began, some of the women and girls stopped wearing crosses so as not to attract attention, though,” Zufall said.
“Other questions concerned how many residents have been displaced and how difficult it was for them to leave the country. Mary said that she and their son are both American citizens with passports, so they were able to leave fairly early, but her husband had to wait more than a year.”
Father Bergner offered some facts, too, about the refugee crisis throughout the world. “The Syrian situation is a big part of a much larger problem,” he explained.
“Within the planet, in our world, we have currently 65 million displaced people. This is the largest number of people who have been displaced from their homes in the history of the planet,” Father Bergner said.
“Within this very large number, there are about 20 million people who have been processed by the United Nations and have been given the designation of refugee,” Father Bergner said. “If they return to their country of personal origin, they risk their safety. In other words, there is no going back.”
At the start of the civil war in Syria, Father Bergner noted, there were about 24 million people. Since the war, during the past five years, 12 million – half of the population – have been displaced.
Of that 12 million, six million are internally displaced within the country, and the other six million are displaced outside of Syria, he said. Since the civil war began, 400,000 people have lost their lives, he added.
“It can be a very political and confusing situation in Syria at times,” Walther said in speaking to the students, “but what students should know is that, as of today, there are 5.9 million Syrian refugees. And half of those 5.9 million refugees are school-age children.
“That’s what makes what we are doing this morning especially beautiful. Students here in Stark County are taking some time to pray for them, to offer our gifts to them and really to show that we are in solidarity with them.”
At each of the schools, students, faculty and families engaged in a variety of activities to raise funds to help refugees. About $3,500 was raised for Catholic Relief Services and designated to aid children caught in the Syrian conflict.
Bishop Murry emphasized the importance of how the Catholic community responds.
“That’s what Jesus asks of us in terms of welcoming those who are homeless, who are poor, who are forgotten in our society,” Bishop Murry said. “Especially today, we raise our hearts and minds in solidarity with the refugees from Syria.
“Those who are forced to leave their country, those who have no home, Jesus calls upon us to make a home for them. Pope Francis tells us the exact same thing – that we need to imitate Jesus, who always welcomed people.
“If we want to be like Christ, if we want to shine like Christ, if we want to be the light of Christ in our world, then we have to act the way Jesus acted,” Bishop Murry said.