Conflict in Syria Conflict in Syria  (AFP or licensors)

'With millions of Syrians displaced in country, it's urgent to facilitate their return home'

In an interview with Vatican News, Daniel Solymári, the Director of Foreign Affairs of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, discusses the ongoing unrest in Syria, and insists that with 6 to 7 million internally displaced people still living within the country, "one of the most important tasks is to help them create the possibility for a realistic chance to return home."

By Thaddeus Jones

"One of the most important tasks is to help Syrians create the possibility for a realistic chance to return home."

In this interview with Vatican News, Daniel Solymári has been very active in international development, and has also worked extensively in the Middle East and in the Sub-Saharan Africa providing emergency aid and resettlement services for refugees and migrants fleeing war, poverty, and natural disasters, discussed the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

As the Director of Foreign Affairs of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta since 2010, Solymári works locally and throughout the world through the Order's extensive humanitarian service network.

The Order of Malta is a lay religious Catholic order with medical and humanitarian projects in 120 countries. Since the war broke out in Ukraine, they have been at the forefront of assisting those arriving in Hungary. 

During this conversation, the expert explains the dire situation and what is most needed, but also speaks of positive trends and  projects, including their having resettled 200 IDP families in the city of Homs, having renovated their homes, and another program between Aleppo and Damascus to support families and micro-enterprises. 

Daniel Solymári, the Director of Foreign Affairs of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta
Daniel Solymári, the Director of Foreign Affairs of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta

Daniel Solymári is an expert of international development, an academic and a humanitarian diplomat, has published several books,  with his latest being on the Pope’s migration policy in favour of refugees and migrants. A month before Pope Francis' Apostolic Journey to Hungary in April 2023, the Holy Father bestowed the order of Saint Sylvester upon him, the oldest decoration the Holy See bestows on secular individuals and after that he received the Knight's Cross of the Hungarian Order of Merit.

Q: Pope Francis asked us to remember Syria now in its 13th year of conflict, even if somewhat subsided. You and the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta has been particularly active in Syria. What is the situation there today and what have you seen in your visits?

I am always moved by Pope Francis' sensitivity towards Syria - and in general towards the scarred areas of the world. For our attention is very easily and quickly diverted from human suffering and understandably so. It is, of course, an understandable human trait and one does not have to look far to see that: here in Europe, in the Global North, we have our own problems. Syria, however, is indeed a particularly serious, gaping wound in the world, with which we must be willing and able to make contact as the Pope said in Fratelli tutti. This is, of course, a very difficult and complex process, because Syria is still a challenging terrain. Syria does not ‘ring’ well in Brussels nor in Washington: the Western sanctions are still in effect; the humanitarian exemptions are incomplete and those do not have unlimited exemptions. This political barrier towards the central government makes it very difficult to alleviate the pains of the suffering population. We have seen this most recently during the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, with little or no Western aid reaching the country. Bank transfers to Syria are still difficult, virtually impossible, and the country's economy is in a catastrophic state. Inflation in 2023 was 120-130%, resulting in a massive price increase for everyday necessities, including food in particular, which not only affects people's quality of life and social stability, but also their mental health. Everyday life is very challenging: it is difficult to access fuel in the country, gas stations are empty; there are frequent power outages, there is a significant risk of infection in some areas, and in many areas of the Northern, Eastern and Southern parts of the country there are serious security risks. Winter is slowly coming to an end. However, the cold weather has taken its toll on the people, especially children and the elderly suffered greatly in their unheated homes. Unfortunately, though understandably so, the war in Ukraine - practically from its first days - has channeled the attention away, moreover in the Middle Eastern macro region the Ukrainian-Russian war has had serious and immediate consequences.

Q: Yet, despite all this, are there positive trends?

Despite all this, today we are already talking about recovery, normalization and consolidation in connection with Syria, both in terms of academic and political context and also in connection with international development. And not just in words - the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League are also re-engaging with Syria. More and more of the international community is also following this path. Syria has survived the war but at a terrible cost. However, apart from the civilian population, the main victims of the war have been the Christian religious communities: they suffered very significant damage to their infrastructure, material and human resources due to their fragility and limited capacities for self-defense. Yet, working with them, I see that they are doing their best to survive and perhaps emerge from this crisis strengthened. A unique example of this is the Melkite Greek Catholic Church led by Patriarch Youssef Absi: despite all its losses, their community has not only survived, but is now able to thrive. It is building, developing and strengthening its parish network. It is trying to retain and attract back the youth, refugees and its members who fled abroad. Let us not forget: there is a realistic chance for a new start only if conditions within the country allow it. The Syrian Melkites are particularly active in this respect. Of course, they have paid a heavy price. I will never forget when we were evacuating people during the earthquake of 2023, and also in response to Pope Francis' call the Melkites opened their church institutions to refugees, we interrupted the evacuation to attend the burial ceremony of Father Imad Daher of Aleppo, who remained under the rubble…

Q: From the much talked about West, from Europe, how can you help people there in this complex situation?

The international situation is very complex, requiring both wisdom and courage simultaneously. For in connection with Syria it is very easy for a person to be misunderstood within the international community. However, the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, and Hungary in general, has a particular sensitivity towards Syria. I think - perhaps because of historical experience - we have sensed something from the depth of their sufferings. The Hungary Helps Program provides very significant funding year after year for humanitarian programs in Syria and also for the survival of local churches and religious communities. I myself have led a large number of projects, some of significant scale: we built hospitals, pharmacies, coordinated humanitarian corridors, strengthened churches and provided basic health services across the country. But all of these have served one purpose: to help locally, for assistance ought to be delivered where the trouble arises, and the chances for return or survival of the external and internal refugees must be increased. It was a very early experience of mine where despite the large number of refugees fleeing from the Middle East to the West, a significant number of these people wished to live in their own countries. I believe this is particularly true of Syrians. It is no coincidence that there are still 6-7 million internally displaced people living within the country! Now one of the most important task is to help them create the possibility for a realistic chance to return home.

Q: What is needed right now to help the people most, also to stem the need for fleeing to other countries?

Unfortunately, one of the basic truths inherent in the question runs counter to a very strong ‘Western’ mindset, which imagines migration as an exclusively positive process or at least displays it as such. The fleeing may be justified on humanitarian grounds or for other reasons - in these situations it is a human duty to help. Nevertheless, many people tend to consider fleeing solely on political or economic grounds. But this is a painful and precarious process during which the refugee is exposed to danger from all directions. And it often takes generations for the wounds of a family's flight to heal. And we haven’t even mentioned the legitimate needs of the host country into which the refugee seeks to integrate. Unfortunately, I see few examples where integration is taken seriously; such programs typically end in a few months. In Syria, I am currently coordinating several programs which aims to support internally displaced people and local populations in need in order to help them remain in their country. We have just completed a large agricultural project in the Southern Hauran region, which resulted in the local diocese becoming self-sustainable from 15-20% to 60-70%. We have resettled 200 IDP families in the city of Homs and renovated their homes, and we have just launched a program between Aleppo and Damascus to support families and micro-enterprises. So, there are very positive and successful examples.

Q: You assist refugees arriving in Europe, but you also help those wishing to return home, something Pope Francis has also recognized as important as we read in this year's World Migrants Day message.

Pope Francis indeed gives strength and strengthens the efforts of faith-based organisations. At the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta our work today is typically two-fold: we support the integration of the refugees who arrived in Hungary and we strengthen those refugees who wish to live and prosper in their own countries. This new integration scheme that we have developed can sometimes take one and a half to two years and in all cases it involves personal accompaniment and mentoring. In this respect, it is a successful model as we can see from the low number of people leaving Hungary following the completion of the program. The provision of local assistance is also ongoing in a number of locations: among others, we have launched a program for people living in the slums of Kenya, through which they have been able to realistically break the poverty spiral of the urban slums. We worked with 50 families over the course of two years – today they are living independent lives. Poor lives, but quality lives. This is another issue that many people do not want to acknowledge: there is value in poverty and there is a difference between poverty and misery. While there is cohesive power in the former, the latter only segregates. But this is a technical issue that goes against certain economic approaches according to which poverty is the absence of something and as such it cannot be positive.

Q: In a climate of sanctions and political challenges, how can you help well in this complex environment?

By now humanitarian assistance, international development or the work with refugees are well-established professionally, activities that are both learned and taught at high level. For me, the key lies in the duality of field presence and academic reflection. Today, all the programs that I coordinate are accompanied by research and all our projects are chronicled and published with scientific rigor. And one additional thing: one ought to be able to make the methods accessible. In addition, humanitarian work and humanitarian or religious diplomacy are among the most sensitive professional fields. Particularly they differ for example from classical or conventional diplomacy in that they require courage to act from all those who work in the field. For one ought to go where the trouble is, one has to be present, as Pope Francis said, one ought to touch those particular wounds. As he reminded us in one of his speeches during his latest visit to Hungary: it is not enough to send help, we ought to touch the person in need. I have experienced this on many occasions. No matter how significant a program was that I was involved in, the people there were most grateful for the simple fact that we came to visit them. This made them feel that they have not been forgotten. Meeting them is one of the most important part of the commitment for solidarity. However, a Christian actor also has an additional responsibility. I would say that the Christian responsibility is greater. For we ought to be able to comfort people even when we ourselves are in need of comfort and help. But often this requires courage, the courage to act.

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21 March 2024, 10:55