A student in a JRS drawing class in Damascus. (Jesuit Refugee Service)

Rome, 1 April 2016 -- Mary, Miriam and Edith are three Syrian sisters from Damascus. They have been in Italy for a year and a half. Their mother arrived six months ago. 

I visited them in their tiny house, an hour and a half south of Rome, in a village close to the sea, where one of their uncles lives. 

Mary is 44, a wonderful dynamic woman. She used to make ceramics and work in Al-Ard, the centre for youth led by Fr Frans van der Lugt SJ. She showed me the photos of her work, but all of her beautiful vases, tables and decorations were destroyed by bombing and shelling, she explains. "Only some were taken and hidden by Fr Nawras Sammour, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Syria Director. He wanted me to make an exhibition. Something was destroyed inside me as well, but I have to let it go." 

Edith, 35 years old, cried while listening to Mary. She, too, is an artist, who used to make decorations for weddings. As opposed to the other sisters, Mary has some opportunities in Italy, and thus seemed a bit happier. "I go to school every afternoon, and I am learning Italian," Edith explained.

Miriam, 30 years old, used to work with JRS in Damascus, visiting and accompanying refugee families and teaching French to children. "When I visited Iraqi refugees, I always wondered why they slept so much. But now I understand. We also sleep a lot – in the first months after our arrival we slept because of exhaustion, but now we sleep because we don't have anything to do." 

Their mother listened to them in the little kitchen where they offered me coffee, rose-water and delicious Syrian cakes. 

"Life is like a cinema. We are now blocked, as if our lives have stopped. We only have memories; it's like watching a movie of our lives." 

They have found protection only among themselves. One can feel the warmth in that kitchen. Divided by a small collective courtyard, there is a bedroom where they all sleep, on a bunkbed and another bed, and a toilet. In total, the space is only 30 square meters, but, regardless, as a guest I could feel their joy and hospitality immediately. 

"You are the second person who has visited us, after Fr. Nawras," they told me. "We tried to make friends, to invite our neighbours for coffee, but no one accepted our offer. Only one of our neighbours even says hello to us." 

This is the toughest part of what I heard: no one says hello

"We are used to living in a big community. In our neighbourhood, the old part of Damascus, we would speak to everyone; we were always among friends," they explain in a bittersweet way.

"Every day in Italy, we are asked if we are Muslims or Christians," the mother said. "I have never experienced this before. No one in Syria would ask you that. We all talked with one another, lived together. But here, because we are Syrians and people are afraid of us now, it's different."

A life at an impasse. "I tried to find a job, as a domestic worker," one of the sisters said. "I was paid less than 4 euros an hour – the average is 7 or 8. But when I complained, the woman said she could find an Indian worker for less than that, because where we live there are many Indians who came for jobs in agriculture and are exploited."

"We want to go back to Damascus," they said. They know the risk of returning; they experienced the bombings and trauma for three and a half years. And even with that experience, they want to go back. "I remember when we left Syria, we were invited by French friends to visit Paris. They offered us tickets for the opera, and we kindly accepted the offer. But at that time we were so stressed and traumatised, we just sat their glazed over, looking at the stage without even really watching the show."

A reflection:

I immediately felt welcome by this group of four women. Their joy, celebration of life, a clear sense of respect for the elderly – the way they related to their mother. Their generosity and hospitality moved me deeply. I felt sadness thinking of the values that our decadent culture in old Europe has lost. "No one says hello to us." 

We have lost our values, yes. But we have an opportunity to regain them, by welcoming refugees and learning from them the values we have lost. What if every refugee was accompanied by an individual or a family in their host community? Through friendship and accompaniment, our perspective of the "refugee global crisis" would dramatically change. Social transformation comes from below, from a very simple personal interaction which can become friendship. 

By being together, these women feel protected, but is that enough? 

"We relate to each other the whole day, simply by speaking to each other." 

Having no local community of Syrians in the Italian town, no local friends, they are isolated. The cultural-shock of loneliness refugees suffer when arriving in the West is frequently overlooked. 

Being protected from war is one thing, but we must also consider protection from idleness, depression, lack of self-esteem. Coming from a strong community-based culture to an individualistic context, full of fear and mistrust due to media messages, a refugee like Mary or Miriam may feel that their new situation in fact does not offer protection at all, and even seek to return to their home country. 

We must re-look at what we call protection, and protect refugees from not only war and persecution, but all other evils that come with the action of fleeing one's home. It is our responsibility to welcome.

--Amaya Valcarcel, JRS International Advocacy Officer 

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