Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

September 18, 2013

South Bend relief agency helping Syrian refugees

Group helps 500 refugees with meals and hygiene kits.

by Joseph Dits South Bend Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — SOUTH BEND — Local relief agencies are sending aid to Syrian refugees who are being rushed into the cities of Lebanon, left to scramble for shelter in abandoned houses or wherever they can find a room. Some sleep in the parks.

Jean-Pierre Rumens recently came back from an 11-day visit to Lebanon and described single rooms that are damp, moldy and without windows, renting for $300 to $400 per month.

“It’s really terrible,” Rumens said via Skype to his fellow staff at LeSea Global Feed the Hungry’s headquarters in South Bend from his office in Germany.

The Syrian refugee crisis has been going on since a civil war there began two years ago, but the people’s plight has caught new attention since last month’s chemical attack that left hundreds dead and since the debate over U.S. military intervention.

Feed the Hungry has been responding to Syrian refugees for several months, though fundraising pleas haven’t elicited a large response, director Stefan Radelich told the South Bend Tribune.

It is now helping 500 to 600 refugees — a relatively small outreach for Feed the Hungry — through a Christian church in Lebanon that has cooked meals and provided hygiene kits, all bought in Lebanon.

Rumens spoke of one refugee whose baby was due in a few weeks who feared that she and her husband would be evicted since they couldn’t afford rent. She didn’t know where she’d deliver her baby. Her husband had landed a job as a painter but was making much less than his co-workers. Rumens’ translator offered to connect the mother with a Nigerian nurse from church.

Radelich said the refugees tend to be marginalized by Lebanese residents. Part of that is because Lebanon is an ally of Syria, and they feel the Syrians should be back home supporting President Bashar Assad and fighting the rebels. Many of the refugees, Radelich noted, are Assad supporters who fled because their homes were bombed or taken over.

Lebanon isn’t the only neighbor receiving the refugees, but the groundswell in its population has put huge pressure on its economy. The flow of refugees crossing the Lebanon border surged from about 3,000 per day to 30,000 per day at the time of the chemical attack, then fell back to 5,000 per day, Rumens said.

“All of the prices are going up, and that’s another reason the Lebanese are so upset with the Syrians,” he said.

Syrians also are accepting jobs in Lebanon at lower pay, said Randy Souza, director of Feeding the Nations, another Christian relief agency based in South Bend.

Feeding the Nations has been channeling money to a church pastor in Beirut, Lebanon, who creates packs of food items, worth $50 each, and gives them to refugees along the border and in the city, Souza said. More than 600 families have received the food since Feeding the Nations began help in November 2012, he said.

The Mennonite Central Committee’s Great Lakes office in Goshen is sending kits with basic supplies that are packaged for each household, from towels and cleaning supplies to notebooks and pencils for school kids, as a way “just to stabilize families,” said Les Gustafson-Zook, constituent relations coordinator for the region.

He said MCC has been aiding Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan since March 2012, working through partners in the region to deliver supplies to refugees, most significantly through the Syrian Orthodox Church. To date, MCC nationwide reports, it has shipped more than 69,000 blankets and tens of thousands of various kinds of relief kits.