What Keeps You Going When You’re Trying to Help Refugees of a War With No End in Sight?

CRS regional director shares his own motivation, and the motivations of the refugees

Photo courtesy of Caritas Iraq

ISIS and Syria seem far away to most of us reading the terrible headlines each day. But for those who are on the ground trying to help the victims of the conflicts, the problem is not a news item, but a collection of human faces.

Kevin Hartigan is the regional director for the Middle East, Europe, and Central Asia region for Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

Back at the CRS offices in Baltimore for a few days, Hartigan answered ZENIT’s questions via email:

ZENIT: In the United States, “immigration and refugees” is a politically charged issue. What is it like for you, as someone on the ground facing immigration and the refugee crisis every day?

Hartigan: Working with refugees and immigrants every day we realize that the choice to leave one’s country is almost always the absolutely last resort – something that was unthinkable to the refugees themselves until the moment that it became the only option left.  We also realize the strength of refugees’ yearning to return to their countries, where almost all have left loved ones and lives they miss with an intensity that many outside observers don’t appreciate.

ZENIT: How does an aid agency such as Caritas/CRS even begin to tackle a situation so complex that the great powers of the world can’t solve it?

Hartigan: We are not trying to solve the political or military situation, but rather trying to live out our mission to provide comfort and hope to  families – particularly the most vulnerable – at some of the darkest hours in their lives.  This is something we can achieve to a large degree, and we do have the satisfaction of assisting people in meaningful ways.

ZENIT: What keeps you going, personally?

Hartigan: This is easy: what keeps me going is the privilege of being able to do something significant to help people, and the joy of working with our local colleagues and Church partners – who are full of energy and even humor despite being nearly all displaced by war themselves.

ZENIT: And what keeps the refugees going?

Hartigan: Of course I can’t really speak for any refugees but my impression is that the great majority of the refugees I speak with are very focused on one thing: their families.  Virtually all Syrian families are separated, no one has their entire family together, in one safe place, and until they do, that is what keeps them going – concern for their loved ones: parents, children, spouses, the desire to get them out of danger, and to be reunified.

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Kevin Hartigan is the regional director for the Middle East, Europe, and Central Asia region for Catholic Relief Services (CRS).  

Based in Cairo, he oversees relief and development programs in 15 countries, including the response to the Syrian and Iraq crises, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, and Egypt.  

He has been with CRS for 26 years, and was previously Regional Director for Asia and Central Africa. Prior to that work, he was the CRS country representative in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and Cameroon.

Before joining CRS he spent several years as a volunteer in Latin America and Southeast Asia.  Kevin has a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Minnesota, and an M.A. and doctoral candidacy in Political Science from Stanford.  

Photo is of Iraqis who were displaced when ISIS invaded in 2014. Photo by Kim Pozniak/CRS.

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