This time, Guterres visits Zaatari refugees as the U.N.'s top official

IMAGE: NS photo/Ammar Awad, Reuters

By Dale Gavlak

ZAATARI, Jordan (CNS) — As the U.N.
secretary-general visited the world’s biggest camp for Syrian refugees in late March, he made an impassioned plea: Stop Syria’s devastating war.

“I want to make a strong
appeal to the parties of the conflict and those who have an influence on (them)
to understand that we must make peace,” Antonio Guterres, a former
Portuguese prime minister, told reporters at the camp on the eve of a summit
gathering Arab leaders on the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan.

“This has not only become a
tragedy for the Syrian people, but it has become a threat to the stability of
the region, a global security threat for the world, as terrorism is benefiting
from the crisis in Syria and other crises in the world,” he said.

Guterres, 67, is no stranger to
the camp, having served as the U.N. refugee agency’s high commissioner for a
decade, visiting the dusty desert facility numerous times. He headed UNHCR when
the Syrian conflict broke out in March 2011. But this visit was different, now
as the U.N. chief, coming with the burden of Syria’s grinding war on his

“I remember six years ago
at the border, when I saw the first Syrian refugees coming to Jordan. How sad
it is, how terrible it is, that today we still have Zaatari camp … and that
the tragedy of Syrians is going on and on and on,” he said.

Syria’s war has killed more than
320,000 people and has forced 4.9 million people to flee their country.

Guterres is a practicing
Catholic and clearly demonstrates his compassion for people. He listened carefully to the concerns of refugee women battling family violence and
early marriage in the camp of some 80,000.

“These things are very
worrying. Are there people to listen and solve the problems?” he asked,
inquiring about the appropriate support systems available to help them.

He empathized with another woman
requesting the need for family reunification. Her husband and a son are now in
Germany; another son is in Turkey; she and two other sons are
in Zaatari camp.

“This is not good. It would
be much better if everyone could be reunified,” Guterres told her.

“When I was head of UNHCR,
we discussed family reunification a lot. It always seemed like the right thing
to do. But, unfortunately, a lot of countries are still not willing to do it.
But we will see what we can do,” the U.N. chief said.

Guterres’ face lit up as he
visited a boisterous classroom of fourth-grade refugee children learning
English. He encouraged a special book club and information technology forum, dubbed the “Tiger Girls,” to keep pursuing their dreams.

The adolescent girls are
championing reading and are considered role models for their community. He
encouraged them to do well in school so they can one day return to Syria and
perhaps become members of parliament.

One told him that she wanted to
become a psychologist when she grew up, to help her people traumatized by the

Guterres told the teen that his wife and sister are psychiatrists. “Psychiatrists
do very important things. They make people feel happy again.”

“He is very open about his
Catholic identity,” said Msgr. Robert Vitillo, secretary-general of the
Geneva-based International Catholic Migration Commission. “I have always
found him so passionate and compassionate for refugees and how he tries to find
a solution.

“While visiting refugee
camps, he isn’t someone who goes off in a suit and tie. He went as someone who
really wanted to listen. You could see that he is someone who cares a great
deal. This is what impresses me most about him,” Msgr. Vitillo told
Catholic News Service by phone.

“People are the center of
his attention. This will make him a very good secretary-general of the U.N.,”
said the church leader.

Msgr. Vitillo served for years
as the Caritas Internationalis head of delegation to the United Nations in
Geneva before assuming his current post with the International Catholic
Migration Commission.

The commission is a network of
Catholic bishops’ conferences and organizations that work with
migrants and refugees, and it advocates on the global level. In the Mideast, the
commission provides humanitarian assistance inside Syria, including medical
services for pregnant women and children, and makes available safe play spaces
for children.

Guterres has established new
procedures at the U.N. against sexual abuse to address violations
carried out in by U.N. peacekeepers and staff. There are now internal controls
to prohibit someone with such history from consideration for a U.N. job, Msgr. Vitillo

“He made it absolutely
clear that there is zero tolerance for such behavior. I’m very impressed with his strong stand on
this,” Msgr. Vitillo said. “We have to make sure that this is not
happening in the refugee community.”

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