By LINDSAY GLADU, Special to the Bulletin | Published May 16, 2014
ATLANTA—Attacks on minorities in Syria are continuing at a feverish pace as more people are forced to flee their homes and, in some cases, are being killed for their faith. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have been displaced since 2011, report Syrian church officials, when civil war broke out between Syrian rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Last fall, students at St. Pius X High School, in Atlanta, were stunned to hear about the plight of their brothers and sisters in the thick of the Arab Spring during a presentation given by Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA).
“I honestly had no idea what was going on,” St. Pius X senior Abby Barnett, 17, said. “Once we had the presentation, though, we started talking more about it in class. It was really eye-opening.”
News of church burnings, homeless children and abducted church officials concerned the school.
So they decided to do something about it.
St. Pius X’s student-led, anti-genocide group, STAND, enlisted the help of students at Marist School in Atlanta to host an ice skate-a-thon for Syrian students in need.
Nearly 50 students enjoyed the Marietta Ice Center last November and raised about $400 to donate to CNEWA for Syrian children. The money raised helped about 10 Syrian children receive backpacks, shoes, coats and other school supplies.
St. Pius X teacher and STAND advisor Dennis Ruggiero helped the group brainstorm on the best way to raise funds. Since Ruggiero and his family spend a lot of time playing hockey at the Marietta Ice Center, it seemed like a natural choice for the fundraiser. STAND co-presidents Anna Johnson, Darby Thomas and Kevin Quigley spread the word via Twitter, Facebook, school posters and announcements.
Senior and STAND member Chris Cardillo, 18, can’t ice skate, but says “it was still fun.”
Awareness was one of the main goals for the fundraiser, he adds. Before the CNEWA presentation, Chris didn’t know about the specifics of the conflict in Syria.
“It’s weird to think about because there’s so much (religious) tolerance in our country,” Chris says. “It made me appreciate it more because it’s something you take for granted when it’s the social norm. But when you hear about people who can’t practice their religion freely, it makes you appreciate that you can do that so easily here.”
Under the Syrian constitution, religious freedom was protected. As the civil war has intensified, so has pressure on ethnic and religious minorities, who are caught in the middle.
The conflict in Syria first began in March 2011 with peaceful protests against the Syrian president—inspired by similar calls in Tunisia and Egypt—that called for government and economic reform. The Syrian Army was called to disperse the protests, but caused an uproar among the people and a rebellion was formed. Opposing rebel forces are diverse and range from a Western-backed Free Syrian Army to a collection of individual Islamist and jihadist groups and the Kurds. But hundreds of smaller rebel groups occupy parts of Syria as well.
By July 2013, the United Nations announced the death toll to be at more than 100,000 people.
“I think the students were genuinely concerned about what’s going on,” Ruggiero says of the conflict in the Middle East. ”They were pretty shocked. I want my students to see that.”
The donations given by the students at St. Pius X were sent to CNEWA’s centers in the northern region of Syria.
STAND co-president Johnson, 18, said she hopes the money given to Syrian students will give them better tools to move forward with their lives and overcome adversity.
Anna says the presentation was also a “seed planting” for her classmates to take with them in college and beyond.
Msgr. Richard Lopez, professor of theology at St. Pius X High School, says he is proud of his students for representing the “essence of our religion—to help those in need.”
“Adolescents will embrace a cause,” Msgr. Lopez says. “Give them a reason to stand up against evil, they will.”
Those interested in having CNEWA visit their school or parish should contact Norma Intriago at firstname.lastname@example.org. To support CNEWA’s efforts to help suffering Christians in Syria, visit their Syria giving page.
Reprinted with the permission of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a papal agency for humanitarian and pastoral support. This story originally appeared on “One to One,” CNEWA’s blog. Visit www.cnewa.org.