Behind the Story Podcast Series
The Resilient Ones
Nikki Gamer: Hi everyone. This is Nikki Gamer for Catholic Relief Services, and welcome back to Behind the Story. It’s a podcast series that invites you to celebrate the people behind 75 years of our history, the people we serve, our partners, our staff, and especially the supporters, like you, who make our work possible. In our last episode, we spoke to Dr. Shannon Senefeld and Sister Pauline Acayo about the right of every child to laugh, and to learn and to grow, and about how important play is to every child’s development. So today we’ll be having a conversation with Caroline Brennan, who is our emergency communications director. And she’s going to talk about the work we’re doing to help some of the most vulnerable children on Earth … the resilient ones facing and fleeing violence in their villages and homeland. Welcome Caroline, thank you so much for joining us.
Caroline Brennan: Thanks so much for having me. I’m delighted to be here.
Nikki Gamer: So, I want to get right into it. You know, you have been to places that are in such crisis. You know, you’ve been to countries next to Syria, tied to the Syrian refugee crisis …
Caroline Brennan: For many families that I’ve met, I’ve heard very similar accounts of how they fled. Many people describe fleeing during a moment of an attack of some sort, either on their city or their town, or even directly into their home from overhead, from the sound of bombs coming from planes, or even through their front door.
Caroline Brennan: And in those moments the husbands turning to the wives and saying, “Take the kids and run.” Usually hopeful and thinking that they’ll be going back when things calm down. And here we are 7 years into the Syrian crisis, and many people haven’t been able to go back and what they often talk about is what and who they left behind.
Caroline Brennan: You know, it’s so interesting in my conversations with so many families, almost without fail, one of the first things that they want to tell you about is the house that they had before and the number of rooms that they had and the garden they had, and this life that they lived before.
Caroline Brennan: It’s so important for me to convey that I get it, that this madness swirling around them does not define who they are. And as one woman said to me, you know, going on this raft, I would never have put my child on this raft unless it wasn’t safer than where we were coming from.
Nikki Gamer: You know, on a related note, so many of our listeners probably haven’t been to where you’ve been and just read about things like the Syrian refugee crisis in the news. Can you tell us what that experience is like versus what it might be like for us, when we read about these things in the news?
Caroline Brennan: People who are waking up far from their homes, not knowing what options await them and just struggling to keep their family safe and a semblance of stability and protection. Not only just the experience of interacting with individuals and hearing their story, but just visually. You know, we see and hear about war in a very physical sense. You see the destruction of buildings, you see ghost towns that were once vibrant cities. In Jordan alone, women and children make up more than 70% of the refugee population. As a woman visitor, it’s actually an advantage because I have access to women. I can hear what they have to say.
Nikki Gamer: Yeah, I want to emphasize that point—I mean, you make an important one. We see in the news, you know, people here in the U.S. are so afraid of refugees, but the reality is a lot of these refugees are women and children, they’re not scary people who are coming to these other countries because they want to destroy and destruct.
Caroline Brennan: Nobody wants to leave their home, especially in a situation where you’re leaving your loved ones behind or maybe something truly horrific has happened to them in front of you. You are just doing your best, with the circumstances you have, to keep the people you love most in this world safe. This is not a first choice. It’s a Hail Mary pass for so many families that I meet.
Nikki Gamer: You know, you and I, we’ve both met Syrian refugee families. And I remember in Jordan, a woman told that her kids, you know, when they would hear a plane overhead, they would immediately start crying, and I know you’ve heard the same things from parents.
Caroline Brennan: What we see in so many children who are arriving in the centers where we’re providing support is that many have simply just regressed in your basic milestones. So they may be wetting the bed again, even if they’re 10 years old. Many of them have simply stopped communicating—they just don’t talk. We know that for children to grow healthfully, just like a plant needs water and air, children need some basic pillars of their foundation. They need a trusted adult in their lives. They need to feel safe, they need to have peers, some of that social engagement. We see children coloring pictures and images of things they experienced and clearly witnessed as they struggle to express themselves. So we know that as responders, we have to look at the full needs of children to be able to help them heal not only in their physical environment, but to heal those wounds far beneath the surface.
Nikki Gamer: When you say drawing pictures of what they’ve experienced, can you just be a little bit more specific?
Caroline Brennan: You see, these are very young children, who draw these pictures in color. You see body parts strewn about, you see lots of teardrops falling from a young child who’s standing nearby. You see what are clearly planes overhead and bombs dropping. These are children expressing something they’ve gone through and have seen. It’s so sad and devastating.
Nikki Gamer: This is a perfect segue into the great work that CRS does with children, and I would love for you to talk about how CRS addresses, you know, some of this trauma.
Caroline Brennan: If you’re 7 or 8 years old and you’re from Syria, all you’ve known is war at this point. Many children have missed years of school. They lose that sense of identity really of what they’re supposed to be in their family and their community, and also that engagement with children in that sense of play. So you want to create all of those aspects just to get to that sense ultimately of normalcy and a healthy foundation to be able to grow again rather than regress, but to be able to recover and move forward. We know they can become extremely healthy, contributing adults in their societies later in life. We really are working with our local partners in these neighboring countries to help refugee children have access to education.
Caroline Brennan: What we do is we offer these safe spaces. So again, you’re offering a place of safety for children—we call them child-friendly spaces. We have skilled teachers and counselors in these spaces, and we provide support to help children catch up to their education level and stay current if they need tutoring, if they’re already at their grade level in the local schools. But what’s a critical component of this is the emotional care and support. If you are a child who’s suffering from extreme distress or even showing signs of trauma, you are not going to be in a position to learn math and we know that.
Nikki Gamer: I want to go back to the child, the idea of the child-friendly space, because I’ve been to some child-friendly spaces in places like Iraq and you don’t expect to see laughing and, and happiness in a place of such … what you would think would be sorrow. Can you take us there?
Caroline Brennan: It’s incredible. They’re such happy places—and for people who are trying to visualize what it looks like—if you imagine a large rectangular tent, that can fit the size of two classrooms really and very decorated. So the children decorate the walls and they set the rules. So you know, no fighting, every story that they read to each other has to have a happy ending. That’s very important for many children.
Caroline Brennan: And you have the teachers, many of whom are refugees themselves. Counselors in the room. And a lot of the activities—in addition to the education and emotional counseling support—are physical because so many of the children are living in a really tight space and they don’t have a chance to move. It’s a very happy place where parents or mothers, if they’re on their own, know they can send their children and they’re safe. Sometimes it’s using puppets to teach about hygiene in areas where there’s a cholera outbreak, and the use of puppets helps children learn behaviors that they might not absorb as quickly or as interestingly, you know, if the puppets weren’t there.
Nikki Gamer: I just remember meeting a mother, a Syrian mother in Jordan who said that the best part of her son’s day was taking the bus that we provided to get him from his home to the class. I said, “Wow, why? Why does he like the bus so much?” She’s like, because that’s what he remembers he used to do and it makes them feel like all the other kids in the world again.
Caroline Brennan: Right. Right. He’s got connection to the life that they had before. We’re often unfortunately meeting people in their darkest moment, when everything has been stripped away from them. And it’s really stunning how people show themselves to you and what they’re holding onto, which might just be their sense of self and their identity, and what defines them when everything that defined their life is gone.
Nikki Gamer: You know, I can even remember before I started working at CRS, I thought most refugees lived in camps. Literally, I had this picture of rows and rows and miles and miles of people living in tents, and that’s not where most refugees live. So can you give us, our listeners, a sense of what do they live in and what is their life like?
Caroline Brennan: I mean, of course there are these huge refugee camps existing around the world, and that’s usually the images that we see—these settlements and these camps and of course they exist in their massive and really difficult conditions. But a majority of the refugees, especially the refugees we serve, are actually living in urban areas. Meaning they’re living in the kind of the town where they came into, the city. They’re finding a one-room apartment that they’re sharing with other family members. You might have 21 people of all ages living in two rooms, and it’s very stressful because there’s just frankly not much to do. We know if we’re helping one child, it’s not a stand-alone. You have to be able to help their parent or their caretaker too. Because they are going home at the end of the day, and they need that support also at home.
Nikki Gamer: Yeah. I’m so glad you mentioned that—because in our last podcast we talked about the importance of supporting parents so that they can help their children. Give us an example of what that service for the parents looks like.
Caroline Brennan: You know, you have a lot of mothers who have children who are showing signs of severe stress, distress. So we have a counselor there who talks about signs of stress among children, signs of trauma, how to handle those, what services are available, getting referrals for more severe care that might be needed for their children. And then just bringing them together for their own interaction because that sense of community is so important. I mean, ultimately, what we hear from mothers and fathers is just this sense of frustration of not being able to provide for your family and your children in the way you are used to doing …
Nikki Gamer: You’ve just talked a lot about this loss of identity and having to sort of chart life in this new environment. And I know you met a woman. I believe she was in Lebanon, in the Bekaa Valley …
Caroline Brennan: Ah, right.
Nikki Gamer: …which is where a lot of refugees fled. So can you tell our listeners that story?
Caroline Brennan: Yes, I met Zahiya, she was one of the first Syrian women I had met in Lebanon. Met her in the Bekaa valley, where we’re working with the Good Shepherd Sisters, the missionary order partners. She’s about in her mid-to-late twenties, and she was there with her husband and their son. And she, just like many women I’ve met, you know, brought me into her tent. She really wanted to talk. But as she was telling me about the house that she had before, she was getting really upset because she kept referring to this photo album of photos of this house, but she didn’t have the album because the photo album was destroyed when their house was destroyed. And so she was, she was really getting worked up.
Caroline Brennan: The last thing I wanted to do was to cause stress to her by even being there, and we never want to cause further harm by just having a conversation with someone. So I was like, I can picture your garden. It sounds so peaceful, it sounds so beautiful. Please don’t worry. And she said, no, you don’t understand how frustrating it is to not have my photos. And just that deeper sense of loss—and what they thought their lives would be at the deepest level of how they envisioned that, who they would be and who they are. She kept wanting to offer me something like tea or something, and she was reaching into thin air for what wasn’t there.
Caroline Brennan: But as we were leaving her tent, it was a really hot day, dusty brown, and we’re walking out, and off to our right there is this little yellow flower. And it caught her eye. And she literally just reached over, and she plucked it out of the ground. She said, please take this. Thank you for being with us. Please don’t forget who we are. And it was so important for her to be able to demonstrate, you know, this hospitality that is so defining of the Syrian culture. I feel so fortunate to experience moments like this.
Nikki Gamer: Wow. Told so beautifully, Caroline. Oh my gosh. I love that when you tell that story.
Caroline Brennan: Well, I know you’ve had a lot of your own experiences, Nikki, and these backdrops too.
Nikki Gamer: Yes.
Caroline Brennan: Somebody is going through their worst moment, their worst nightmare. And to have someone offer a hand of help, an extended hand of help, you know, is really significant. We’re able to do that through our local Church partners, through all of the support we get here from so many people here at home. I mean a little goes a really long way in these moments and in people’s lives, and it is really powerful.
Nikki Gamer: I’m so glad you mentioned our partners because that is so crucial to what we’re able to do in these contexts. So I especially want to give all the props to the religious sisters. Can you speak about, you know, the work that they do and how vital it is?
Caroline Brennan: So, we work through the local Church, which really gives us such insight and genuine grounded perspective on the ways in which to best provide and respond. And then, of course, our missionary order partners and sisters, the Good Shepherd Sisters, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. I mean they are just incredible. And they manage a lot of these education programs that we’ve been talking about, and care and counseling for children and for families. And they are just in the heart of where these refugee families are living.
Nikki Gamer: Do you have any one particular sister that’s stuck out to you?
Caroline Brennan: Sister Michelene [Lattouf] of the Good Shepherd Sisters.
Nikki Gamer: I met her!
Caroline Brennan: And she’d been running a school for vulnerable Lebanese children for years, and then expanded that to Syrian refugee children. And the children—who just love her, they’re all pulling on her skirt and they just, you know, they just love her. The children had saved up all of their pennies. These are children who live in the tents, like I described. And yet, somehow, they had saved up whatever they had in their families to be able to purchase little bags of potato chips. And little cans of soda that they spread across the table to offer as a thank you to her for all that she was doing for them in this school.
Caroline Brennan: She was so moved that she says she just looked back at them and she said, “Look at what this shows about who you are and the character you have. You may have lost your dad, you may have lost your home. You may be afraid sometimes, but look at what you haven’t lost. Look at what this says about who you are. Never forget this.”
Nikki Gamer: Well it just says so much about the generosity of spirit. Not only Sister Michelene, but also the kids. I want to ask you, what would you say is the most important aspect of how CRS accomplishes our work to help these children?
Caroline Brennan: You know, we really emphasize the dignity of the human being and are looking at those whole needs of that person or that family unit, and we address them comprehensively. That is very important to us, because one really can’t happen without the other. We know that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to providing emergency support or humanitarian support. Lebanon is very different from what it is in Jordan and they’re neighboring countries dealing with some very similar issues. But the ways you respond in each place have to be reflective of that local reality. And we really invest in local talent. In any country where we work, the majority of our staff are from that country.
Nikki Gamer: Why is it so important to share these stories of Zahiya and the experiences? I mean, you travel all over the U.S. to talk about what you’ve seen. Why is that so vital to what we do?
Caroline Brennan: At least the people I get to meet genuinely feel a connection to people in need and I think, especially right now, there is this hunger for connection and for meaning and for impact. And stories are one of the ways that we can have that. But it’s a really important time. Especially in acknowledging how much we actually have in common. You know, so often when I’m traveling, I’m not struck by how different a place is. I’m just thinking, wow, there is so much that reminds me of home.
Nikki Gamer: I know that’s right. That is very true. And thank you for, you know, bringing these stories to the U.S., and thank you for talking to us today. It’s been so great to hear your stories.
Caroline Brennan: That’s so great, Nikki. Thank you so much.
Nikki Gamer: Join us next month as we talk about the history of our emergency work … from our roots as an emergency relief agency during World War II to our focus today, on recovery preparedness and customized approaches that help communities build better futures. And don’t forget to check us out online at 75.crs.org. And if you’re enjoying this podcast, please subscribe so you don’t miss an episode.