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CRS Official’s Job Is Privilege, Responsibility

By Denis Grasska

SAN DIEGO — Through her work with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Caroline Brennan is a voice for the voiceless.

When the humanitarian agency sends out an emergency response team to provide relief in the wake of a natural disaster or human crisis, Brennan is deployed alongside them to interview those affected and to collect their stories so they can be shared with the people back home in the United States.

Brennan, 43, said her job as Senior Communications Officer for the Humanitarian Response Department has given her access to many people who are “so far from the spotlight” and who “so rarely have a platform to be fully seen or heard.”

“Being able to learn from people and hear their thoughts and perspectives is, I think, a privilege,” she said, “and it’s a responsibility to be able to do justice to what I learn, and see, and hear.”

Brennan also gives presentations in the United States, reporting to CRS donors on what their financial support has made possible, and creates resources that CRS can use to raise further awareness and generate additional support.

Born in Harrisburg, Penn., Brennan grew up in a Catholic military family that moved frequently. After graduating from Texas A&M University, where she studied journalism, she spent two years in Ethiopia as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

“Being able to live in a place and see the impact of development was profound for me,” she said, “and I realized I wanted to use my communication skills for the purposes of helping people overcome adversity, but also be empowered to have a better life in some way.”

She added, “I just can’t imagine doing anything else.”

After the Peace Corps, Brennan utilized her writing abilities on behalf of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago and the U.S. Committee for Refugees (now the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants), headquartered in Washington, D.C.

She joined the CRS staff in 2004, first working in the media department of the South Asia Bureau in New Delhi, India, dealing with such issues as education for girls and women, human trafficking and tsunami disaster relief. She has been in her current job for two years.

In the course of her work with CRS, Brennan has traveled to such places as the Central African Republic, Ukraine, the Gaza Strip and Nepal. Because of the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis, which began in 2011, it has occupied much of her time since 2012. She has met and interviewed many Syrian refugees in settlements in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

“It’s just deadly inside Syria, which is why we’re finding people coming up on the shores of Europe,” Brennan said. “Life is essentially paralyzed in many parts of Syria.”

She said that about 11 million people have been uprooted by the violence in Syria — 7 million internally displaced and another 4 million who have fled to neighboring countries. Meanwhile, she said, refugee camps only have the capacity to shelter about 30 percent of the total number of refugees.

CRS is focusing its efforts on assisting the most vulnerable members of the refugee population, those who are living outside of the camps in urban areas in the countries bordering Syria.

Media images of the Syrian conflict often include “bombed-out buildings” and “men with guns,” Brennan said, but her experience among the refugees has given her a different perspective.

Brennan told The Southern Cross about her encounter with a woman named Zahaya in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Zahaya had fled her Syrian homeland two weeks earlier and was living with her husband and son in a makeshift tent outside the refugee camps, in an area where migrant workers live.

As Brennan interviewed her, Zahaya spoke of the ordeal her family had experienced in their flight from Syria. Her family had been turned away at the border three times because they did not have the necessary papers. Asked by border guards for proof that her son was in fact her child, Zahaya did not have a birth certificate or photo to produce because it had all been lost when her house was destroyed.

“She said, ‘It’s so humiliating,’” Brennan recalled, “and ‘humiliation’ was the first word I learned in Arabic.”

For people like Zahaya, the greatest loss is the loss of identity, the loss of the people they once were and the lives they once lived, Brennan said. They feel the need to explain that they didn’t always live like this, that they once had a nice middle-class home with a garden, she said. The fact that they no longer have any tangible evidence of that former life in the form of photos causes them distress.

Brennan said, “It’s so important for people to know that you see them as they see themselves and that the madness swirling around them doesn’t define them.”

As Brennan and Zahaya stepped out of the tent after their meeting, Zahaya spotted a yellow flower sprouting from the ground. She ran to it, plucked it and explained that this was one of the types of flowers that grew in her garden in Syria. Handing the flower to Brennan, Zahaya thanked her for treating her with such dignity and said, “Please remember me. Please remember what it means to be Syrian.”

Brennan told The Southern Cross that she still has the stem of that flower and hopes to see Zahaya again someday.

Of her work in the humanitarian field, Brennan said it makes her feel “grateful” for what she has, “responsible” for sharing the stories she has heard, but also “very hopeful” because “you see the best of humanity in these kind of worst circumstances.”

“People are so hopeful in these backdrops, when they’ve lost everything,” Brennan said. “It’s in our DNA to be hopeful. So, if someone like Zahaya is hopeful in a tent with nothing ... who am I not to be hopeful?”

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