Session II: “War and Crisis Zones: Maintaining Familial Resilience” of the conference on interfaith cooperation and the family, held at the World Council of Churches, co-sponsored by UPF.
The session chair, Mr. Michel Reymond, the vice president of UPF-Switzerland, opened the session by introducing the topic. Families in crisis zones are particularly vulnerable, while at the same time critically important to healing and a return to normalcy, he said. What coping systems arise when families are unable to meet the needs of their members? He gave the examples of street children, gangs, families without parents. In the absence of thriving families, what weight goes to social institutions? How can faith-based and other cooperative efforts contribute to solutions? This session showed the complementary perspectives of religious leaders and experts from the field of international relief organizations.
As the first speaker, Professor Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri, the deputy general secretary of the World Council of Churches, laid out briefly what the WCC stands for. Its main aim is unity among all churches, among them the Orthodox, the Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Reformed and many others. The WCC has a good working relationship with the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Pentecostals and other smaller church conglomerates, she said.
Nowadays there are different understandings about the family—both traditional and progressive, Professor Phiri said. Holding on to the prophetic perception of families, the WCC tries to unify the understanding about moral and core values.
People want to celebrate families today, but one also must meet the wounds, she said, which are in quite a few trouble spots all over the world, for example, in South Sudan, Yemen, Syria, but also the Korean Peninsula, Kashmir, and other sites.
Last year Professor Phiri visited South Sudan and was confronted with the problems of polygamy that seems to affect the whole society, including church leaders. Due to long-lasting conflicts and wars, girls often are married to older polygamous men by their own family in order to guarantee their safety and protection from rape. It is a very complex issue that requires a wise heart of understanding, she said.
The WCC also addresses the issue of households being run by children, due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic that leaves many families without parents. Another big issue in various trouble spots is that of widespread domestic violence, mainly against women. This can be found even in households of Christian faith leaders, she said.
The next speaker was Mrs. Carolyn Handschin, vice president of WFWP International and director of its UN NGO liaison office. She started her presentation by asking why it is important not to ignore the family in our peace efforts worldwide. Reminding her listeners that the theme of the 2019 International Day of Families is “Climate Change and the Family,” she asked whether we would accept plastic waste in our own backyard. Responsibility should be learned within the family, she said.
Mrs. Handschin related the story of an officer with the Swiss Department of Integration who through her activities saw the great effects of families on the problem of migration. Families are very much affected by migration, Mrs. Handschin said. The Swiss Red Cross recently joined other large NGOs in launching projects to protect families in war and conflict zones, also in the context of migration. Family counseling is proposed now for migrant families, because of the likeliness of migrant families falling apart. Helping family stability and protecting the integrity of the family are really essential also in the context of integrating migrants.
The family is so central, Mrs. Handschin said, because it is the first institution that teaches core values to children. Parents are the role models, and therefore children are in need of parents.
Although families also can be the source of great problems, the family provides an irreplaceable and very basic character education for children on how to be good and how to contribute to society. The husband-wife relationship is a model of leadership for the children. Mrs. Handschin emphasized the family’s vital role in teaching a unique moral compass to the generations to come.
Rev. Pavel Samotovka, a priest of the Orthodox Community of Prague, Czech Republic, expressed his grief about the fact that Christianity and the Western world speak of peace, yet there is a big problem of war, conflict and violence.
He quoted Bible passages describing the history of humankind as being full of violence. Normally the Christian faith asks for a life of spirituality and of non-violence. Are violence and war God’s will? Despite the fact that Christians believe in the resurrection through Jesus Christ, history has shown so much war and conflict.
How can we orient ourselves well in this postmodern, cosmopolitan world? Regarding the family, it is difficult to find a fitting definition, because of the changing attitudes and values in the world, Rev. Samotovka said. Reading a definition of the family as “a system of intimate relations founded on an institutional connection in a certain time and location,” he asked, “In what way is the Christian concept of the family different?” From a religious point of view, he said, at the core there is the element that family exists for the sake of the glorification of God. We should love God and love each other. This is God’s mandate to us.
The quality of the relationship between husband and wife defines the quality of the other relations in the family, Rev. Samotovka said. In Christianity, God is the provider, sanctifier and protector of marriage. The safety that children feel depends very much on the stability of the marriage.
Even though some people see war as a way to gain freedom, in general it is very destructive. Looking at the war in Ukraine, we can see its destructive effect on families. People live in continuous stress and insecurity about what the situation will be the next day. It is important to remember that the constant fear of having only 20 to 30 seconds to escape to a shelter has a very destructive effect on individuals and families, he said.
Ms. Heather Komenda of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) mentioned that her organization’s approach, to work with families rather than individuals, is quite new. IOM most recently has become very aware that working with families is crucial in dealing with vulnerable individuals, she said, especially victims of human trafficking. IOM needs to broaden the assessment of areas of vulnerability, she said.
Programming was very much structured on the Palermo protocols adopted by the United Nations; there are similar needs for victims of trafficking and victims of violence, exploitation and abuse. During the migration process, so many individuals are subjected to extreme sexual violence.
Ms. Komenda spoke of her work on an IOM handbook on migrant vulnerability, identifying four separate levels: individuals, family, community and structural. IOM has very dedicated case workers who provide a full range of counseling and support services for individuals to return home in dignity. But when they return home, migrants may go back to the same circumstances as they were in before they migrated.
Family practices of all sorts impact individuals, Ms. Komenda said. IOM is looking at how to use the protection that families can provide to individuals, but also how families can put individuals at risk of violence and all sorts of abuse. It is very problematic not only for women and girls to return home, but also surprisingly difficult for young men and boys facing various sorts of challenges, she said. Men feel much shame, for example, because of the inability to provide for the family or repay debts, and women may feel shame because they were sexually abused.
Ms. Komenda said she currently is writing this handbook and the chapter on family programming. In the past, she said, IOM focused more on individuals and less on the family but very recently has identified the importance of working with families to provide services more effectively. The programs on “Family Dynamics and Migration” will be able to provide greater resources to address the migrant problem, she said.
In terms of children in migrant situations, it is even more important that the family is part of the approach, and IOM is trying hard to use that new focus on families, Ms. Komenda said. The changing structure of the family is certainly an important complication that could cause some additional issues. Although “IOM came late to the party,” she said, it is now fully committed to using programs with families to care for migrants in the best possible way.