They send us death and we give them back life

Syria reaches a grim anniversary in March: eight years of civil war. After half a million deaths, with 11.6 million people forced from home, the nation is on its knees. How is life inside Syria now, as people start rebuilding shattered lives?

“They send us death and we give them back life…They throw hatred at us and we offer love in return.”

This message expresses the hope that has sustained our Caritas teams as they have stood by the people of Syria through eight bloody years of civil war.

It comes from inspirational Franciscan friar Fr Ibrahim Ansabach, a Caritas friend and partner who stayed with his people of St Francis’ parish in Aleppo as seventy per cent of the city was bombed into oblivion around them. “The Church has always been present,” he says simply.

“As Caritas, we are the heart of the Catholic church in Syria,” says Riad Sargi, head of our national network. “We cannot help all of the people with all their needs, but we are trying to do our best. The demand is really huge.”

The Way of the Cross

For most Syrian families, the nightmare of constant bombing and gunfire has ceased. The government has retaken control of much of the country, except for a last opposition stronghold around Idlib. Those who have somehow survived the shelling and snipers, must now survive an uncertain peace.

While handing out food packages to families, Fr Ibrahim sums up the current material and spiritual crisis: “We feel today, not only as Christians but as Syrians, that we are not in heaven, nor on earth – but on the Cross. We don’t yet see a future for ourselves and our families.”

Aleppo is a ruined wasteland that will take a generation to rebuild. This city that had at its heart one of the Silk Road’s most fabled bazaars is now drained of colour, reduced to mile after mile of grey concrete rubble.

With unexploded ordinance still littering the city, only the main streets are safe, especially in the eastern areas that bore the brunt of the bombing. The UN considers the situation too risky for refugees to return home. Across Syria, three out of ten schools and half of all health centres are closed. Nevertheless, Caritas is witnessing an upsurge in returnees to Aleppo, and inside its gutted buildings, 2.25 million people need humanitarian aid.

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“We have to take the first steps.”

While many aid agencies are pulling out of the city, Caritas Syria has started its next three-year, €4.1 million project, reaching 70,000 of Aleppo’s most vulnerable residents directly and indirectly.

The crucial aim is to help people affected by conflict to rebuild their lives with dignity and self-sufficiency.

As George Homis, an engineer working with Fr Ibrahim says: “We can’t stay as we are. We have to take the first steps. The people of Aleppo are very active people, they work hard, they are creative people, not lazy. Now the fighting has stopped, life will come back.”

The painful process of recovery has begun. “There’s a lot of difference even in one year,” says George Antoine from the Caritas team.

“The market is now open and life is slowly returning to Aleppo.”

Prices have skyrocketed, however: a family would need at least eight times their pre-war income to cover basic needs, yet jobs are very scarce.

“Caritas Aleppo is providing food and psychological support,” lists George, “also classes for children up to school entry, medical help, and rent. We also supply water tanks and then deliver water.”

Caritas plans to get 800 households back into viable work by funding repairs to ruined businesses, and giving people access to skills training and job openings. Meanwhile special help is being given to vulnerable elderly people. Survival in Aleppo is an intense challenge, however old you are.

How you can help with the Syria crisis

Caritas is helping people affected by conflict to rebuild their lives with dignity and self-sufficiency.

Meet the survivors of Aleppo

Amal

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Amal was tiny in 2013 when she was hit by a mortar and lost her right leg. Now she is seven, and as her mum says, “Amal is starting to realise what has happened to her. She asks why she is the only one among her friends with one leg.”

The other kids don’t look like Amal, but perhaps her toys can. “Every time I give her a doll,” says Samar, “she cuts one of its legs off.”

Despite everything, Amal says she feels happy in Aleppo, where the family took refuge from the fighting in Homs. “After getting the prosthetic I felt like I had a normal leg,” she says. “I can wear two shoes and not feel different. I like it here, I have all my family and friends here and they all love me.”

Samar has a heartfelt message for Caritas supporters: “I just want to say thank you for your interest in us and your help. Thank God for Caritas.”

Mustafa

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Not only was Mustafa shot in the leg by a sniper during the fighting in Aleppo, he then developed heart trouble two years ago. Now aged 60, he has difficulty moving and worries about taking care of his wife and daughters. His four sons are away in the army.

“I want to support my daughters, but I can’t work because of my health,” he explains. “People of my age … what can I do to earn money?” At this, he breaks down in tears.

Mustafa receives basic foods including rice and oil from Caritas. It helps, he says, but it is not enough. Luckily, he says, “all the people here are good people”.

Yorgo

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“I am proud to be working here,” enthuses Yorgo Saccal. A former furniture maker who narrowly escaped death twice during the war, he now works with Fr Ibrahim in St Francis’ parish. He delivers food to extremely poor individuals and families.

The parish has 50 different projects on the go and is part-funded by SCIAF (Caritas Scotland). Fr Ibrahim’s band of volunteers are busy providing food, water, medicines and heating fuel, as well as helping repair houses, encourage small businesses and visit the elderly.

“In the war I was so lost,” says Yorgo. “Then I started here as a volunteer. My life changed one hundred percent. Fr Ibrahim is a saint. It’s about helping. When you help someone, you feel joy.”

Yorgo is now engaged to be married and his wedding is planned for this summer. “I lost hope, but I found my faith again. I have found peace within myself.”

CHILDREN IN CONFLICT

Amal’s terrible injury shows how war has impacted Syria’s children. Every child under eight has known no other life but war or exile. There are no exact figures for how many thousands have been injured or killed. Many survivors are in a state of deep psychological distress, leaving them vulnerable and unable to thrive.

Caritas runs two children’s centres in Aleppo where children are nurtured in a safe and friendly atmosphere, gradually learning to process the trauma of war. Children use puppets to help them communicate about difficult experiences. Both centres will assist 1,120 children over the course of 30 months. Caritas tutors are also giving booster lessons in Arabic, English and Maths to pupils who need academic support, reaching 1,760 over three years.

MEDICAL CARE

Caritas is giving Mustafa the medicine he needs for his heart problems, as part of a programme aiming to provide critical medication to 800 vulnerable elderly people and life-saving surgery to 3,600 patients over three years.

The doctors and Caritas teams carry out home visits and personally deliver medicines to the housebound. They check up on elderly patients who have had surgery, and coordinate with other NGOs to provide crutches and wheelchairs. In a sample survey of patients, every one of them said that the assistance had had a positive impact on their family.

HIDDEN WOUNDS

So many Syrians like Yorgo need more than material assistance. The drawn-out war has left a population deeply distressed by bereavement and trauma. It has severely worsened the common problems of poverty, loneliness and ill health for Syria’s older generation.

Caritas in Aleppo has a special emphasis on helping elderly people to get out, make friends and enjoy themselves. The team regularly organise get-togethers where older residents share a meal and enjoy games, music and dancing. The project, aiming to reach 300 people, is already having a very positive impact on their mental and emotional health.

1,120children helped by Caritas centres
3600patients given life-saving surgery
300people in trauma program

“We are all Syrians.”

Amongst the ruins, the Syrian people are starting to rebuild their communities with projects like this that can start to heal wounds and bridge divisions.

“We are all Syrians,” says Hanan Bali of our Caritas Aleppo team, explaining how the work of Caritas has dramatically improved relationships between the Christian and Muslim communities in her city. She was one of the first aid workers to go into Aleppo’s Jabal Badro area after the fighting stopped.

“All the people came out of hiding to see us,” she recalls. “The Muslims were astonished when they saw us climbing over the rubble of Jabal Badro to go to them. They asked, ‘Are you Christian? You should be helping Christians, not us.’ They didn’t believe we would come back.”

The Caritas team did come back, with food, warm clothes and friendship. “The staff told the people, ‘The Church will help you’ and they began to trust us. Our relationship is very strong,” says Hanan, now a welcome guest amongst the Muslim families of Jamal Badro.

There are now four Muslim members of staff in Caritas Aleppo; while in Ghouta, just east of Damascus, Caritas Syria is working hand in hand with a Muslim relief organisation to provide emergency food, clothes and fuel to displaced people and returnees.

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5 MILLION REFUGEES

6.6 MILLION INTERNALLY DISPLACED PEOPLE

2.1 MILLION CHILDREN OUT OF SCHOOL

The global Caritas network is present throughout Syria, reaching 667,000 people in dire need in 2018.

Projects range from providing emergency food and medical care to helping rebuild homes and restart livelihoods.

Over the last four years Caritas has spent $167m in Syria, in addition to supporting refugees in neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Jordan.

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“Thank you”

Helping civilians affected by the eight-year war has been one of our largest relief operations. In all, 28 Caritas organisations are responding in Syria and Iraq and assisting refugees in neighbouring countries. We are helping 2.1 million people a year across the region, thanks to the work of 2100 staff and 4100 volunteers. We couldn’t do this without all the supporters who donate, campaign and pray for our work around the world.

Franciscan friar Fr Ibrahim has this message for everyone in the Caritas family:

“I thank God for all that he is doing in Aleppo. He is doing miracles every day, and we can see him, touch him and feel his tender presence through our many friends. We thank him, and we thank you who are praying for us and helping us.”

How you can help with the Syria crisis

Caritas is working all over Syria, with food and health care, housing and jobs, and well-being for children and elderly.

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Written by Harriet Paterson. Interviews, photos by Val Morgan/SCIAF and Caritas Syria