Under the leadership of Maronite Archbishop Samir Nassar of Damascus and with the support of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a delegation from the Family Commission of the Syrian Bishops’ Conference (1) was able to participate in the World Meeting of Families in Dublin from August 21 to 26. Taking advantage of this occasion, Maria Lozano and Pierre Macqueron interviewed members of the delegation about the situation in the country. Denouncing the war in their country as “the cruellest tragedy in history since World War II,” the participants describe the difficulties faced by Syrian families, dispersed, traumatized and ruined after eight years of war.
What is the situation in Syria at the present time?
Archbishop Samir Nassar: What is happening in Syria is an international war, it is not merely a local conflict – in fact 85 countries are involved in this war! It is the most brutal crisis in history since the Second World War. Since April we have begun to witness something of a return to peace. Bombs are no longer falling in Damascus. The problem? Our young people have been fleeing the country ever since 2015, and now we are waiting and hoping for them to return. We are doing everything we can to help those who have stayed on, including helping the families, most of which have been split up. Our mission is to help the people to stay on and to help those who have left to return again, together with their families. A great deal remains to be done to rebuild the country after eight years of war.
Sister Jihane Elaoudatallah: We have come through some extremely difficult times. A few months ago, in my school in Damascus, a bomb fell, killing one of our female teachers. Another bomb fell in the grounds of the school, but fortunately it did not injure anyone. Later on a bomb killed one of the children and badly injured another, who had to have his leg amputated. The children were deeply traumatised and no longer wanted to go to school. For them, going to school meant going to their deaths. We had to go through a long process of reconciliation in order to overcome this psychological barrier. To do so we organised spiritual exercises in a remote and quiet place for those families who had been through really traumatic situations. A Jesuit priest spoke to them about the Christian life, about how to live through their fears together with the children. And we also studied the encyclical Laudato Si’. As a result, the families involved asked us to organise these meetings on a regular basis, and so we now have a meeting every month to pray, reflect and also eat and relax together.
Jean-Pierre Bingly: All the families, whether they are Muslims, Druze or Christians, have been similarly affected by the war and have to face the same problems. Their children have died in the war, or have emigrated… So now we have to rebuild our families and do whatever we can to make things better.
Father Raymond Girgis: I think we can say that the situation is now one of normality and peace in Damascus itself. The Church has recommenced its everyday pastoral work. In our own monastery we have 230 children receiving catechesis, and we also have the retirement home for the elderly… The Church is continuing to provide material and spiritual support. Throughout the whole of this time of war, in addition to helping the sick and the poor, we have continued to help through our work in the family apostolate and through providing spiritual support.
Is it possible for the Syrian refugees to return now?
Archbishop Samir Nassar: For years Syria has been a place of refuge – for the Armenians in the 1920s, for the Assyrians, the Kurds, the Lebanese, the Iraqis… However, the Syrian refugees themselves were not made altogether welcome in many parts of the world. They are so many, too many. Nobody wants to welcome them. But now, returning to Syria is also complicated, above all for economic reasons.
Father Raymond Girgis: Many families are thinking of returning, especially the Christian families. The way in which these families have been split up is a wound in the Church. To say nothing of all the psychological problems that the war has left behind and which we as the Church now have the task of healing.
Sister Jihane Elaoudatallah: Besides, with their houses demolished, where can they return to? How do you go back to a bombed-out house? On its own, the desire to return is not enough.
Marie Nasrallah: And even more so now that the devaluation of the currency makes is still harder to return to Syria. Daily life has become very expensive now.
Does the economic blockade on Syria pose problems for the return of the Syrian people?
Archbishop Samir Nassar: We are facing grave economic problems, because the value of our currency has fallen. Before the war, one US dollar was equal to 50 Syrian pounds, whereas now it is equivalent to 515! Yet meanwhile, people’s wages are the same as they were before. Syrians living abroad would be able to help us, but this is not possible owing to the Western sanctions. Those measures were taken against the Syrian government, but they only cause suffering to the poor, while the members of the government have other sources of income. Those who are really paying the consequences are the poor.
Sister Jihane Elaoudatallah: This situation only exacerbates the sufferings of the people, who have already been scattered and humiliated. Humiliated by having to ask for help, above all now that the sanctions have made it still harder to get help. For the families especially, the additional burden this places on them in bringing up their children is an enormous one.
Father Raymond Girgis: The sanctions are not bringing any positive results. There is a shortage of medicines in Syria; you cannot obtain them. These measures aren’t aimed at saving the people but are simply condemning them to go on living in a prison.
One last word?
Archbishop Samir Nassar: When Pope Francis speaks about our country, he speaks of “our beloved Syria”. He knows Syria, because there is a large community of Syrian emigres in Argentina. The Episcopal Family Commission would like to thank ACN, because you have helped us enormously in recent years – to support the families in need, to provide medicines for the sick, to continue with our pastoral work. But now we still need financial resources in order to rebuild our bombed out houses, in order to rebuild our country.
Since the beginning of the conflict, ACN has granted more than 25 million euros for emergency projects to Christian families in Syria, including almost 6 million in 2017. Currently the foundation is preparing a new campaign to help the reconstruction of the country and the return of the refugees in the coming months.
(1) Archbishop Samir Nassar, Maronite Archbishop of Damascus, was accompanied by Franciscan Father Raymond Girgis, Superior of the monastery of the Conversion of Saint Paul in Tabbaleh in Damascus, Sister Jihane Elaoudatallah of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity, and a married couple, Jean-Pierre Bingly and Marie Nasrallah, who have been married for 24 years and are likewise members of the Family Commission.