Syria – ACN embarks on reconstruction programme in Aleppo

The international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is sponsoring 32 new projects in Syria, at a total cost of 1.8 million Euros, for the restoration of the material and spiritual life of the Christian population there.

  • Children, women and the sick will be among the first to benefit from the aid programmes
  •  Among the seven reconstruction projects for the physical infrastructure of Aleppo, one of the cities most damaged during the war, there are three cathedrals

The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is embarking on a programme of reconstruction and restoration in Aleppo, one of the cities that suffered most from the consequences of the war. Among the seven projects for the physical reconstruction of the city there are three involving Catholic cathedrals, namely the Armenian, Maronite and Syrian Catholic cathedrals. These three cathedrals not only represent the riches of the Eastern Rites in Aleppo, but are at the same time a symbol of the Christian roots of the city.

“The churches are like lighthouses in the ocean; they are a source of security and hope, and are but one of the first steps towards encouraging the return of the uprooted Christians here – as ACN well knows, having been so involved in the reconstruction of the towns and villages destroyed by IS in Iraq”, emphasises Father Andrzej Halemba, who heads the project section responsible for Syria at the international headquarters of the foundation. Last year ACN also sponsored the reconstruction of the Melkite Catholic Cathedral in Homs.

In addition to supporting two parish community centres and a biblical study centre, ACN has promised help to complete the renovation work on a centre for autistic children which has been run by Franciscan missionary sisters for the past 21 years. The building is very damp due to the breakdown of the heating system during the war, and poses a real danger to the health of the 15 children cared for daily there.

All this is being done on top of the ongoing aid programmes for the hundreds of displaced families that ACN has been supporting from the very beginning of the conflict in 2011 in Aleppo and in other cities such as Homs and Latakia. “Although we would like these families to be able to return to their homes and be able to begin a new life, there is still a good deal to be done in order to make this possible. And meanwhile we cannot cut off our aid, since the local churches cannot take on this burden. According to UNHCR some 13.1 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance today. “Those who are suffering most are the poorest”, Father Halemba explains. That is why ACN will be spending two thirds of the 1.8 million Euros allocated on renewed emergency aid packages. These will include among other things paying the rent for 340 families in Homs, providing medical assistance for around 700 people in Aleppo and a monthly allowance for food and healthcare over the next six months for 1,725 of the poorest families in Latakia.

Along with these 32 projects recently approved, the number of projects that the international foundation ACN is carrying out in Syria in 2018 now totals 121 valued at almost 7 million euros.

“The suffering is not over yet!”, Father Halemba insists. “We face massive challenges simply in easing the terrible wounds inflicted over the past eight years, and at the same time we cannot forget that the future of these people lies in our hands and that we have a responsibility towards them.”

 

ACN International

Life asserts itself again in Aleppo

A larger group of Christian university students form a real family in the shadows of war

The city district Sahbat Al-Jadida in the eastern part of Aleppo was hard hit by attacks and bombings during the last five years of the war in Syria. Today, several months after the end of combat operations in the city, the situation is slowly improving in this area. During the day, the streets are vibrantly alive and masses of young people throng the pavement. The large university campus is also located in this district. “I did not want to go to Aleppo. My family also did not want me studying here. But this is where I was accepted. For three months, my father insisted that I should not do this. But I did not give in and he finally let me go,” young Angel Samoun, an aeronautical engineering student, says. She comes from Qamishli in the Kurdish region of Syria, which is now under the control of local Kurdish militias.
 

Sights of the university campus of Aleppo, from the male students residence. Zone where some missils fell during the war, killing several people and a nun.

 
Aleppo was also not the first choice of student Lara Lias. She comes from Daara, a city in the southern part of Syria, which became famous through the demonstrations that ultimately led to civil war. “I was very afraid because I was so far away from my parent’s home. When I came here, my family said good-bye to me as though I were dying.”

Despite the difficult situations that they have lived through and are continuing to live through today, these two young women are not alone. They live directly across from the campus in a residence hall located in the Roman Catholic Vicariate of Aleppo. The residence hall is home to a larger number of female residents and is run by three religious sisters, Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará, a congregation that has its origins in Argentina. “The fervour with which these young people pursue their studies – in spite of the battles we have experienced here – is palpable,” Sister Laudis Gloriae, who comes from Brazil and has been the Reverend Mother of this community for about a year, says before adding, “The inhabitants of Aleppo demonstrate an impressive faith in God and their witness helps me grow in faith every day.”

“The inhabitants of Aleppo demonstrate an impressive faith in God and their witness helps me grow in faith every day.”

One of the worst recollections from the war goes back to an incident that happened in 2013, when a missile fell directly on the roundabout that separates the university from the residence hall. About 400 people fell victim to this attack, including Sister Rima from the Daughters of the Holy Heart of Mary.

Angel explains, “I even went to classes during bomb alerts. The most difficult part was being separated from my family.” All students live here just like in a family. They share everything, pray together and gather together to celebrate the Eucharist, and that although they belong to different churches: Syriac Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Catholic… “The sisters support us a great deal. The most important thing is to love God,” Lara professes.
 

Two university students of the students residence at the Latin Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Aleppo. Angel Samoun, left, and Lara Lias, right.

 
Another large and united family can be found in the residence hall for young men, directly across from the parish office, separated only by the “House of Joy”, as the centre is called that is run by the Missionaries of Charity to care for older and sick people who have been abandoned. “At the moment, we are living with 30 university students, Christians of different religious denominations who have been assigned to the residence hall,” Father David Fernández, a priest from Argentina, says in greeting. He, together with a priest with whom he is friends, belong to the brotherhood of the Institute of the Incarnate Word of Aleppo. “We take care of the residence halls, carry out pastoral duties at the Catholic Cathedral of the Child Jesus as well as a further parish in the city district of Al Midan and coordinate aid for more than 600 families.” Father Fernández climbs the steps leading up the second storey of the building. “A number of people fell victim to a bomb attack on the roofs right over there,” he says. “I had to recover the bodies.”
 
 

Forced to go to the front

Albert (name changed), who comes from Qamishli and is currently finishing up his industrial engineering degree, is in his room. “We experienced severe fighting here. A number of my friends had to quit their studies because of it. I decided to risk my life and finish my degree.” Albert is going through a difficult time because all young men are directly drafted for military service to go fight in the war. Anyone studying at a university has a sort of “period of immunity”, but this will end one day and the government does not grant any extensions. He scarcely dares leave the building at the moment for fear of being arrested and sent off to war. “We are trying to find a solution for this,” Father Fernández says.

“We experienced severe fighting here. A number of my friends had to quit their studies because of it. I decided to risk my life and finish my degree.”

A further resident, Antranik Kaspar, an economics student, affirms: “Father David is just like a father to us. We greatly appreciate the people who have left their families and their homelands in order to live here with us and help us.” The priest explains, “We look for help wherever we can. We are receiving support from our congregation, but also from other organisations such as the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need, which has made funding available to us so that we can buy computers and pay tuition fees.” The students are also required to pay a small monthly fee of 3,000 Syrian pounds, about four euros. “This is more symbolic,” he explains. “The economic situation is very difficult and we would not have a chance of surviving without help from abroad.”

 

Weaam Panous, academic of Robotic Engineering, studying in his room at the residence “Jesus Worker” of the Apostolic Latin Vicariate of Aleppo.

 
Weaam Panous, a robot technology student, is very grateful for the support provided by Aid to the Church in Need. “We thank Father David Fernández and everyone who is helping us from outside of Syria, because it is thanks to their support that we can continue with our studies and work for peace.”
 
 
ACN International