Marists in Aleppo: among Syrian Christians, solidarity wins over the horrors of an endless war

The Turkish army continues its anti-Kurdish offensive in the north and surrounds Afrin. At least a thousand people need urgent medical attention in Eastern Ghouta, a rebel enclave on the outskirts of Damascus. As the conflict drags on, the "cautious optimism" about peace is giving way to "growing pessimism". In the face of death and fear, Christians remain committed to peace, justice and forgiveness.

Aleppo (AsiaNews) – The "cautious optimism" that followed the liberation of Aleppo and the relative calm in Damascus and other cities in Syria "has turned into growing pessimism", which has now become an "intractable impasse", write the Blue Marist friars of Aleppo in their letter number 32, which looks at the country’s current situation after seven years of war.

"With the Turkish army in the north-west, the American army, which supports the Kurdish militias, in the far north-east, Israeli raids in the south and the situation in Damascus and Ghouta, there is nothing to be optimistic about,” the letter says.

According to the latest reports, the Turkish army has surrounded the predominantly Kurdish town of Afrin, the final goal of a massive offensive launched in January and which has already killed and wounded hundreds of people, including civilians.

Meanwhile, the situation in Eastern Ghouta, a rebel enclave on the outskirts of Damascus under government siege, is becoming more and more critical. UN sources say that at least a thousand people, mostly women and children, need urgent medical care.

Faced with such reports of "death and fear", Syrian Christians have renewed their commitment to life, peace and coexistence among the various groups that make up the Arab country, once a model for culture and economic development in the region.

In the letter, which attacks the Western coverage of the war as Trappist nuns did recently, the Blue Marists mention various initiatives – at the economic, social and health levels – in favour of the population. They hope that Easter can be a source of renewed peace, justice and forgiveness.

Here are long excerpts from the ‘Letter from Aleppo’ number 32 by the Blue Marists:

Aleppo was liberated in December 2016 and since the bombing stopped, blocked roads have been opened, water supplied to all houses almost regularly, but electricity continues to be rationed. Some internally displaced people are trying to return to their homes in the eastern neighbourhoods of the city. Small business owners are trying to open their stores. The rubble has been removed from several neighbourhoods. 

We are now becoming aware of the desolation of the population who lived under the authority of the armed elements such as “aL-Nusra” or “Daesh” (Islamic state). Several hotbeds of war persist in the country.

I would like, first of all, to bring you up to date about the situation in Afrin, a north-western city of Syria on the border with Turkey where the majority of the inhabitants are Kurdish. Several months ago, the Turkish president decided to wage a war against the Kurds. His army invaded Syrian territory, carrying out very deadly air strikes, and a ground invasion, which now surrounds Afrin and occupies a hundred of villages around it.

In Damascus, the situation is very serious. For many years, the armed elements of “Al-Nusra” and other militias occupied the countryside near Damascus, Ghouta. Those jihadists have never stopped bombing the neighbourhoods of Damascus, killing civilians and causing destruction.

After the liberation of Homs, Aleppo, Deir el Zor, the Syrian army has decided to liberate this enclave. This war of liberation has certainly caused deaths, injuries and suffering among the civilian population who was held by the jihadists and we deeply deplore it. But we should not forget that the air strikes of the American air force helped the liberation of Mosul and Raqqa causing many more civilian casualties.

And as usual, every time the circle tightens on the armed elements, the western medias begin to talk about humanitarian crises and chemical attacks to prepare the world opinion for a possible military intervention against the Syrian government. They offer a partial picture of what is happening. On social media, there are plenty of images copied from other wars, images showing only children and civilians and never armed elements, as targets of the offensives.

Our cautious optimism of a few months ago, about the end of the war and the reestablishment of real peace has turned into a growing pessimism. The situation in Syria has become an intractable impasse. With the Turkish army in the north-west, the American army, which supports the Kurdish militias, in the far north-east, Israeli raids in the south and the situation in Damascus and Ghouta, there is nothing to be optimistic about.

If I linger on the situation of the war, it is not at all to show a side of death and fear, on the contrary! I want to talk about the will to live of the Syrian people. We want to live! Live with dignity! Live in peace! Live free from any constraints! Live away from suffering!

Luckily, there are rays that come to warm our lives and shed light on our rather dark lives. One of them is Soumaya Hallak. Swiss of Aleppin origin, soprano, granddaughter of a famous Aleppin poet, she came to spend eight days with us and for us. Accompanied by Marie-Laure, a film director and by Sawsan and Rand, two young women from Damascus who are students at the conservatory. Every morning and afternoon, Soumaya hosted singing, dancing and war trauma therapy workshops for all of our groups: the children of “I learn to grow” and “I want to learn”, the teenagers of “Skill school”, the women from the” woman’s development project” and all the instructors.

Soumaya brought us joy and a little bit of happiness. She promised to come back in April and/or in the summer.

The project “Education and development of the woman” is a source of joy and pride for us. Thirty women over 30 years of age and as many younger women participate twice a week in interactive workshops on topics that concern them such as keeping a family budget, repurposing food, early marriage, hygiene and gynaecological diseases etc. The participants come from different backgrounds. They established among each other very sisterly relationships.

With the “M.I.T” and “Job project”, we are participating in rehabilitating people, families and the country.

In addition to the first three-day workshops organised in more than four years, we started last week the 5th session on the theme “how to create your own small project”. Twenty adults will spend 42 hours learning and applying to their own project the basics elements of cost evaluation, profitability, marketing . . . to present to the jury their well-studied project. We, the Blue Marists, will fund the projects deemed the best in term of feasibility, profitability, sustainability and job creation.

We had the 4th graduation ceremony, this time for ten women who had participated for four months in the session of our project “cut and sew”. They have acquired enough skills to enter the job market, and now they can meet their family needs.

Our clothes recycling project “heart made” does wonders. First of all, it provides work to eleven people. And the products that come out of the workshop are really beautiful and are sold in a downtown store, which will allow the project to self-finance.

The medical programme helps in funding 150 medical procedures each month: surgeries, hospitalisation, prescriptions, lab work and X-rays that war-impoverished patients cannot afford.

“Drop of milk” contributes to the physical and mental growth of approximately 3,000 kids under the age of 11 by providing milk each month.

We are approaching Easter, the time to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ.

We are all invited to pray to the lord for the life he gives us, for “His PEACE”, a peace of justice and forgiveness; a peace that accepts the other as he is; a peace that extends a hand; a peace that refuses violence; a peace that is translated by gestures of mercy; a peace that touches the heart of stone of men and turn it into a heart of flesh; a peace that announces a civilisation of love; a peace that realises the will of God on our earth.

We wish you to live this peace, let it radiate through you, into our world.