Aleppo Marists: The 'poverty bomb' is worse than the war

About 80 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line and 60 per cent experience food insecurity. Bombs were "more bearable than current poverty". Nabil Antaki notes that thousands of young people have left the country and those who return see only "sad faces". The Marists are involved in many initiatives of solidarity.

Aleppo (AsiaNews) – “The poverty bomb” has exploded in Syria with at least 80 per cent of the population living "below the poverty line" and about 60 per cent experiencing “food insecurity,” writes Dr Nabil Antaki, a member of the blue Marists in his 42nd Letter from Aleppo.

This comes after more than 10 years since the start of the war in Syria, a nation "loved and martyred" as Pope Francis repeatedly described it.

Despite the suffering endured during the darkest and most violent period of the conflict, many residents of what was once Syria’s economic and commercial capital say: “We lived better in the war years and the bombs were more bearable than the current poverty,” this according to the Christian activist and doctor.

The war has destroyed the country, its infrastructure, archaeological heritage, schools, factories and hospitals, killed 400,000 people, caused five million refugees and eight million internally displaced people, pushing a million to emigrate to Europe and the West. 

“While the fighting has largely been over for two years and the military situation frozen, economic conditions are catastrophic,” Antaki writes.

The cost of living is up and essential goods are more expensive, including rents. Bread, sugar, and rice are rationed, while salaries "have not kept up” causing “greater poverty”. Families have been forced to “rely on aid” to survive.

Aleppo residents remember well the darkest period of the conflict, when rebels from the eastern sector of the city launched gas cylinders full of explosives resulting in many civilian casualties.

The city was isolated then. The lack of fuel meant cold days, the lack of electricity meant evenings in the dark, the lack of running water meant lining up at wells.

The current situation has “many causes,” including "the destruction of infrastructure, Lebanon’s financial crisis which hit many Syrians who had savings in that country, and the unfair sanctions imposed by Europe and the States United.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the situation, with deaths and preventive measures "that have slowed down an already moribund economic activity".

Today many Syrians say they regret the decision to stay home when it was still possible to leave and settle elsewhere.

In August, some “"17,000 young people from Aleppo left the country”, especially for Egypt.

Skilled workers are in short supply, so much so that small businesses run the risk of not opening any more. Other countries “take advantage of our doctors, engineers, craftsmen”.

When asked how they find Aleppo, those who return say: ‘We have seen sad faces!’”

In fact, for Dr Antaki, “people are sad, their faces are sad, their minds and their hearts even more so. How can it be otherwise after living for 10 years between military bombs and the bomb of poverty.”

Against such a tragic background, the Blue Marists continue their charity work for the benefit of weaker groups.

One project is called "shared bread”, whereby 25 volunteers deliver every day a hot meal prepared by 12 women to more than 200 seniors living alone without a family, plus fruit and bread as well as a smile and an ear to listen.

In addition to a project designed to help small businesses and the start of the third stage of a vocational training programme, the Marists have undertaken educational initiatives for children, aged three to six, from very poor families, called "Let's learn to grow" and "I want to learn”.

"We are aware that what we do is a drop in the ocean of needs,” Dr Antaki said, “but let's try to make the faces of our compatriots a little less sad, even if it's not easy!”