More than 20 being supported this year, mainly in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Thanks to the support of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), thousands of children and young people from crisis-torn regions such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Israel are able to take part in summer camps and summer courses this year. ACN has already supported some of these courses in the past, and indeed this is almost a tradition now for Christian young people in the Holy Land, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. But additionally this year the charity is delighted to be able to support youth camps in Aleppo, Syria, and Alqosh in Iraq, where life is slowly returning to normal now that the fighting and violence have died down in these war-torn areas. The local Christian Churches are working hard not only to rebuild the physical structures in these areas but also to revive the spirit and the souls of the people here, above all among the children and young people who have suffered so much. In Iraq for example, the summer camps are intended above all to help these young people to overcome the trauma of the occupation by ISIS of their Christian towns and villages in the Niniveh Plains. They need to be able to regain their physical and spiritual strength, especially now, when the future of their Christian communities in Iraq is at stake.
The young people are organised according to age and given help and support, above all spiritually, with the guidance of a “spiritual father” whose principal role is to support them in the challenges they face and help restore their faith and hope after the experiences they have suffered with the invasion by ISIS, the persecution and their dramatic flight to safety. Professional psychologists will be on board to help them to deal with the challenges of learning in drastically changed circumstances – especially now that they are starting to contemplate the return of their families to their former villages, now liberated from ISIS.
In Aleppo too there is similar healing medicine for the soul in the summer courses being offered and where, in twelve one-week sessions, people will be able to seek counsel, support and spiritual refreshment in the convent of Our Lady of the Assumption. In this case it is not only the children and young people who will be involved, but all members of the families which have suffered so many years of war and privations. Altogether there are over 960 participants from all the various Christian rites and churches in Aleppo. Truly blessed relief for them after having endured four years plagued by hunger and fear and shortages of the most basic services such as water and electric power.
In Egypt, another country where Christians have suffered bitterly from Islamic fundamentalism, the Coptic Catholic patriarch would like to repeat the wonderful experience of the previous year and organise five summer camps for groups of up to 95 young people in each. The theme of the camps will be “Who is God for us?” According to Father Hanni Bakhoum, who is in charge of organising the programme, “the positive effect of these meetings will have an impact not only on the 475 young people attending these camps, but also on their families as well – so that in the end over 2,400 people will have benefited from your support, in addition to the parishes and pastoral activity centres where these young people will be staying.” Apart from these camps, ACN is also supporting a summer camp for the spiritual welfare of 70 children with special needs from parishes in Cairo, Delta and Alexandria. These are children who are frequently “marginalised, discriminated against or abandoned by society, and sometimes even by their own families”.
But it is not only in the Middle East that the local Church is involved in this vital pastoral outreach through such formation courses and youth summer camps. For many young people in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia “these summer camps are the only opportunity they will have to escape from their remote villages or noisy urban environments. Many of them look back on these activities as the best thing that has happened to them all year, and in some cases in their whole lives”, says Sister Arousiag, who belongs to the congregation of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Armenia and who is speaking from personal experience – since the sisters have been organising these summer camps for no less than 24 years now, ever since 1994. During this time over 18,000 children, some orphans, others children from the poorest families or those facing all kinds of social problems, have taken part in these camps from many different regions of Armenia. This year there will be 840 boys and girls aged between 8 and 15. “In the summertime, when the schools close, it is the time when the children from the orphanages and the other institutionalised children, and also the children from the poorest families or those with the most serious social problems, are most likely to be found wandering the streets”, Sister Arousiag explains. According to the most recent studies by UNICEF and the UN, over half of the children in Armenia have no access to organised recreational activities and almost 30% lack proper nutrition. “These boys and girls are the future of Armenia, the next generation of scientists and teachers. That is why we have to work today to forge the future of our country.”
There are many stories that illustrate the immeasurable value of this kind of youth work. One such example is the story of John, a youngster in Ethiopia who took part in one of the “Eagle Eye” summer camps which have been organised by the Community of St John for the past 10 years now, with the support of ACN. As Father Atanasio Markarian told us during a visit to ACN, “This youngster from the town of Hosanna, in the south of Ethiopia, returned home very happy at everything he had experienced during the course – the Eucharistic adoration, the religious instruction, the sporting activities… Time passed, and around six months later he called up one of the brothers from the congregation, wanting to speak urgently to someone about all his preoccupations. He had read the magazine Love one another, which had been given to him on the youth camp, more than a hundred times and he felt he was being called by God. Today he is one of our brothers, a member of the Community of St John.”