“Home is where the heart is and ours is still at our house. We want to return to our house; all our memories and our life is there” says Lina Ghattas. ACN supports the reconstruction of houses that were destroyed during the war in Syria. There are many families like Ghattas family and we want to help them to come home, where their heart is.
Watch the story of Rasha Draizy. On the day Rasha’s husband died her life changed completely. She was left alone with two kids in a place they had just moved in to. Her life is a testimony of the good your help makes.
Thanks to the support of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the local church is helping thousands of families who were displaced throughout the war and now find themselves in dire straits in the Valley of Christians, a rural region in Syria near the Lebanese border.
Suffering and hopelessness have become the norm for Syrians, who have now been living in a country torn apart after seven years of warfare. Not only do they have to deal with the daily life plagued by terrorism as well as the loss of their homes and all of their possessions to bombs. They have also lost people beloved to them – to violence, disease or the difficult living conditions of a society devastated by violence.
Rasha Drazy was only 23 when her husband, Michael, died. The young lorry driver drove the route from the Valley of Christians to Damascus. One day he was hit by sniper fire. He died instantly. She not only lost her young husband, but also her family’s financial support. The mother of two children found herself in a terrible situation at the very beginning of the armed conflict in 2011.
Rasha Draizy with her kids Michael Sallom and Rachel Sallom.
“We lived in Damascus, then [we] fled to Marmarita to escape the rockets being fired onto the capital on a daily basis. We arrived here in 2012. My husband was killed just a few months later,” Rasha explains, her eyes reflecting her deep sorrow. In spite of her youth, her features are marked by all the hardships she has been through. Her children sit next to her, 10-year-old Michael and 8-year-old Rachel. “Life was difficult even before the death of my husband. The children were no longer able to go to school because it was closed due to the war. Thanks to our meagre savings, we were able to survive until Michael found work again.”
Stories such as this can be heard all over the country. The traumatic witness of thousands of women –Mother Courage personified – who have lost their children and husbands during the war. Many have not only lost people they loved, but also the provider for the family’s wellbeing.
A similar story is told by Darin Abboud, who has recently been widowed. Her husband just passed away after having suffered a stroke two years before. “I am self-employed, sometimes working as a hairdresser, sometimes in the fields helping to bring in the fruit and vegetable during the harvest. I do everything I can to support my daughters,” the 38-year-old mother said. “My five daughters are what motivates me to go on living. My happiness revolves around helping them continue to go to school, find work and be happy.”
Darin Abboud with her five daughters.
Eighteen-year-old Maya is the oldest daughter. She is about to take her final examinations at school, even though she does not know what she wants to study yet. Next in line are the 12-year-old twins Maram and Mary, both of whom sing very well. “We learned to sing in the parish choir. We enjoy singing there very much.” Mirna is the fourth daughter. She can recite beautiful poems by heart in an Arabic that is smooth and gentle. Meriam is not only the youngest, but also the most cheerful and boisterous. The loss of their father have not extinguished the family’s happy memories and life together.
As is written in the Gospels, it is the duty of Christians to provide solace to the poorest and those most in need. “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?” (James 2:15-16) Thanks to ACN the local Church is supporting these women, widows – all Mothers Courage – who are facing particularly difficult challenges in Syria.
“The aid we receive from the parish helps us a great deal. We have also received a lot of help from our neighbours and relatives,” Darin said, “but without the financial support of the Church, I don’t know what would have become of me and my daughters.” She stressed that the parish has been supporting her since the death of her husband. Because of the Church’s support she and others have bee provided with daily essentials for all the families.
Rasha Drazy, in the centre dressed of pink, a widow who is part of the gruop of volunteers of the St. Peter’s Relief Centre in Marmarita.
More than 2,000 families receive emergency packages from ACN each month through St Peter’s Aid Centre in Marmarita, which is run by the Catholic Melkite Church. “This aid revived our faith and hope,” Rasha commented. “The Church was right there for us. Because of this, we have become more involved in the parish. I belong to the team of volunteers that coordinates the emergency relief for displaced families in the Valley of Christians.” While she serves tea, Rasha Drazy talks about how there came a day when she decided not to let herself be pulled under by despair. Rather, she wanted to help other people also going through the most horrific moments of their lives. “In our current situation, it is impossible to know what the future will bring. That is why we try to live each day as best we can with the little that we have. I try to teach my children to have faith, to have joy in being close to Jesus. This helps us not lose hope when times are difficult.”
Darin and her daughters wished to express their gratitude. She said; “The people who help us change the lives of many families. Particularly to those who help us without knowing us, I would like to say that you have given the important witness of generosity. Thank you.”
Working through the Saint Peter’s Aid Centre in Marmarita, the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is helping thousands of displaced Syrians each month
Nasra is one of the 20 or more villages belonging to the region known as the Valley of the Christians (Wadi Al-Nasara, in Arabic). The word Nasra literally means “Nazarene”, the word used throughout the Arab and Muslim world to refer to Christians. For several years now around a hundred refugee families have been living in this little village, having fled here from other parts of Syria to escape the war. The Mussa family is just one of these families, the new “Nazarenes” of the Valley of the Christians.
Marwan Mussa is the father of the family. “We were forced to flee from Homs, where we were living, because the bombing was getting closer and closer to our quarter of the city. The noise of the bombing and the shelling was shattering. We did not know whether from one day to the next we would die in these attacks, as had already happened to some of our neighbours”, he explains. And so they decided to leave for the Valley of the Christians which was just an hour’s drive away and where things were safer. They managed to find a small apartment where they could live for the time being until the fighting ended.
The new “Nazarenes” of the Valley of the Christians
However, the war continued and the Mussa family have now been living in Nasra for over five years. “I used to work as a bricklayer, but now I am helping in a bakery, although I do not earn enough to support us all”, Marwan adds. His family is one of the more than 350 receiving support from the Saint Peter’s Aid Centre in the Melkite Catholic parish of Saint Peter’s in the nearby village of Marmarita. “The Church has literally saved our lives, if it were not for the Church we wouldn’t be here”.
One day, nine months earlier, Marwan was working in an orchard near his house when he suddenly collapsed, unconscious. His son Gabi managed to pick him up and take him to the health centre in the village. From there they took him to the hospital in Tartus, on the coast, more than an hour away by car. “I felt an intense pain in my chest”, Marwan explains to a visiting group from ACN. The diagnosis was a serious one: he had had a severe heart attack. However, they were unable to treat him in the hospital in Tartus, so they sent him to a hospital in Homs, another two hours round trip.
“The doctors told me it was a miracle I had survived the operation, since my arteries were 90% obstructed. They inserted stents, and now I feel quite well, although I have to be careful not to over exert myself”. Marwan is continuing his treatment and regularly goes for checkups to Mzeina Hospital, also located in the Valley of the Christians.
“My wife, Nahila, is also undergoing treatment there for cancer”, says Marwan. All the medication and the medical care she receives are being supplied by ACN, via the Saint Peter’s Aid Centre in Marmarita. “We are extremely grateful for this help. We knew that many people from different countries were sending help for the centre here. We also want to thank the team of volunteers at Saint Peter’s for accompanying and helping us in our most urgent need”, he adds.
Nahila, Gabi and Marwan Mussa
Nahila Murad, his wife and the mother of their family, has a gaze of crystalline clarity. She nods in agreement with every word spoken by her husband. “I have bowel cancer. They are helping us to pay for my treatment. When the doctors discovered my tumour they didn’t hold out much hope for me. But I am a woman of strong faith and so I told them to go ahead and operate on me , and now I am feeling better.” They both assured us that they do not know how to thank ACN for the 130 dollars they receive each month to pay for their medication and consultations.
The faith of these true “Nazarenes” is apparent. Nahila tells us how the worst moment they experienced was when they told her that her other son Dani was missing. “We had to get through two years without hearing anything about him. We thought he must have been killed on the front. But then a month ago he came to see us and it was like a fresh miracle of God here in our house.” Dani told them that he had always kept a small Bible close by, from which he read a passage every day. “He never departed from the Word of God, and now we know that the Lord did not abandon him either”, she explains.
Through the intermediary of the Saint Peter’s Aid Centre in Marmarita, the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) provides monthly help to hundreds of displaced Christian families throughout the region of the Valley of the Christians in western Syria, close to the Lebanese border. The monthly aid of 50,000 US dollars provided by the charity helps to cover the cost of surgical operations, medication and other forms of medical treatment and aid, including examinations, wheelchairs and spectacles.
SYRIA/NATIONAL 18/00390 Emergency Financial Support in the Valley of Christians: Health Care – July/December 2018 ID1803576 – 286.800 € (300.000 USA $)
Christine du Coudray, the person responsible for the Africa Department at the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), returned from a journey to Uganda a few weeks ago. While there she visited the Bidibidi and Imvepi camps located in the north-west of the country. There are 1.2 million refugees, coming for the most part from South Sudan, dispersed throughout the camps in this region, which covers the dioceses of Arua, Nebbi and Gulu. On top of this there are also refugees to be found in the environs of Kampala, the capital located in the centre of the country. In an interview Robert Lalonde gathers some initial impressions of the trip.
What made you decide to visit this region?
I was invited by three Bishops: Mgr Eduardo Kussala, Bishop of Tombura Yambio and President of the Episcopal Conference, Mgr Roko Taban, the Apostolic Administrator of the diocese of Malakal – both from South Sudan -, and Mgr Tombe Trille, Bishop of El Obeid in Sudan. They had come to see for the first time the situation of their compatriots who had fled to Uganda to escape the violence in South Sudan. I was also invited by the American foundation Sudan Relief Fund with which ACN is linked since we co-fund a number of projects. Mgr Sabino Odoki, the Bishop of Arua in Uganda, took us to get an overview of the situation in these camps. It was a highly enriching week and it left a strong impression.
Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala (diocese of Tombura-Yambio in South Sudan) with a group of young South Sudanese refugees
How would you describe the situation there?
Since we’re dealing with refugee camps you would think that the prevailing mood was one of distress. But it’s important to know that these camps have been in existence since 2013. The residents have food, drinking water and medical care. They even have a plot of land that they can cultivate. All things considered, the living conditions are definitely better than in many African villages which do not receive any external aid. Even so the situation is difficult, which is why the refugees expect support from us. That’s what we came to assess their needs on the spot.
Uganda: Food distribution
What moment on the trip made the greatest impression?
We were all impressed by the welcome given to us by Mgr Odoki and by the leadership he has shown. Among other things, he has assigned two diocesan priests to carry out pastoral work in the camps. We were also highly impressed when we learned that the pieces of land on which the 9 camps of the dioceses in the north-west region have been constructed originally belonged to ordinary Ugandans who generously offered them to the refugees. This welcoming attitude shown by the brothers and sisters in the faith is also in Uganda’s interest since Uganda hopes that its neighbouring country will one day live in peace. Does this not demonstrate a great spirit of hospitality and provide a lesson that should be remembered?
In what way is the Catholic Church involved in the camps?
The presence of the Bishops was a good opportunity for the Church to demonstrate its concern for all these people, who are not there by choice but who have been forced there by life’s vicissitudes. Even so, this period of enforced exile can be used marvellously as a time for training with a view to building the society of tomorrow. When these individuals return home, the re-construction of their country will be in their hands. The Church is already involved and may possibly become further involved by giving other training sessions.
Last year ACN sent € 34 000 to the Emmaus community based near Kampala. This community has considerable expertise in different fields such as catechesis, pastoral care, social doctrine, the family apostolate and in providing emotional and sexual education to young people, which is so important in a country decimated by AIDS. 65 young people have been trained in the camps.
What is the situation of the young in the camps?
These young people have gone through major traumas. Some saw their parents killed before their very eyes, others suffered severe facial burns… they are now asking themselves how they shall ever be able to forgive. The Emmaus community has set up a programme to accompany them in the process of forgiving and invites young people to come and kneel before the Holy Sacrament to pray. The accounts of healing have multiplied, as though the Lord has intervened to soothe hearts and spirits.
Will other means be applied in future to help the refugees?
On the one hand the Bishops have committed themselves to return in September to celebrate Holy Mass in the camps and, on the other, to ask their priests who speak the various Ugandan dialects to come and conduct an apostolate.
What is more, Mgr Odoki, the Bishop of Arua, told us that he was part of a delegation that recently met Pope Francis. The delegation informe him about the situation in the diocese and mentioned the urgent need for the presence of religious sisters among the refugees. The Pope assured them that he would make a special appeal to convents, urging them to respond to this need.
Uganda: Refugees during formation course
And what kind of support can be given by Aid to the Church in Need in the spirit of these commitments?
To foster the presence of Church personnel we envisage building a house with a number of rooms to accommodate priests for a certain time. With the help of other organisations we could do the same for the nuns. Such a house could provide half a floor per congregation with a chapel and a communal dining room.
With regard to the training courses we intend to continue vigorously with our work in this domain. It is clear that the desire for such training, combined with the atmosphere of peace which prevails in the camps, is a factor which favours this kind of involvement. The Bishops were delighted with such a proposal from ACN. They know that, once trained, the leaders we address (catechists, the young people who study the Church’s social doctrine and those who go more deeply into the family apostolate) will share their knowledge and experience with other refugees. In this way they will build the future together. One of them, Santos, also described his experience to us as having been “more than wonderful”. The more we provide these training conditions, the more the country will rise again. Isn’t that a glorious prospect of hope and for a future?
“The aid has to help people rebuild and get back to living a decent life.”
The international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has approved a new package of aid measures involving over 40 pastoral and emergency aid projects for Syrian Christians of the various different rites and denominations. The charity hopes thereby in some way to ease the grave situation in which the people of the country continue to suffer, above all now due to the various economic sanctions such as the petroleum embargo. As Maronite Bishop Joseph Tobji of Aleppo pointed out on 27 June this year in an address to the European Parliament in Brussels, these sanctions “are killing the Syrian people in the same way that the weapons are”.
Workshop “Interreligious Dialogue in International Relations” at the European Parliament with Maronite Archbishop Joseph Tobji from Aleppo in Syria (center)
“Why do the children and sick people have to die for lack of medicines? Why do the unemployed, who have lost their jobs, have to die of hunger because of the embargo?”, the bishop asked the assembled European deputies.
Responding to this and other similar desperate appeals for support from the local Catholic and Orthodox communities in Syria, ACN will be allocating over 2 million Euros for the basic support and medical welfare of needy and displaced families in various different parts of the country, and especially in Aleppo and Homs.
Another of the grave problems affecting the country is immigration which, according to Bishop Tobji, is “a dangerous wound, which continues to bleed”. And an obvious part of this wave of involuntary emigration was the Christian Syrians, of course, who were already a minority before but now were going to be “wiped out if the situation created by the war does not end soon”, he added. Already “only a third” were left of those who were there before. In the face of this great diaspora, the Maronite Bishop wondered who would be left to rebuild the country, given that Syria was now a country “with no productivity, no labour force, a society without life”. The Christians, he said had always been a “cultural bridge” between East and West and had played a primordial role as an element of peace within Syrian society. “If the Christians disappear, there will be many problems, both for their own country and for Europe, which is not so many miles away”, he predicted.
Special help for children and young people
For this reason, among others, another of the main objectives of ACN is the help for children and young people – the future of the country and the reason why so many Christian families are emigrating. That is why a quarter of all the new projects approved by ACN are aimed at the young. On the one hand ACN has launched a number of different educational aid programs and scholarships, given that many families have lost their work in their homes and have no means of funding their children’s basic education or university studies. It is this lack of financial means that has forced many to seek a future outside the country. Now, in the coming months some 1,215 school pupils and 437 university students in Homs and 105 university students in Damascus will benefit from this programme. In addition ACN has undertaken to support the schooling of the children of some 300 especially needy families in Damascus and also of many sick and orphaned children.
Project “Let me live my childhood”
At the same time, a number of projects are aimed at helping children and young people traumatised by seven years of conflict and war. Prominent among these is the initiative “Let me Live My Childhood” in the city of Aleppo. Father Antoine Tahan, parish priest of the Armenian Catholic Church of the Holy Cross, who is in charge of this initiative, explains: “Thank to the support of ACN the child will come out, having been stripped of ‘adult clothes’ and take back some of the gifts of childhood, which are irreplaceable.” In addition to this ACN will be supporting a number of summer courses for young people, organised both by the Maronite Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church in Aleppo, the city that has probably suffered most during the war.
Maronite Archbishop Joseph Tobji of Aleppo in bombed Maronite Cathedral. Aleppo, Syria
Faithful to its pastoral character ACN approved almost half million Euros for the repair or restoration of a number of churches and monasteries, including the Maronite cathedral and the Syro-Catholic cathedral, both of which are in Aleppo, as well the training of seminarians and the support of priests. For as Bishop Tobji emphasises, “the Church is the first port of call for the people” and yet the Church would be unable to provide is help without the support of “benefactors, organisations and ecclesiastical foundations like ACN”. Our aid “has to be able to help people rebuild, find work and resume a life in dignity”. Hence his desperate appeal to the West: “Do the right thing; help us to find peace.”