A bad day for Selma. Today, the Syrian mother of three children had to watch her oldest son leave for Lebanon. “My son had to go because of the difficulties. It was hard to say goodbye,” she says, fighting back tears as she washes a few coffee cups. “I don’t know when I will see him again. I was only able to give him some money for the trip. Not even something to eat. He has to walk the last leg. I will send him his clothes later.” Her story mirrors the current situation of many Christians in Syria.
The family fled when the crisis began in 2011 and terrorists descended upon the homes of Christians in Idlib. “They hammered against the doors to let us know that we had to leave because they wanted the houses. Who? We had never seen them before. They shot their guns into the air to frighten the people. Everyone packed up their belongings and left.” Since then, the family has been living with Selma’s mother Johaina in the Valley of the Christians in western Syria. When Selma’s husband died in a car accident three years ago, from one day to the next, the family had lost its breadwinner and its entire savings. Her son, 16 years old at the time, suddenly had to support the family by himself.
By the light of a battery-operated lamp, Selma talks about her other two children, her son Elian (11) and her daughter Marita (16). “Elian thinks like a mature man because he is now working from eight in the morning until six o’clock at night and no longer goes to school. He has developed eczema from carrying wood and furniture,” she says with concern. However, the widow is even more worried about Marita. “She has already received a lot of marriage proposals because she is so beautiful. However, she looks older than she actually is. To save money she walks to school, even when it is raining. But a young man from outside of the valley recently tried to pick her up.” Selma is proud of her daughter. “She took first place in a regional Olympics for chemistry and mathematics. But we did not have the money to travel to Homs for her to take part in the national competition.”
When her daughter Marita suffered burns on her leg and no one could help Selma pay for her treatment and medicine, she turned to the centre of the Catholic Maronite Church in Marmarita, which is supported by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). She met Majd Jalhoum (29) and her brother Elie (31) there, who have spent the last seven years working together with a team of young members of the Catholic Maronite Church to help the many refugees in the Valley of the Christians. She has received food packages from them and some money for the rent. “Without them we would have nothing to eat. I used to go shopping at different markets all the time to borrow money from the various merchants. Now that I have money, I first have to pay them back.” Her faith is very important to the widow. “If God, the Virgin Mary and Elie – from the centre – had not been there, I would no longer be alive.” Selma’s most heartfelt wish is to have work and a house of her own again…but not in Idlib. Even if peace were to return, she does not want go back. “My house no longer exists. None of my Christian neighbours want to return.”
Selma’s story mirrors the circumstances of many Christians in Syria, as studies carried out by ACN on the situation of the Christians have shown. With the help of the dioceses, a small team is contacting parishes all across Syria to find out exactly how many parish members have stayed and how many have fled, were abducted or murdered. They are also cataloguing the church property that has been damaged or destroyed. Even if the results have not been published yet, alarming trends have surfaced. For example, a large number of young Christian men have just left the country so that they do not (or no longer) have to fight in the war. It is difficult to return; a legal provision dating back to before the war stipulates that they may only officially return after four years and after paying about 7,000 euros. For the many young men who are working for a pittance in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, this is a prohibitive amount. One concern with regard to the Christian presence in the country is that the women who remain will in the meantime marry Muslims…which inevitably means that the children will not be baptised.
Moreover, just like Selma, a number of refugees no longer want to return – irrespective of whether they stayed in the country or fled to other countries. Many lost all of their belongings during the war. Others have rebuilt their lives somewhere else and are not exactly thrilled by the prospect of having to face the uncertainty of a new job and a new flat in a country that has largely been destroyed and in which unemployment is rampant. And then there is the deep mistrust towards former Muslim neighbours who in some places were involved in the capture and occupation by extremists. As a result, only a very small community of faith remains at historically Christian places – and that although the Church has been established there since the first century A.D. It is questionable whether time will be able to heal these wounds.
Sign of hope
Then again, Christians are coming back to the most unexpected places. Such as the family of Reznan Berberaska (22) from Homs. Their house is located at the former war front. It was renovated within eight months, a small miracle when you look down from the balcony of the house over the destruction on the street. Reznan, who would like to become a pharmacist, points to the plastic chairs and the full clothesline that are visible farther down the street through the large holes in the façade. “They are also busy rebuilding there.” The Church in Syria is hoping to see a reversal similar to that which occurred on the Nineveh Plains in Iraq. Prior to the withdrawal of the so-called Islamic State, only 4% of the local refugees wanted to return home. Now, two years later, 45% of the 12 000 houses that were destroyed have been rebuilt and the families have in fact come back. For this reason, a committee of the largest communities of faith in Homs signed an agreement with ACN last week for the reconstruction of several hundreds of houses. With a lot of prayers and help from outside of the country, the dream of Reznan of Homs may come true: “That the street is restored to what it used to be.” However, in view of the migration of Christians in Syria on the one hand and the necessary rebuilding of houses and churches on the other hand, the prospects are not good. Syria will never return to that which it once was, it will never be the same country.