Yolla Ghandour, a Syrian-Armenian Catholic and mother of three, lives in Aleppo. She saw some of the worst fighting of the Syrian civil war. She talked to Aid to the Church in Need about the death of her 19-year-old son, Krikor, who died in the fighting.

“There were five of us: my husband, my two sons and daughter, and myself. Our financial circumstances worsened as a result of the war. My husband and Krikor lost their jobs because the area where they worked was dangerous; it was shelled by militants. To cover necessities, we relied on our savings. It was a difficult time. “A week before he died [on April 16, 2014], Krikor came home to visit us because an uncle had passed away. While getting ready to leave again, he turned to his father and said, ‘I am going back to death.’

Syria: a mother, her son killed in the war, finds strength in her faith: ‘our roots must be planted in God’.

Syria: a mother, her son killed in the war, finds strength in her faith: ‘our roots must be planted in God’.

“On the day he died, we spoke on the phone, and after the call ended I had a strong feeling, like a premonition. I prayed to the Virgin Mary: ‘Please don’t test me. You tasted from this cup; please don’t let me experience the same pain.’ “That night I received another call. They told me that Krikor was wounded, and that he’d been taken to a hospital. I rushed to his side, praying to St. Sharbel: ‘I have given you my son. I do not want to find him dead.’ But, inside, I was nearly sure that he had died.

“After his death, I struggled with St. Sharbel: ‘I don’t love you anymore. I begged you to keep my son alive, and you didn’t.’ Then, about 10 minutes later, I looked at the saint’s face in a painting we own and said to him: ‘I can’t keep myself from loving you. But promise me that you will be with my son.’ “As Christians, we believe in the resurrection, and after a few months of reflection on life in the kingdom of God, I learned that the dead see, hear, and feel us. And I found that I could be proud of my son, above all else.

ACN has supported the pastoral and humanitarian mission of the various Churches in Syria with projects totaling more than € 33M.

ACN has supported the pastoral and humanitarian mission of the various Churches in Syria with projects totaling more than € 33M.

“When we face life’s storms, we must stand like a strong tree, roots fixed deeply in the ground. Our roots must be planted in God; we must weather change and grief with trust in his love.” From 2011, when the Syrian civil war began, through 2018, ACN has supported the pastoral and humanitarian mission of the various Churches in Syria with projects totaling more than € 33M.

In the course of 2019 the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) is supporting over 40 different projects for summer activities on behalf of the Christian communities in countries where they are a minority, experience discrimination or suffering as a result of wars or other conflicts. Almost half these projects are for the Christian communities in the Middle East, above all in Syria, where a total of 28 such summer courses will be held for young people and families. After a bloody and fratricidal war, which has resulted today in a critical economic and social situation, Christians of various different faith communities from the dioceses of Homs, Aleppo, Latakia and Damascus have been or will be gathering together between June and September to recuperate, gain new strength and find healing for past trauma.

Summer camps in Syria – “She felt her heart had begun to beat again”.

Summer camps in Syria – “She felt her heart had begun to beat again”.

Father Antoine Mukhallala, of the Greek Melkite diocese of Aleppo, has just returned from one of the eight summer courses that are being organised by the Faith and Life Community for handicapped people and their families. It can sometimes be difficult to comprehend what these people suffered during the war. Terrorised by the bombings and by the snipers, who killed civilians for no reason whatsoever, they scarcely dared emerge from their homes. Today these people have great need of psychological support and a need to encounter God to find peace through prayer amid nature. Hence the summer camps are a ray of light for them in this situation.

Among the many things Father Antoine has encountered, there is one story in particular he wants to tell ACN about. It concerns a widow, the mother of two little girls, one of whom is autistic. “This mother was suffering terribly, because she had lost her husband when he attempted to emigrate in one of the “ships of death” to Europe. Not because he drowned, however, but because he was murdered, and she had to witness his body being returned to her with his throat cut.

This woman was suffering greatly, yet living imprisoned in her solitude. Although physically present among the rest of the group, she barely spoke, either about her dead husband or her daughter. She rejected every kind of happiness, even though the others tried to reach her in her pain. Little by little, however, during the summer camp week, a sense of love began to return to this woman’s heart; the darkness began to lift from it and it began to beat again with love. She began to realise once more that life is beautiful – partly thanks to the dramatic change in the behaviour of her autistic daughter, who even invited me to dance with her!

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) is supporting over 40 different projects for summer activities.

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) is supporting over 40 different projects for summer activities.

At the end of the week, this mother said to us, “If only the camp had lasted another week, I’m quite sure that my Jenny would even have begun to speak!” I have been involved in many summer camps during my six years as a priest, but this most recent one in Kfarsetta with the “Family of Hope” was one of the most beautiful of all, in which I experienced the joy of Love and of which I can say that I received more than I gave”, Father Antoine continues.

“I give thanks to God for what this woman experienced and for having been given the opportunity to live many such spiritual experiences. And I also want to thank you all, the representatives and benefactors of ACN, for having supported these camps, for without your support we could never have had this experience, which has brought us so much closer to the advertised theme of the summer camp, which was “Building community, with God”. I pray to Almighty God that he may bless you all so that you can continue helping all those who call upon you and that you may continue being an instrument of God in spreading his Love throughout the world”, he concludes. This summer many other groups of children, young people and families, like the “Family Hope”, will be taking part in similar summer camps, not only in other parts of Syria but also in Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Crimea and the Republic of Congo, so that they can relax, recuperate and find new strength, not merely physically and psychologically, but also spiritually.

In principio erat Verbum – in the beginning was the Word; at the origin of everything is the creative reason of God”, said Pope Benedict XVI. Faith and reason are necessary for each other. “Without reason, faith degenerates; without faith, reason threatens to become stunted.”

Using our reason is essential for us as Christians, so that we can better understand our Faith. For Christians in Islamic countries, and especially in Syria, it is also needed for survival. Only well-educated Christians can defend themselves to their Islamic neighbours and flourish and thrive in this environment. A good education is also necessary for young Christians to have any chance in the job market. And only young Christians who are enrolled at university can avoid conscription in the army. Education is the key to peaceful coexistence among those of conflicting beliefs. That is one reason why Christians in the Middle East have always attached great importance to their children receiving a good education. It is also why their children’s schooling and university studies are so important to them.

Education is the key to peaceful coexistence among those of conflicting beliefs

Education is the key to peaceful coexistence among those of conflicting beliefs

For Christians who are now returning to Aleppo, or who have never left the city, issues such as how they will pay for their children’s studies are never far from their minds. Working with ten local Christian Churches ACN has drawn up a programme to support students. Under this scheme some 7,340 young people will receive €20 per month for the duration of the academic year (eight months) – to help with transport, food and other essentials. The Church also organises spiritual events for students, to support their souls in addition to supporting their studies. The students’ prayers, along with their studies, can help to build a peaceful future in Syria. Would you consider supporting one student for one year in Aleppo?

I’m born anew after eight years! The story of Fadi

Almost 8 years after the outbreak of a devastating civil war, Fadi, a young Syrian man, relates to ACN how he heard the call to service. It was the call of God to become his priest. However, his response to this call to serve God in his people was held up for a time by another call to a different kind of service, one that seized him and would not let him go… For the state had conscripted him into military service for eight long years – was that in order to serve his people? Fortunately, however, his vocation did not wither away during that time; quite the contrary, in fact, for he declares, “Now I am absolutely determined to start my training for the priesthood.”

Chosen to go out and bear fruit

It was towards the end of his studies in tourism at the Institute of Saint Basil in Aleppo that Fadi for the first time heard the call of God in his heart. It was an important stage in his life. He had also been fortunate enough by then to gain the basics of the French language. Perhaps not enough to be able to study in this language, and in any case he would later forget a great deal of it during his time in the army. And yet, clearly, God was already at work preparing him for his entry into the seminary, because the training for the priesthood is given in French in this part of the world. At the present time, in fact, there are no seminaries in Syria and all the Syrian seminarians have to travel to Lebanon to study theology.

On completing his studies, Fadi Joseph Mora applied to study for the priesthood. He could not resist the appeal he had heard in his heart. The son of a Catholic Maronite family, he had already received a solid Christian education at home, his character shaped in a family which is the first and fundamental place of human formation. His parents, who had emigrated to Venezuela for economic reasons, had returned to Syria in order to bring up their children in their own country.

Military service unavoidable

The Bishop advised the young man to come back again after completing his military service, since conscription was inevitable for everyone who wasn’t rich enough to buy their way out of it. Before the war, young Syrian men were expected to do military service for a period of 18 months to 2 years, after which they were still reservists. But everything changed with the war. The length of service became open-ended, and the Syrian authorities imposed penalties on those who sought to escape it. Anyone wanting to return to Syria had to pay at least 8,000 US dollars.

Bishop Joseph Tobji with a candidate for priesthood, Fadi Mora.

Bishop Joseph Tobji with a candidate for priesthood, Fadi Mora.

Marked by the resurrection

Fadi began his military service just four months before the war broke out. When he enrolled, he was hoping that it would end quickly. He was among the cohort that had been called up in 2010, and he wasn’t demobilised until last year, 2018, after spending eight years serving in the army. Today he recalls that moment with joy: “31 December 2018 was the date when my military service ended, the day I was born again after those eight long years! I will remember that date for ever!” So it was that in a sense his own vocation was marked by a resurrection of sorts, which has left him with a deep sense of serenity. Death does not have the last word.

Immediately after returning, he approached the Bishop again to renew his application. This time he was received by the new Bishop, Joseph Tobji, who welcomed him with open arms. Bishop Tobji explained that ever since his appointment as bishop he has prayed for vocations, along with the entire diocese, celebrating Holy Mass each day for this intention. “It is a great joy for me and for everyone to welcome a new vocation”, he says. “Our prayers have been heard!”

The word of the Lord has remained alive in him

“The word of the Lord that was addressed to me never died, but has remained alive within me”, says Fadi. And Bishop Tobji confirms: “The seed that was sown by the Lord did not die, it merely awaited the opportune moment to germinate. Now we intend to create the best possible conditions so that it may grow within the bosom of the Catholic Church and bear fruit.” The Bishop, who himself is from Aleppo and who founded a humanitarian aid centre to help the victims of war and the ensuing poverty, emphasises, “Our country and our people are suffering. But it is a mistake to think that there is nothing but bad news. I have just founded a new parish, and on top of this we are blessed with this new vocation. So there are also many positive things happening, and we need to talk about them in order to encourage people’s hopes.”

Protecting and nurturing vocations

“God never ceases to call chosen individuals to follow him and serve him in the ordained ministry, despite everything”, confirms Father Andrzej Halemba, the head of ACN’s projects section for the Middle East, Africa and Asia. And he adds, “Jesus tells us, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’ (Cf. Jn 15:15-16). But at the same time we ourselves must also play our part by supporting the training of candidates for the priesthood who present themselves and are accepted. As the Church, we are obliged to respond to God’s gift with the gifts within the capacity of each one of us – namely prayer, service or material support. Without our aid, vocations like Fadi’s cannot be fulfilled. So first of all we must pray for the seminarians in Syria, for they are living in particularly difficult conditions. The country is still at war and the people are suffering deep poverty. And moreover, they are surrounded by a majority Muslim society that does not understand the choice they have made. And so we must protect and nurture these vocations, so that they will bear rich fruit.”

The number of Christians in Aleppo fell dramatically during the war, from 180,000 before the war to 32,000 today. Joseph Tobji, Maronite Archbishop of Aleppo and shepherd of a small community of about 400 families, spoke with Pierre Macqueron of the pontifical foundation  Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

What is the situation in the city two years after the liberation of Aleppo by government forces?
In terms of safety, the situation has improved, even though bombs continue to fall. Several have been dropped on the fringes of Aleppo over the past few weeks. Therefore, the conflict has not actually ended yet.

However, what is raging now is more a war of economics. At the end of 2016, we thought that everyone would find work again and would be able to participate in rebuilding the city. We were surprised by the embargo and by the sanctions, which are hitting us even harder now. Every day, we are plagued by power failures [16 hours a day]. The economy is not working, inflation is soaring. In addition, corruption in the country has reached record highs. It is easy to imagine the situation of the inhabitants of Aleppo. Today, the people are demotivated.

Maronite Archbishop Joseph Tobji of Aleppo in bombed Maronite Cathedral, Old City, Aleppo, Syria.

Maronite Archbishop Joseph Tobji of Aleppo in bombed Maronite Cathedral, Old City, Aleppo, Syria.

What is the situation in Aleppo two years after the government forces recaptured the city?
We have lost a lot of resources and a lot of qualified workers. Emigration has become our bleeding wound. Even those who are still here are somewhere else in their hearts. The people dream of the paradise of the Western world. However, when they arrive there, they find a different reality to what they expected. They are very surprised and very disappointed. They are disappointed here and disappointed there: that is the great tragedy. We still had hope in 2016, now many are succumbing to despair.

What is the church doing to help people in need?
Young people want to go to other countries to find work. This is why I calculated that 40 per cent of our Christian community is made up of older people, but there are only two or three homes for the elderly in Aleppo. We try to support them both socially and through pastoral care by making sure that they have access to medicine, psycho-social support, food, education and housing.

Syria - arriving in Aleppo.

Syria – arriving in Aleppo.

We have to strengthen the faith of the people, anchor them in this country, encourage them to be witnesses of Christ, the salt of the earth and light of the world: we cannot allow our presence here to become insignificant. We have lived through a particularly painful period of history: we are living in extraordinary circumstances. Now we need to deal with them appropriately. To this end, we organised the first Synod of Catholic bishops in Aleppo last week.

What would you like to say to our benefactors?
In the name of all the Christians in Aleppo, I would like to thank them for their assistance, which carries us and strengthens our hope. Thank you with all of my heart.

In Aleppo the number of Christians shrank fivefold during the war. Now the economic crisis and the lack of professional employment opportunities are a source of anguish, especially for the young.

The performers are a choir of 60 or so children and young people, supported by five musicians. It is Saturday 17 March in the late afternoon. The Orthodox Youth Movement is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its creation. In the packed hall, the audience applauds appreciatively. A simple concept, but something that has become rare in recent years in this city of Aleppo, which was once the economic capital of the country, before the war.

The anguish of the young

Among the young singers is Miriam Toubal, aged 23, a student in biotechnology, who conducts the children’s choir. For a year now, for one hour a week, she has rehearsed them in singing these songs. The rehearsals are at least less stressful than during the war, though even that didn’t prevent the choristers from attempting to gather and sing.

It’s not long before Miriam confides in us her anxiety as to her future. Finding a good job so as to be able to continue living decently is a major challenge in a city devastated by six years of war, and since then by the economic sanctions. In Syria the level of youth unemployment is an estimated 78%. And so many of these young people are deeply concerned for their own future and that of those they love.

Aleppo (Syria), destroyed building in front of the Citadelle.

Aleppo (Syria), destroyed building in front of the Citadelle.

All activity paralysed

Since the end of the fighting, the situation has not got better in this once prosperous city. Quite the contrary, in fact. So many of the citizens of this town will tell you about the difficulties of daily life. The economic recovery, so long-awaited, is still not happening, and the average job does not pay well enough to provide the basic daily needs, so rapidly have prices risen. The souk, whose 13 km of stores and boutiques were once the pride of the city and were classed as a world Heritage site by UNESCO, still lies in ruins and has not yet been restored. In front of what was once his own stall, Elias Farah, on returning there for the first time, cannot hide his emotions, noting anxiously that the whole place seems to be in imminent danger of collapse.

The former economic capital of the country is suffering terribly from the economic embargo. «It’s the poor and the ordinary people who are suffering above all from the situation» says Syrian Catholic Archbishop Antoine Chahda of Aleppo. The war is continuing and the lack of future prospects is only adding to the unhappiness of the families and the despair of so many Christians. In the suburbs of Aleppo, the industrial zone is a desolate sight: the bombed out factories have been looted, and there is no sign of any activity whatsoever.

Aleppo (Syria), recital orgnized by MJO - Miriam Toubal, "the voice of Aleppo".

Aleppo (Syria), recital orgnized by MJO – Miriam Toubal, “the voice of Aleppo”.

Structured aid

In order to meet the daily needs of life, whether in Aleppo or in Homs, the Christian communities have organised themselves and are counting on the generosity of the universal Church. Once prosperous, they have become beggars, says Greek Orthodox Bishop George Abu Zakham of Homs, noting at the same time that the foreign aid is decreasing.

The support supplied by ACN, in the form of medical and food aid, help with rent and education, remains indispensable for many families. Lay committees have been set up, in order to be able to share out this aid fairly among the various different Christian communities. Their task is to identify the most urgent needs and closely monitor the use of the aid supplied. It is an effective system and one that enables  the different Christian Churches to work together. It is a vital form of aid, and one that is rekindling a new spark of life in the stale air and smouldering ashes of a city in ruins. For a brief moment, Miriam was the voice of that city.

From March 2011 up to the end of 2018, ACN provided 29.5 million Euros in aid for Syria, in the form of 738 different projects. 80% of these projects were in the form of emergency aid.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT Aid to the Church in Need, VISIT http://www.churchinneed.org
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ABOUT US

Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 5000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.