Despite the horror caused by the earthquake that devastated large parts of Northern Syria, there are signs of hope, especially in the way Syrians have come together in a show of unity and solidarity not seen since before the Civil War.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) will be providing at least half a million Euros of immediate aid to Christians in Syria in the wake of the devastating earthquake that killed more than 20,000 people in that country and in neighbouring Turkey.
Given the many years of war and the economic collapse of Syria, the organisation already had projects in place and partners on the ground in cities such as Aleppo and Lattakia, which have considerable Christian communities and were badly affected by the quake.
A number of the relief projects already approved are small-scale and aimed at addressing immediate and short-term needs, according to Xavier Stephen Bisits, head of ACN’s Lebanon and Syria section, who travelled to Aleppo immediately after the quake. “We are working with the Franciscans in Lattakia, who are providing blankets and food for displaced families; the Armenian Orthodox in Aleppo have prepared a project to supply medicine to displaced families; the Institute of the Incarnate Word wants to work with us on a project for the affected families and we also have a project with the St. Vincent de Paul Society to provide personal hygiene care for the elderly, many of whom have chosen not to leave their homes and are living alone.”
The most important project, however, has to do with helping people get back to their homes as quickly as possible. For this, however, it is necessary for the houses to be surveyed by engineers, to make sure there is no risk of collapse.
Fortunately, according to Xavier Stephen Bisits, the nine different Christian churches present in Aleppo have an excellent working relationship and have already taken the lead in this respect. “On Wednesday night the Synod of Catholic bishops met in Aleppo and assembled a team of engineers who are going to start assessing the damage to the houses of the Christian families and the approximate cost for each one, and this is something I hope ACN can help with, and we fully expect to be able to do it in a very professional way. The Orthodox Bishops will also be engaged and send representatives or participate in these discussions to make sure our help includes all, Catholic and Orthodox Christians.”
Finally, ACN is also in touch with the Joint Committee of Aleppo, a body representing all Churches, to help fund a project to cover the costs of renting houses for the families whose buildings suffered more extensive damage, or were completely destroyed, and who will have to wait weeks, if not months, to find a new home or move back to their own, when restored.
A tragedy within a tragedy
The earthquake in Syria can best be described as a tragedy within a tragedy. More than a decade of war, along with a pandemic and more recently a crushing financial crisis, had already left the population in despair. To many, the earthquake felt like the last straw.
However, there have been some unexpected consequences as well, and some Syrians say that they are seeing demonstrations of unity and solidarity that had not been witnessed since the beginning of the war.
“In general, people are afraid, but they are showing a solidarity we had not seen in 12 years in Syria. People gather, share and pray. There is an initiative for a unity prayer in all churches in Damascus, in other governorates, and in the diaspora. This will be on Sunday 12 February at 19h30, and live on social media”, says Marie Rose Diab, a Syrian who works for ACN in Damascus.
Because of the difficulty of access for international organizations to Syria, much of the aid at this point seems to be locally directed: Syrians who themselves are living in poverty gathering whatever resources they can to help other Syrians. “After 12 years of war, people had been unable to give much, but now all the people are donating for the displaced”, she explains.
Many of those who were able, left the most affected cities for other places. Father Fadi Azar, a Catholic priest from Lattakia, where eight Christians were killed, was preparing to do just that after the earthquake. “We had initially thought of leaving Latakia as well, but we found many people who had come to our parish, including many who did not have cars, and they had come to shelter in our church, so we decided to stay with them. A lot of young men and women from our parish have been helping us”, he explains.
The priest has also seen signs of solidarity among the people. “We were deeply moved when one of the parishioners we usually help came today with some loaves of bread to offer others. We all have to help each other at this time”, he concluded.
Help can also come in the form of prayer, and the spiritual support. “On Friday at 19h00 we are having an ecumenical prayer service in our church to comfort and encourage the people, because a lot of people are scared, and to console them also, because some of them lost friends and relatives. Many people need counselling, because they don’t know what to do. Some are scared and left for Damascus, others don’t know where to go. It is a very difficult time. Many people come to ask me what to do. We try to welcome them, support them and help them”, said Fr Fadi.
ACN invites all its friends and benefactors to join the ecumenical prayer service that will take place on Sunday, 12 February at 19h30, Damascus time (16h30 Central European Time). You can do so by gathering with your friends and family and following the service through the Facebook page of the Al Farah Choir.