Thanks to the help of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN, the great majority of Christian university students in Syria have been able to continue their studies. Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the foundation has given over 3.6 million Euros in support of these young people’s school and university studies.
In the midst of a country in which the war has not yet even finished, the young Christians of the city of Homs still remain optimistic. “Little by little, the situation in Syria is beginning to improve. Daily life and public transport are gradually returning to normal, although we still face many economic problems.” This is how daily life in his city is summed up by one young student, Khalil Al Tawil.
Today many people have gathered in the Melkite Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Homs to celebrate the Eucharist together. The restoration work inside the cathedral is still ongoing, however. You can still see the bullet holes in a large icon which occupies the entire wall of one of the side aisles. The jihadists made a point of shooting at the paintings, and especially shooting out the eyes of the icons of Jesus, Mary and the Apostles. Hence the celebration of Holy Mass here, united once again together, is a great gesture of hope.
Among the congregation are some 300 young university students who have been able to continue their studies thanks to support channelled through their local Church, via a project sponsored by the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International). Khalil explains, “I was given a bursary for educational materials and so I could follow a course in French. I was also given help with transport to the university.”
“There has been a great deal of suffering in Homs, and many families have lost everything in the war”, says another young student, Anaghem Tannous, who is studying civil engineering. “Being able to continue with my studies is what has helped me to remain hopeful and stay happy through these years. Now I want to be able to deepen my knowledge and help other people here in my country.”
Education is an investment in the present and, needless to say, for the future. The young people in this country, and especially the young men, are a section of society that has been greatly affected by the conflict. Every young man aged 18 or over is liable to conscription in the army, without any time limit. The only grounds for exemption are if they are the only male child in the family or else engaged in university studies. This was another reason why millions of young people fled the country, hoping to escape conscription and having to fight in the war.
“Many thanks for your help. There are many of us facing difficulties, but you never failed us with your support”, acknowledges Wissam Salloum, aged 21 and a software engineering student. “I’m in my fourth year; hopefully, next year I will graduate, but I would like to continue my studies in order to avoid being sent to war. I want to remain in Syria and I am hoping that very soon we will have peace, peace for everyone.”
Wissam finds it difficult to put into words his emotions when he is told that kind benefactors around the world are helping him and hundreds of other young students to be able to continue their studies and their careers. “One of the most difficult times I experienced was when the university was forced to close down a few years ago, for several months, owing to the intensity of the attacks. We all thought that we would now no longer be able to fulfil our dreams and finish our university careers and one day enjoy a better life here.”
Outside the cathedral there is a small basketball court on which an impromptu game of three a side is in progress. The cathedral courtyard is a meeting place for these young people, where in addition to celebrating their faith they can share their everyday lives through sport and friendship. Wissam greets his fellow student Ibrahim Karam. “Obviously, the majority of the students in our university are Muslims. It is rare to meet with another Christian at university, so for that reason our friendship is all the stronger. We are friends with everyone, and in fact our Muslim fellow students have a high regard for us. They greatly appreciate the peace-loving attitude of the Christians and the fact that we don’t want to quarrel with anyone, and they look to us with hope in the face of so many difficulties.”
The meeting ends with lunch on the edge of the basketball court. The first buses soon start to arrive to carry back the people who live on the outskirts of the city. A group of friends say goodbye with a hug. “These are the same buses that take us to the university. The Church takes charge of the expenses, and it is a big help to our families, since we barely have enough to eat with or to pay the rent on our homes“, explains another student, Sandra Satmeh.
Her friend, Pascal Napki, also wants to say thank you to us once again, before she leaves. “We know now that we are not alone. This gives us the motivation to complete our studies and at the same time to help those who are most in need here in Homs”, she tells us. “And we want to thank Pope Francis too. I don’t know him personally, of course, but I know that he has spoken many times about Syria and has told the world about our situation.”