At the end of December 2016 the forces allied to President Bashar al Assad took definitive control of the city of Aleppo. Just six months have passed since the bombings ceased in this great northern city of Syria, the largest city in the country and its principal industrial centre which once numbered over 2 million inhabitants. “Now there are no more bombings and the streets are safe”, comments Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, who is also president of Caritas Syria. He was speaking to the delegation from the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) which was visiting the city. “However, unfortunately the situation is not going to change greatly. The war will continue. It appears that Syria will remain divided, as has happened in Iraq.”
Arriving in Aleppo from the south of the city, the scene is one of total devastation. The area close to the international airport and the southern and eastern suburbs appear to be almost completely destroyed. There is scarcely a single building that has not been hit by the bombs – evident scars of the combat that lasted for almost four and a half years. The fighting started here later than in the rest of the country, but the consequences are all too visible nonetheless. The atmosphere of total desertion is interrupted only by the army soldiers at the various checkpoints.
“We all want the war to end. But when and how is a problem that no one knows how to resolve”, says Father George Abou Khazen, the Latin apostolic vicar of Syria, a Franciscan priest of the Custody of the Holy Land. The Franciscans first arrived in Aleppo in 1238 and since then they have never left this land, endeavouring to help the most needy, working in education and striving to sponsor dialogue between the religions. Monsignor Abou Khazen assures us that relations between the various different Christian rites, and indeed with the Muslims also, have always been good. “The Syrians are an open-minded people. The country is made up of a broad mosaic of 18 different ethnic and religious groups who have always managed to get along together well.”
One of the biggest problems is that the economic situation is still stagnating. The devaluation of the currency and the lack of work mean that families are entirely dependent on outside aid. “If it were not for the Church, the NGOs and other charitable organisations, it would be impossible to live here”, insists Father Sami Halak, a Jesuit who is in charge of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Aleppo. Every day his organisation distributes 9,000 hot meals and supports various different educational programmes for young people. It is also supported by organisations such as ACN.
“Many families, with an average of four members, need between 80,000 and 200,000 Syrian pounds a month in order to be able to live even modestly. Yet the average salary today is only around 30,000 Syrian pounds – and that is for those who can actually earn a wage, since the level of unemployment is extremely high”, Father Halak adds. The high cost of basic necessities and housing, given the devaluation of the currency, make life very complicated in Aleppo. Whereas before the war, a dollar was equivalent to 50 Syrian pounds, today it is equal to 550.
According to Bishop Audo, “the aid provided by the Catholic Church is increasing and now, with the liberation of Aleppo, there is a huge amount of work to be done.” This work is bearing fruit, however, for in every parish they are little by little registering new families who have returned to the city. In the case of the Latin-rite Catholic community, 15 families have returned, one of them from Italy and another from Germany. “We don’t yet know the exact number of Chaldean families who have returned. I have been in contact with a number of them who have returned from Tartus and Latakia. But regardless of how many families are arriving, others are leaving because the situation is unstable, and they don’t know what is going to happen in the future”, Bishop Audo comments.
The Christian community in Aleppo is among those who have suffered most from the consequences of the war. Of the 150,000 Christians who used to live in the city in 2011 there are just some 35,000 left as of mid-2017. But not all of them have left. There are men like Dr Nabil Antaki, a gastroenterologist, who have stayed on the whole time among the people, helping those wounded in the war and coordinating the project known as “A Drop of Milk”, which is supported by ACN and provides milk for 3,000 children each month. One of his brothers was murdered by the rebels as he was driving from Aleppo to Homs in his car. Antaki actually holds Canadian nationality, and his children are living in the United States, “but my wife and I told them that we were going to stay on here because we wanted to help those in need and our mission is here”, he told us. He believes that the war will end only when foreign powers cease funding the armed groups. “It is not a war for democracy, it seems rather to be a war for the destruction of Syria.”
Another major problem is the exodus of the younger generation. All men aged between 18 and 42 are compulsorily recruited into the army by the government. There are only two exceptions: being a university student or the only male child in the family. For this reason one hardly sees any youths or men between these ages in the streets of Aleppo. There are numerous women, either solitary or with children in their arms. Many of them are widows, while others had stayed on to care for their family while their husbands are serving in the army or have fled the country.
Bahe Salibi (not his real name) is a student of medicine at the University of Aleppo. He comes from Hasaka, in the northeast of the country. He came here because he wanted to become a doctor and help the sick and wounded. At first his family opposed this, because Aleppo was far away and not secure. He should have completed his studies a year ago, but he has delayed his graduation in order to hold onto his dispensation from serving in the army. “I’m afraid, because this year I haven’t received the paper exempting me from military service. I scarcely dare go out onto the street in case they identify me”, he confesses. Others of his fellow students are in the same situation and prefer not to even think about it, at least during the actual period of the exams. They need to concentrate on their studies, and later they will see what to do in the coming month.
ACN has so far donated over 18 million Euros for various projects within Syria since the conflict began in 2011. Father Abou Khazen is well aware of this aid for the Christians and the most needy in Aleppo. “We are grateful to the benefactors of ACN for giving us the opportunity to be able to stay on here. You help us to feel that we are not alone, that we are not a forgotten minority. We are part of a great family that is the Church”, he told ACN. He has had the opportunity to meet Pope Francis on three occasions in recent years. “Every time we have met, he has said to me, ‘I hold Syria in my heart’. The help from various different Church organisations and also directly from the Vatican gives us the assurance that there is still hope”, he concludes.