The Orthodox Youth Movement, which is helping 2,200 Christian families each month in the Syrian city of Aleppo, is being supported by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN)
Over 100 young people have gathered in a small building opposite the Greek Orthodox Church of Mar Elias in northern Aleppo. They are all wearing dark red polo shirts with the image of Christ Pantocrator and the logo of the Orthodox Youth Movement. Most of these young people are university students working as volunteers, and the movement is a charity which is helping around 2,200 Christian families in Aleppo who have been plunged into poverty as a result of the war.
“We are also helping 1,700 Muslim families, providing them with clothing, food, medicines and accommodation for those who have lost their homes in the bombings”, explains Elias Faraj, a retired civil engineer who is coordinating the aid programme. Aleppo is the city that has suffered most of all as a result of the civil war. After five years of warfare and despite the fact that the bombs finally stopped falling last December, the city is still without electricity most of the time and the water supply is still very limited. “Our future is still very uncertain, and the crisis will continue for a long time yet, I fear”, Faraj confesses.
Today the group of volunteers is being visited by Father Andrzej Halemba, a Catholic priest and the head of the projects section for the Middle East of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). After the various introductions and words of thanks on the part of the leaders of the movement, Father Halemba is delighted to be able to talk to the young people and encourage them in their work and daily life. “You are the hope of Syria, you are the light in the midst of so much darkness”, he tells them. Deep emotion shines in the eyes of these young men and women. At the end they all stand up and together recite a prayer in Arabic.
“ACN helped us back in 2015 for the cost of a project for providing medical supplies. At the same time it is supporting 700 families each month, with a total of 30,000 Euros”, Elias Faraj tells us. “We are extremely grateful for this aid, and grateful for this visit by Father Andrzej, because it gives us hope and courage to continue working here. This crisis has made us still more united and encouraged us to collaborate more closely together between our different Churches, for we are the same Body of Christ”.
These young people, leaders and volunteers of the Orthodox Youth Movement have also suffered the consequences of the war. Yet despite this, they continue their work of helping those in still greater need. Elias Faraj himself is an example of this. He has been responsible for the social aid section of the organisation since 2011, when the civil war first broke out in Syria and before the conflict extended to Aleppo. Soon after he he was abducted for three days and his family were forced to pay a ransom and were lucky to get him back alive. One of his sisters was shot in the leg while walking in the street and came close to losing her leg. “But I have forgiven them. There are some who think that I am stupid for having done so, but I do forgive them. This is the true freedom that God gives us.”
For Joseph Abdo, a third-year medical student at the University of Aleppo, his reason for joining the organisation was the fact that “they are helping people in different ways. It has been a good experience for me because it is teaching me to give to others what I myself have received.” Speaking about the future of his country, he says, “I am longing for peace, first of all. Our generation is the one that is going to have to rebuild the country. I believe that it is our goal to work together to rebuild our community.” Standing beside him is a young woman, Gadan Naflek, another of the youth volunteers. “I am helping with the schooling of young children aged 3 and 4. It makes me really happy to be able to help other people, and I am learning to love and to give to others what I myself have received.” And these young people do not forget to thank us for the aid provided by ACN. “All the aid we are given, no matter how small, is doing a great deal of good and is very necessary”, adds George Juri, aged 24, who has recently graduated in civil engineering.
These young people have seen the horror of war from close up. The exploding bombs and the din of combat have been the soundtrack of their lives for over five years. Rosa Iwas, a university student in her second year of studying English literature at the University of Aleppo, tells us, “When I go to church, I pray to God for peace and for the needs of all the people living round about me. Without our faith it would be very difficult to continue here.”