The escalation of international conflicts, the Covid-19 pandemic, lack of employment and exorbitant price rises, the isolation of the Syrian people from the outside world by means of the embargoes and sanctions, and the lack of the barest minimum for survival – the list of sufferings enumerated by Sister Annie Demerjian, a Syrian religious sister of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, is long indeed. Her sad summary speaking to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN): “All these factors are bringing the Syrian people to the point of sheer desperation.”
“Without doubt, we are living through the worst period in our history, as a result of ten years of bloody warfare”, says the religious with Armenian roots. “I don’t know of any other society in the Middle East whose members are living in such appalling conditions at the present time”, adds Sister Annie, who for over seven years now has been coordinating ACN’s aid campaigns in the cities of Aleppo and Damascus.
“Throughout all these years, the help of ACN has been a lifesaver and a source of hope for our Christian families, who are living in truly inhuman conditions. The poverty is all-pervasive, there is a lack of medicines, sometimes we have no electricity or even water for lengthy periods. For many people life is almost unbearable. Most Syrian families feel afflicted by the psychological and material pressure”, she explains.
With the help of a team of five people, she is supporting 273 families in Aleppo. At the same time, the Congregation of Jesus and Mary supervises another aid programme in the capital Damascus for over 100 families. Many of these families include very elderly members living in conditions where the sanitation is extremely bad. “Thanks to ACN, we are able to give them basic monthly subsistence aid, including coupons for buying essential items such as food, fuel for cooking and especially, now that winter is coming, sterilisers and medicines. We have also been able to help with some essential surgery. But sometimes this also includes such basic but indispensable items as incontinency pants for sick and elderly people”, Sister Annie explains.
Another of the most urgent needs, she adds, is help with rent, given the critical economic situation. Many families have no home of their own and could not possibly afford a place to live without the support they receive from ACN, which contributes some, or in some cases even all the cost, depending on the particular situation. In addition to the humanitarian work, the sisters have various training programs for young people and spiritual support: “This is very necessary in a country where desolation and discouragement are spreading, and hope must be sown.”
Sister Annie is particularly moved when she tells the story of one man, a diabetic. Some time ago he had to have a leg amputated. Then his sister, who was caring for him, died of a heart attack, and so now another family member has to care for him, spending several hours every day with him. Two weeks ago, his diabetes began to “travel” into the other leg. The doctor was unable to attend to him, since he was suffering from Coronavirus, but he prescribed various medications for him over the telephone.
“We brought them to him, and when night fell, this patient asked for a priest to come and bring him the Blessed Sacrament. He began to pray, and we heard him say, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know how I am suffering… But I offer you my sufferings for the good of the Sisters of Jesus and Mary, who have not abandoned me.’ So, then I asked him to pray for all the benefactors. He smiled and nodded.”
Slight in appearance, composed, serene, yet without doubt a great fighter, Sister Annie is a source of hope for those most in need in a country that has fallen into international forgetfulness, yet still suffering the worst crisis in its history. She assures that these prayers are by no means an isolated event. “Whenever we visit the families, they tell us with a warm smile that they are praying for ACN and its benefactors every day. On behalf of the Sisters of Jesus and Mary and on behalf of the whole support team, we would like to thank you for all your care and continuing support”, she concludes.