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Voices from the Pandemic: ‘Sowing Hope’ in Syria

Editor’s note: This week, we begin a recurring feature on our blog, Voices from the Pandemic, offering first-person accounts from the field of how the coronavirus is affecting CNEWA’s world and the people we are privileged to serve. We begin with this report from Dr. Nabil Antaki, a physician in Aleppo.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is not as severe in Syria as in other areas of the world, it is, however, another nightmare for the Syrian people, who have suffered from a terrible war for more than nine years.

I am a physician from Aleppo, the second city of Syria that was, before the war, the economic capital of the country. I did my training in Canada and returned to Syria in 1980 to serve the people of my country. At the beginning of the war in 2011, my wife Leyla, Marist Brother George Sabee, and I founded “the Blue Marists” to help the poorest Christian families of Aleppo as well as displaced Christian and Muslim families. Our effort began modestly, but today, we have 110 volunteers running 14 programs. These include medical care, educational services and psychosocial support. Many of these initiatives are supported and funded by CNEWA, through a continuous collaboration with the Beirut office since 2014.  

In early March of this year, the Syrian army took control of the western suburbs of Aleppo occupied by armed rebel groups since 2012. From here the rebels had launched their mortars into the city even after the army’s reunification of the city’s eastern and southern districts at the end of 2016. Aleppines celebrated these events with jubilation and regained hope for a better future after nine years of suffering and misery. They hardly had time to rejoice and enjoy a return to normal life, however, when the coronavirus crisis set in, with the first case registered on 14 March.

Soon, the authorities took all of the preventive measures necessary to prevent the spread of the virus. Apart from food stores, pharmacies and bakeries, everything is now closed: schools, universities, factories, workshops, shops and all public places. A curfew was introduced from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. the next day and, in addition, confinement includes the ban on leaving one’s city, even to go to the countryside and villages in the same region. Syrians in general and Aleppines especially now follow the protocols of wearing masks, avoiding kissing — which is a very common welcome gesture in the Middle East — and using disinfectant solutions.

While these measures have paralyzed social life and frozen a fragile economy, they have slowed the spread of the pandemic in Syria. Fortunately, there have been 42 reported cases of COVID-19 and 3 deaths in the city. Yet, most Aleppines — impoverished through nine years of war — no longer have the means to make ends meet. The most affected are the daily workers, craftsmen and owners of small businesses who rely on their daily earnings to live and often to survive. And then there are the retired, the unemployed and the sick, none of whom have any source of income. Life is most difficult for these, the most vulnerable, and their difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that, at this time of a global pandemic, nongovernmental organizations and charities have slowed down their activities significantly; some have not stopped them completely.

No one in Aleppo I know has been infected with COVID-19. However, my son, a physician living in Michigan, was infected by the virus and was very sick for more than 15 days. My wife and I probably passed through the longest, scariest days of our lives worrying about his condition. With the power of the Providence, he recovered and resumed work treating numerous patients also infected by the pandemic.

The gathering of people being prohibited, we, the Blue Marists, had to freeze 10 of our 14 projects temporarily: our two educational projects for children from 3 to 6 years old, “Learn to Grow” and “I want to Learn”; “Bamboo,” for the care of adolescents; and “Seeds” for the psychological support of children, adolescents and adults traumatized by war. Other programs, including those for women and the training of young adults, are either suspended or moving slowly.

Nevertheless, we are pursuing four other initiatives: the “Drop of milk,” which distributes milk to all Christian children in Aleppo under the age of 11; “Shelter for displaced families,” which helps house internally displaced families; and a medical program for the most deprived. We have adjusted one program at a camp for displaced families 18 miles from Aleppo, focusing instead on the distribution of food and hygiene packages and diapers. Our medical team travels there once a week to care for the sick, including those who live in the surrounding area. The camp is a refuge for displaced Kurds and Muslims who fled their cities and villages after the Turkish invasion of their area in January 2018. They are grateful we did not abandon them in the time of the coronavirus outbreak.

People in blue

Prayer, discernment and our ability to be sensitive to the distress of people and to listen to their calls — regardless of ethnicity or creed — made us rediscover that there were, in Aleppo, seniors, living alone, having no family in Syria, some bedridden or sick and who, because of the confinement, have no one left to bring them food. And so we have begun a new project that we have called “Solidarity of the Heart.” Every morning, the Blue Marist ladies prepare a hot meal for 125 people. Around 1 p.m., our young volunteers distribute the food to the homes of the beneficiaries. With the hot meal, they give the elderly bread and fruit, all sweetened with a human touch through caring, listening and comforting. We have found how difficult it has been for these people to live in loneliness, and their need to feel human warmth, receive special attention and see a smile. And this is what our volunteers do not fail to do.

Pope Francis, in his homily on 6 April, speaks precisely of our relationship with the poor and says: “There are poor people. There are many. There are the poor we see, but it is the smallest part; the large number of the poor we do not see: the hidden poor. And we do not see them because we are entering this culture of indifference.”

The pope ends by saying:

“When Jesus says: ‘You will always have the poor with you,’ he means: ‘I will always be with you in the poor. I will be there.’ And that is the heart of the Gospel: We will be judged on that.”

We, the Blue Marists, fully share these words of Pope Francis.

How will tomorrow be for us? The future is not clear. We have to overcome many obstacles due to nine years of war and the COVID-19 pandemic. Our people are desperate. But we, the Blue Marists, are here to work by our motto, Sowing Hope.

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