ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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In Aleppo, Houses Are Half a Quarter

A new housing project provides hope for Christian families in Syria’s second largest city.

“There’s more garlic hanging from those balconies than is used in all of New York!”

That was my first thought as I looked at a block of apartments, laundry drying from the balustrades. Father Nicholas, my hospitable host, laughed when my thought became comment.

In April, Father Nicholas was escorting this writer – fresh from a grueling flight from Chicago to a Beirut under siege, via Bucharest; a three-hour drive to Damascus; and a five-hour bus trip north to the Syrian city of Aleppo – to see his parish’s housing project. And my first comment was a flippant one about garlic! One balcony though was a veritable still life: neatly arranged garlic bunches hung next to tiny cages housing canaries who sang away. A curtain, ready to be drawn to shield against the inclement elements that make up this climate of extremes, completed the picture.

The Rev. Nicholas Sawwaf, a priest of the Greek-Melkite Catholic Archdiocese of Aleppo, looked at the same balconies and saw something much more important: the beginning of a new Christian quarter in this corner of Syria’s second largest city.

Cement is also important to Father Nicholas. Cement blocks form houses. Houses provide shelter for families. Families develop neighborhoods. Neighborhoods cultivate communities. And communities, provided with opportunities, prosper. Father Nicholas wants cement to provide members of his Christian community with grounds to remain in the land of their birth, to carry on with their trades and businesses, to continue living as their ancestors have for more than 1,500 years.

The expression on the face of this jolly priest changed when he listed the problems his community encounters. Obviously, housing ranks at the top of his list. Not only are apartments difficult to find, they are enormously expensive. Most Syrian couples are one-income couples. A single family home, American-style, with a garden and white picket fence, is a fantasy in Aleppo and in virtually every Middle Eastern city.

This housing problem has its most dramatic impact on single men. College graduates and those with marketable skills are lured abroad by attractive opportunities. If those who emigrate are married, the families emigrate with them. If the emigrants are single men, they often never return, except to find brides, who then settle abroad with their husbands.

This emigration pattern also affects young women: those of marriageable age find few partners in their social circles. As love and life take their course, a number of these women marry outside their community and their faith.

Couples that marry, but cannot afford housing, move in with Mom and Dad. This living arrangement generates tension and domestic unrest, comparable to the plots of American soap operas, which are not televised in Syria. Young witnesses to such dramatics often shun marriage or, once married, commit themselves to smaller families.

Other obligations, e.g., health care and tuition for church-affiliated schools, complicate matters further. Those that manage to afford these necessities of life do so with the help of family members working abroad But Father Nicholas spoke of these remittances from family members in the Americas as mixed blessings.

For Father Nicholas and his community, the answer lay partly in the building of low-income housing. The first step was to search for affordable real estate. On the edge of Aleppo, country people drawn to the city had, for more than 20 years, lived as squatters. With no resources to rent or buy land, they simply built on land that was not their own. In the course of time, which coincided incidently with the economic progress of the squatters, the legal owners of the property took action to evict them. The properties were often abandoned and then placed on the market.

The Greek-Melkite Catholic community purchased some of this real estate, cleared it and, since 1989, erected apartment blocks. Housing requests have thus far exceeded the number of units planned and additional blocks have been built. The demand continues. Some 130 people wait for space when and if it becomes available. Construction will only proceed if sufficient funds are raised.

Father Nicholas conducted the tour of a soon-to-be-completed apartment building. He asked one of the engineers to come along and together they explained the guts of the project: the apartments are what we would call “starter homes.” They are small and the tenants are free to stay as long as possible. But the rent is not free. “Nothing is free,” Father Nicholas commented quickly. The amount, however, is reasonable. When families cannot afford to pay the rent, church charities help them.

We visited one of the families – the one whose balcony sported the garlic and canary motif. Mr. and Mrs. Mikhail Belady, their five-year-old daughter Jeanette and their toddler of three-and-a-half years, Marie-Noel, live on the top floor of a five-floor walk-up. After climbing the stairs with cameras and film, pens and paper, the question of how this family of four manages to carry groceries and household items up those stairs was a natural conversation opener.

The young engineer-in-a-tie was quick to introduce the system in use. He turned a crank, uncoiling a cable that ended with a hefty hook. The pulley plunged into the stairwell, where in my mind an impressive bunch of garlic, and assorted sundries, awaited. The Belady’s neighbor popped her head out of her apartment door. She watched us admire this low-maintenance system that required no motor, no fuel and generated no pollution. No, it would not sell well in a white-glove building in New York. However, in Aleppo’s burgeoning Christian quarter it was quite literally an uplifting addition.

On the ground floor of the building, I noticed an electrician whose diligence increased as our entourage neared. He was installing fuse boxes and, yes, he believed he could finish before he left for the day!

Father Nicholas realized the housing project could have cost less, had low-grade materials been used. But the priest, who also plays the role of part-time engineer, figured maintenance costs would erase any initial savings. As our tour continued, Father Nicholas took the opportunity to discuss a number of items with his engineer.

Meanwhile in the sunlight, a few of the quarter’s children played on the ubiquitous pile of sand normally found on a construction site. One little fellow had taken off his shoes to get the full effect of the sand. Another stared at us, wondering if we were going to chase him from his mountain; he was the king of that there hill. And two boys were quietly playing a game of marbles. Friendships were forming. Noticing my camera, a group approached me: “sowreeni,” take my picture! Copies of these photographs will be sent back so that childhood memories in this new quarter will go on record.

Nicholas & Co. know that houses alone do not make even half a quarter – families need spiritual sustenance too. Father Nicholas has enlisted the help of the Salesian Sisters and members of his growing parish of Hey al Sabil. Catechism classes are held for children while adult education classes are offered to the parents. The church is filled to the brim for the two divine liturgies celebrated on Sundays. Weddings are a bit more common and common rooms serve as public areas for church-related activities and social gatherings.

There are other signs that the quarter is developing: The nuns gather the women and teach sewing. This skill generates extra income, making life a little easier. Boy and girl scout troops with a strong Christian bent ensure that the younger generation will have a healthy sense of community and “quarter awareness.” To alleviate the rising cost of health care, a dispensary offers health counseling and medicines. Even dental care is available.

Father Nicholas’s face aged as he spoke about the project costs, the need for loans, and his commitment to build 13 apartment blocks – the magic number of completed buildings. A man who wants to think positively, the priest remained silent when asked for the source of funding.

If any role model is needed for a Middle Eastern Christian community, one is available in Aleppo. The city’s ancient Christian quarter, with its grand churches and monasteries, is much more of a mixed community than in the past, but it still has “the feel.” We walked down one little lane and turned left into an even narrower passage. One more turn and we were at the door of a church-sponsored orphanage. Twelve girls live in a 250-year-old palatial residence, reminiscent of those estate-like homes of which Damascus and Aleppo boasted in the past. The fountain gurgled in the courtyard and ivy grasped at everything that did not move, except for the lethargic tortoise, which was soon scooped up for a photograph with some of the girls.

The hullabaloo we caused did not faze John, a young mechanical engineer who volunteers his time to tutor the girls in mathematics. He managed to keep his young student’s attention fixed on her studies, even during the photo session.

Whoever travels to Aleppo next should make a point to visit the city’s Christian quarters, old and new. By then, there will he more marble matches, more church bells announcing weddings and a louder, rhythmic hum of a pulley, as it lifts the belongings of a newly married couple into their first home.

Marilyn Raschka, a long-time resident of Beirut, now writes from Wisconsin.

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