Syrian children wait behind the Turkish border fence as gunfire is exchanged just across the border. (photo: CNS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh, Reuters)
A displaced Syrian student receives tutoring to make up for class time lost to the war. (photo: Ziad Hilal, S.J.)
Children gather in a makeshift classroom in the Al Waer neighborhood of Homs. (photo: Ziad Hilal, S.J.)
In April 2011, the bloody events unfolding in Syria reached the city of Homs. The wall of hatred reached new heights every day, taking as its mortar every drop of blood spilled among the different groups within the same multicultural society. By the end of the year, the crisis had reached its peak with the pain of social upheaval and street fighting in each neighborhood. The screams of women and children echoed through the streets and carnage choked the heart of the city.
For the first time in their lives, neighbors who used to live together became enemies fearing each other.
Evil appeared in an unprecedented way. I remember how I used to visit different parts of the city on my bike, passing corpses and burnt cars to provide help to those in need. But beyond all expectation, hatred had taken root within this once-peaceful population. Thus, walking on the streets became a privilege for some, while others were denied this simple right. Criminals grew very active.
With the beginning of 2012, the humanitarian work of our Jesuit community — with CNEWA’s help — extended to many neighborhoods of the city, with a special focus on the old quarters that represent its historic heart. The majority of the city’s population was left unemployed and without income for several months, and the streets, which were transformed into demarcation lines, became very dangerous — especially due to the presence of snipers.
The majority of the inhabitants were in shortage of basic materials — food, gas, etc. Accordingly, we decided to start with the 400 families in greatest need. We provided them with food and other basic necessities. Soon after, a larger number of families sought our help as well. With our very limited sources of funding we were able to cover only the most urgent needs. Despite shortfalls, much of the local population remained, determined to cope with these difficult conditions hoping to weather the storm.
By the end of January 2012, the wave of violence escalated, forcing the closure of all schools and shops in the city. The heavy shelling in residential areas forced families to flee their homes, leaving behind everything. The areas most affected were the old quarters of the city, where the majority of the Christian population was concentrated. All houses, shops, schools and churches were either destroyed by the shelling or ransacked. At present, the evacuated quarters, which represent more than a third of the entire city’s area, have only about 70 remaining inhabitants — including a Dutch Jesuit, the Rev. Frans van der Lugt. The rage of violence spared neither mosques nor churches.
Starting February 2012, we realized the new status quo was likely to persist and we had to deal with this new reality, assisting the thousands of families living in temporary shelters in the relatively safe areas of the city. Our first priority was to take care of the hundreds of children who transformed the streets into their only playground and school, putting them at the mercy of the snipers, the shelling and the street violence. I still remember one of the children hiding behind a wall and calling me to take cover from a sniper. The children of Homs became experts in the art of escaping violence, but unfortunately many were not as lucky as I was on that day, and they paid with their lives on the streets.
Recent events have deeply affected the children, and we have noticed changes through our follow-ups at school. When they play, they transform wooden boxes into imitation weapons and play war games, reflecting the reality that the children are also internalizing the patterns of the war around them. Confronting this, we had to work hard to redirect the children to regular games, such as football and other sports.
Most children live in a state of denial. They refuse to acknowledge their fears. Meanwhile, mothers report their children cannot sleep alone in a separate bed anymore, which speaks to their trauma. Some others report cases that required the assistance of a speech therapist and a psychologist to overcome communication troubles.
At the same time, many youth have lost their jobs and their income, their great potential going to waste.
Thus, we decided to join both priorities in one project, aiming to take the children out of the streets and to provide jobs to the displaced youth.
We started with one pilot project at St. Savior Convent in the Adawiyya quarter, where many displaced families found refuge. The project consisted of gathering around 60 children in the convent and, with the help of the youth, preparing some educational activities: theater, music and more. The children were from different religious groups, and the convent became a center for reconciliation — especially for the parents from all confessions, who were obliged to sit together to watch their children in a common activity.
Soon after, two additional centers adopting the same model opened in other quarters where displaced families settled. At present the project enrolls more than 600 children.
The centers were opened spontaneously without any legal permit from authorities and therefore the only help received was from private donors and nongovernment organizations, such as CNEWA.
The Jesuit Refugees Service was the first supporter of this project, both morally and financially. With the beginning of the academic year 2012-2013, we decided to extend our activities and to provide the children with a curriculum similar to regular schools in an attempt to save their academic year. Additional teachers were recruited and the curriculum was adapted to the needs of the children with the expertise of the Jesuit Fathers, who have no small experience in education. CNEWA provided the necessary supplies and winter clothing items for all students.
Together with several Christian communities in the area, we have been able to screen and identify around 3,000 displaced families. CNEWA has helped us to support these families more than once — such as in April 2012, when they provided 3,000 packages of food.
At the same time, in the area of Wadi al Nasarah (“the Valley of Christians”), some 40 miles from Homs, more than 2,000 Christian displaced families also sought refuge. The existing public schools in the area could not absorb the large number of displaced students, and as a result more than 450 students of different grades were without schooling.
Galvanized by our successes in Homs, we teamed up with the Paulist Fathers in the village of Marmarita, who had previously completed the construction of a primary school, but had not yet received the permit from the government to start enrolling students.
Due to the emergency situation, the rector of the convent opened the school without permit, and the Jesuit Fathers provided the necessary expertise and curriculum.
By early November 2012, the school provided education to 450 students and job opportunities to around 45 teachers. Once again, CNEWA was an important source of support, providing books and educational material to the students and emergency aid to their families.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the people most affected by the war in Syria are children with special needs; their situation has deteriorated substantially. The ravages of war have destroyed two centers for handicapped children located in downtown Homs. Both centers operated under the administration of the Jesuit Fathers and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
In response, we opened two centers in safe areas to shelter these vulnerable children. The first center has enrolled 30 children at St. Savior Convent. The second is located at the Maronite convent outside of Homs. Both centers provide the children with necessary supervision in addition to therapeutic sessions and a hot meal every day.
Our mission has not been easy. At first, we had planned to work on a limited scale and within a limited period of time not exceeding three months, after which we had hoped that the war would have ended and the displaced would return to their homes. However, the sheer magnitude of destruction and the increasing needs of those displaced have made such plans impossible.
Caring for more than 3,000 displaced families and providing support to 2,000 children who need continuous care on all levels is indescribably heavy. And until now, few organizations have assisted us with our mission. I still remember how CNEWA took the initiative at the beginning of the harsh winter and provided 1,000 families with winter kits to help the children in our schools survive the cold and the poor housing conditions.
We have had some difficult cases of children who have lost one or both of their parents. One such child is a 12-year-old whom I will call “Rita.” Her father was shot in the head and has been in a coma since last year; her mother had a nervous breakdown and is being treated in a specialized center. Rita is currently living with her aunt, who is also displaced. Rita refuses to go back to school and she isolates herself from the world. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd, along with a psychologist, are trying to support her morally and to assist her in her studies at home. However, she has thus far rejected these efforts to help her.
Maybe our efforts will not be enough to satisfy the huge needs of the displaced families and to relieve their sufferings. But what we are trying to do is simply shine a small spot of light on the shadow of violence.
Pope Francis has said: “Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope!” Despite the fact we live among our people and we feel their suffering — and at the same time we know our capability to help is limited compared to the needs — I strongly believe we should be consistent in providing hope through opening our churches, our convents and our hearts to every person and live in solidarity with our people.
Many families told us during our regular visits: “The church is all that we have now, and without you we will sink in a sea of despair and spiritual hell.”
As a priest, I would like to say our role as a church is to push people toward hope, which should never be abandoned — no matter how unbearable circumstances may seem.
Hope is what CNEWA has helped us provide. I believe it has been a lifeline from God — helping us and guiding our efforts to glorify the name of the Lord.
Ziad Hilal is a Jesuit priest and director of St. Savior Center for Education in Homs, Syria.