Students of Al Inaya al Khasa School in Aleppo celebrate on a lunchtime trip to a playground across town. (photo: CNEWA)
St. Vincent de Paul’s work varies, and includes addressing needs as obvious as medical care and as nuanced as safe places to play. (photo: CNEWA)
A Syrian Armenian woman lights a Christmas votive candle at the Church of the Holy Mother of God. (photo: George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images)
Editors’ note: For nearly a decade, war has devastated much of Syria. Some of the fiercest fighting was fought in Aleppo, Syria’s economic capital, once home to some three million people and a flourishing and diverse Christian community. For much of the war, the city was divided. Rebels occupied a portion of eastern Aleppo — including its ancient and historic center — with some 300,000 remaining citizens. The Syrian army controlled a larger portion of the city, home to an estimated 1.5 million inhabitants, many of whom were Christian. Into this arena stepped the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the oldest charitable organization in Syria. We asked the head of the Aleppo section of this lay international Catholic charity, Joseph Ahmar Dakno, to describe some of its work to bring light and life to a place too often shrouded in darkness and death.
Aleppo was a city under siege. For nearly four years, access to basic needs was almost impossible. The only road linking Aleppo to the rest of the country wound through the desert, exposing travelers to extremist groups which controlled the area. People lived in fear of shells falling on them and their children. Adding to the fear was economic hardship. The prices of goods and food increased as incomes fell, unemployment rose and the economy collapsed.
Nevertheless, through its charities, institutions and nongovernmental organizations, the Christian community played an invaluable role in helping Aleppines cope with the horrors of war.
The volunteers of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul dedicated themselves to helping the wounded and transporting them to hospitals. People whose residences were destroyed — innocent families who found themselves suddenly homeless — were offered safe places, along with moral and spiritual support.
Local parishes and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul have tried to help the wounded in a number of ways: facilitating the hospitalization process, locating dispensaries for treatment and providing medical supplies to ensure the wounded may recover fully. In addition, representatives of local parish groups of the society were present to support the most critical cases, including those victims who had lost hands or legs. They have provided prostheses for the patients along with the rehabilitative help of physiotherapists, so they may return to their lives and cope with their new situation. This social and humanitarian work requires great effort and coordination, significant funding, strong will and psychological encouragement.
And the crisis is far from over. Fears of high rates of unemployment continue to spread through the region. People have tried to find alternative jobs and adapt to the new life to secure a decent living for themselves and their families. St. Vincent de Paul has rushed to visit these families to listen to their fears and to help alleviate them. We have worked to help people find work even as we support them with physical, medical and education assistance. We coordinate this always with local clergy — bishops and priests — who have also been with them to offer spiritual help and support.
Although the fighting has eased, Aleppo still suffers. Until peace returns to Syria, it will be necessary to provide returning refugees, the internally displaced and fragile local communities with all the support we can give. This includes maintaining emergency programs, along with other initiatives aimed at helping the Syrian people maintain their resiliency, so they can share in rebuilding their country and restoring their communities.
Yet, in the midst of these fears and struggles, in spite of everything, there are stories of healing and signs of hope.
Antoine is a 70-year-old man whose hopes and dreams have evaporated. His wife died a few years ago. And as the civil disturbances that marked beginning of Syria’s descent into hell became violent, his three children and their families left home in search of stability, fearing the hunger that was afflicting their country. Antoine suddenly found himself alone, trying to fend for himself in the middle of a war. He cared for himself as best he could.
One day, as he was carrying his groceries home through the streets of Aleppo, a bomb hit the neighborhood and destroyed everything around him. He was left lying in the street in a pool of blood.
Antoine was rescued and sent to the hospital, where surgeons had to amputate his leg. As he lay there, recovering, the men and women of St. Vincent de Paul learned of his case. They sent young people to visit him. He shared his story, describing his loneliness after his children had left him, and his eyes welled with tears. The society decided they had to step in, taking care of the hospital and rehabilitation expenses, including the cost of his prostheses.
St. Vincent de Paul continued supporting Antoine, even after he returned home. He received counseling and moral support, and as a Christian, spiritual direction. He is enormously grateful for the good work done by those the society, and those whose generosity enables the work to happen. He keeps praying for them because they brought back his life and restored his faith in what the future holds for him.
“The Lord’s work is always with us,” he says. “It’s always thanks to him.”
Four years ago, 6-year-old Roula was living in a small room, alone. Her parents, shell shocked, had locked her away to protect her from the constant barrage of shelling and stray gunfire. Alone, her fears intensified and she became a terrorized prisoner.
Having lost everything, her parents failed to enroll her in school. Members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul learned of Roula and the situation of her parents and sought to intervene. They visited her parents twice a month and saw the extent of their own trauma. Little by little, they offered counsel and help, finally getting them the treatment they needed. The society also promised to cover the expenses for Roula’s schooling, including providing her with school supplies and clothes.
Today, Roula is living a healthy, normal life, grateful for the opportunities offered to her by the society. So many other children in Syria have never received the support and assistance they needed. Some still cannot read or write, and many are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders. Their future is far less promising.
The sad reality is that there are many cases like Roula’s, but it is difficult to screen and reach them, especially those who are still living in dangerous areas. Changing a child’s future — especially by providing education and a secure home life — is critical to help build a better society and give hope.
Suzanne was full of life and hope. She had many dreams for her and her fiancé, Fady; they planned to marry and build a family. She was looking for a new job to secure their future when the war started. Her dreams were shattered when a shell struck her house, landing in the room where she was sitting. Suzanne was critically injured, fighting for her life.
Her neighbors rushed to save Suzanne and her family. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was able to step in and provide assistance, but Suzanne’s condition was critical. Her skull was fractured, her jaw and face seriously disfigured. Suzanne underwent several operations and spent weeks fighting to recover. In the midst of this heartache, her fiancé abandoned her. He could not face a future with a wife who had been scarred and deformed by war.
In the weeks that followed, members of the St. Vincent de Paul family visited Suzanne frequently. These visits, along with support from her family, helped Suzanne to heal emotionally and spiritually, while doctors have helped her heal physically. In the course of nine months, she underwent 18 operations — funded, to a great extent, by the society.
In time, Suzanne began to venture out again. Young women involved in St. Vincent de Paul persuaded her to start working. They bought her materials such as beads so she could develop her skills and help sharpen her ability to focus to sell her jewelry in order to feel independent and productive.
Suzanne is one of many whose wounds from the war are lasting and deep. But thanks to Aleppo’s diverse Christian community, and works of that community such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, she is healing and growing stronger. We believe the loving hands of Christ will accompany her, allowing her to continue her journey with faith and gratitude.
What will the future bring? There is much work to be done. The international community, major development organizations, the private sector and the Syrian diaspora will have to work together to help rebuild the country’s devastated infrastructure, ravaged economy and nearly destroyed people. This needs to happen in a secure manner and under secure conditions that defend human and national rights.
Therefore, we send our message to people of conscience everywhere: Stand with us. We ask not just for your financial support, but also for your prayers. Do not forget us. All parties involved in this crisis have faith, and this is what sustains us. We believe in helping one another and also believe in our duty toward our brothers and sisters. And as members of the ancient Syrian Christian community, we will continue to support them and care for them without regards to color, race or religion.
Stand with us. Hope with us. We will not lose hope, because we believe tomorrow will be better than today.