Signs of hope for Syria
People like Zéina, Jean and Vivian try to do their part to rebuild their country
By Susanne Janssen
Seven years of war in Syria: death, loss of relatives or friends, fleeing or leaving homes, no security, no jobs. It takes its toll on the health and mental condition of the Syrian people.
“In Aleppo, conditions began to improve over the last months,” says Hanaa Kizar, who lives in a Focolare community in Syria. There’s electricity a few hours a day. And even if there’s still the sound of bombs exploding, people are tired of staying at home and are trying to get back to normal life.
Damascus, however, is still the target of missiles and destruction. “The people try to believe that the war is over, even if ending this war doesn’t depend on the Syrian people alone, due to all the involvement of others,” Hanaa shares.
When she arrived in Syria six months ago, she felt heartbroken as she heard so many tragic stories of young people who have been killed, saw the destruction, and she met many people traumatized or mutilated by the war.
In her heart, a single question arose: “Why?” What was the point of this destructive conflict? How many more victims will it take? What are the true interests behind it? And how can the Syrian people rebuild their country?
Gomana, 29, lives in the small village of Coser, close to Damascus. She lost her parents when she was 8, and her older brother became everything for her and her siblings. Seven years ago, her brother was taken by the rebels when the war began. She and her relatives didn’t hear anything more from him.
Their only hope was that he was a prisoner of the rebels in the city of Doma. But when those prisoners were liberated a few months ago, her brother wasn’t among them.
“My faith is the only thing that helps me, and getting to know the spirituality of unity helped me because I didn’t close myself in my suffering; I try to think of alleviating the suffering of others, especially of small children.”
Zakia has three children and has endured many air raids. She and her husband both lost their jobs. She’ll never forget New Year’s Eve 2013. There was no electricity, and she had no gas to cook. At least for New Year’s Eve, Zakia wanted to offer her family a warm meal. She did get some meat, but no gas.
“We went to bed without dinner, and we had to throw the meat away,” she recalls of that bitter moment. Yet a few days later, her parish priest came by. He gave her a gas tank and money to buy one big candle every day so that her daughter Natalia could continue to study for her high school diploma.
Zéina was born in Lebanon 35 years ago and came to Syria last July. A member of the Focolare, she had decided to move to that war country. She works for the Children’s Home, run by the Focolare in cooperation with others in the poor district of Douela in Damascus. The center has four classes for 90 children, ages 6 to 10. The eight teachers are all young Syrian professionals.
“We call it the ‘Children’s Home’ because we want to be their family,” she says. “We gather the poorer children, many of whom have lost both parents or suffered violence. They need to be surrounded by adults who love them.”
In February, the Children’s Home had to close for several weeks due to an attack.
“It was a terrible moment. When the children were asked if they were afraid of the bombings, most of them answered evasively, rejecting the reality,” says Zéina. “There is so much suffering due to the war.”
The center reopened at the start of April, to the great joy of the students. “They are really happy to come, and sad when they have to leave.”
Life goes on
Hope for peace is still alive in Syria. According to Zéina, when the conflict ends, the Syrian people will be the ones to rebuild their country.
“The worksite is enormous. Although Damascus is not as bad, the damage is immense in Aleppo and Homs and their environs. The Syrian lira has lost most of its value, and many wealthy families have become poor. The upper-class elite has disappeared, and there are only people in great need. How do young graduates find a job? Despite the extreme difficulties, many have remained. They believe in the restoration of their country.”
Those who remain often have a purpose. Take Jean and Vivian: they met in Aleppo in 2000. Vivian was a widow with a one-year-old son who is deaf, Jean a carpenter and social activist. Their common commitment to living the Gospel and bringing the ideal of a united world to humanity brought them closer. In 2003 they got married and now have four children.
Because of Vivian’s first son, Marc, the family often went to Lebanon, where Marc found help in a center for disabled children run by the Focolare.
“Living the Gospel in daily life accompanies the whole educational process. The children grow up in this oasis of peace and develop their talents while overcoming their handicap. The dream began to grow in me of setting up an institute myself, in my own city of Aleppo.”
Jean supported her in this venture, and in 2005, their small center was opened. Soon they took care of 10 children, all from poor families who couldn’t afford the cost. But the center always ran a deficit.
“Whenever we needed something,” Jean recalls, “we’d go in front of the crucifix and hand over our needs to [Jesus]. Providence arrived right on time, every time.” After a few years, 75 children were enrolled, with 30 staff members taking care of them.
Staying despite the war
The breakout of the war in 2011 brought much death and destruction. Jean lost his carpentry shop, the center wasn’t making any income, and many were living on aid from churches and humanitarian organizations. Many left the country and, even though Jean and Vivian were tormented by the idea, they bought tickets to leave Syria also.
Yet one thing became clearer and clearer in their hearts: they couldn’t leave “their” deaf children and destroy that dream that had come true with so much effort.
“On the night before our departure, I stepped into church,” Jean says, “I had a deep conversation with Jesus, ‘face to face.’ He seemed to speak in my heart and asked me not to go.
“What would the children do? I went home and Vivian and I decided to rip up the tickets and stay in the city to help all the people who needed us.”
Vivian echoed, “We were hopeful that God would accompany and support us in all our future projects, and especially in our family, and that’s what happened.”
Now the center is their second home, their own children also take part in the life of the group and Jean works full time.
“This community has widened our hearts. There is no longer boy or girl, student or teacher, healthy or disabled, Muslim or Christian. We live in the one love and beneath the same gaze of God who is love, incarnate, living in our midst.”
The resilience of people
Even if peace would be established officially, there are still a lot of wounds and desire for revenge that needs to heal. The members of the Focolare in Syria try to encourage one another not to give up: “When pain is embraced together and fear is overcome, the people go beyond themselves and their limits,” explains Hanaa. “When we meet, there’s always joy, it’s a feast. Like Focolare founder Chiara Lubich wrote, ‘We can say with St. Paul, “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Rom 14:7–8).’”
— With material from focolare.org
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