2014-09-10 SYRIA

To leave or not to leave

To leave or not to leave, such is ever more the dilemma facing Syrians, especially Aleppans. What is there to do? Continue to hold on? Stay in spite of all that's going on?… In spite of all that, they have been suffering for over three years now.What is the right thing to do? What will the future look like? But first, will there still be one? As for leaving for good and relocating elsewhere to secure a better future for oneself and – above all – thechildren, where to? In addition, how to go about it? By putting the past behind, leaving all wordly possessions and starting over from scratch?

This long litany of unanswered questions comes back to haunt us over and over throughout the day. Those who used to procrastinate and put them on the back burner because they wanted to wait and see – either hoping for things to get better or because they had not mustered the courage to move, have now left for good, in ever growing numbers – especially Christians – heading for countries that they have not chosen: “Where I go does not matter. What does is to get wherever it is that I’m going, and to be able to live in peace there.”

People are at the end of their rope. Three years after the Syrian conflict erupted – and 192,000 dead and millions of IDPs and refugees later – they still see no solution looming on the horizon. The recent sequence of events has caused even the most die-hard optimists to lose their illusions. There was first the several-week blockade of the city, followed by a complete interruption of the water supply for more than two months, all of which were taking place while shells and mortars continued to rain down on us and to make their daily harvest of casualties…

However, the worst thing is the fear that grabs one by the guts, instilled by this gang of barbarians who took possession of the whole eastern Syria and northern Iraq, to establish an Islamic State having nothing to do with the Islam that we know. This is a gang of mostly foreign militants with whom fellow Syrian Muslims  cannot identify, who slaughter, behead  – and not just American journalists – crucify to death, stone allegedly adulterous women, flog to punish (smokers, for example), bury people alive, sell women as slaves … .The full list of their barbarous and cruel deeds is too long to fit within this newsletter.

But it is especially the tragic fate met by Mosul’s and Qaraqosh’s Christians – no less Iraqis than the Muslims – and also by other religious "minorities" such as the Yezidis, which was a watershed moment. Summoned to choose between converting, dying or fleeing, hundreds of thousands of people had taken to the road, leaving behind the land of their ancestors, their roots, their history, without being able to bring anything along, not even their wedding ringsor a little money. Expelled, then exterminated, like Armenians before them in 1915 at the hands of the Ottomans, during the 20th century’s first genocide. That alarming event was the defining moment that precipitated Syrians’ decision to finally leave their country.

And this is how Aleppo got in turn depopulated of its Christians. Only half of them remain now, according to optimistic estimates, but more realistically, probably just one third. Three years ago, it was the affluent elites – doctors, businessmen, academics – who had left, and over time, their temporary exile had become final. Now, on the other hand, it is all population groups who jostle at the gate – middle-income, youth, middle-aged, elderly, even the poor and destitute…

As for us, what can we say, what is there to say to these would-be immigrants? Should we encourage or deter them?

What can we say to these three young couples bound for Lebanon, who signed up with the United Nations Office for Refugees in order to obtain an immigrant visa, and called on us last week to say goodbye? Three years out of work is hard for young families on whom life was smiling when they started their professional and family life a few years ago.

How can we respond to the most destitute of all the families that we help, and who cannot cope any longer with living in the poor neighborhood of Midane, daily targeted by rebel shelling? Or to those who have seen their neighbors killed or injured and who fear for themselves and their children? "We want to go, please help us with the paperwork; we have cousins, or brothers, in Latin America… They will get us a visa."

What advice can one give to those people who don’t want to wait any longer for "events" to end, who are no longer able to stand the lack of water, electricity, necessities, medicines, of money…the constant shelling, the suffering… who do not want their children to grow up having known nothing but war and who aspire, finally, to a safe, stable and peaceful future?

What can one reply to this doctor revolted by the West’s cowardice? "Western leaders have branded the beheading of the American journalist a barbaric act. We must remind them that these savages who commit barbaric acts here are the very ones who were encouraged, financed and protected by them and their allies, on the pretext of bringing democracy and freedom to the Syrian people! All this was done under what got romantically framed the "Arab Spring", following previoussimilar wordings of "constructive chaos" and "New Middle East". These barbarians, called ‘rebels’ or even ‘freedom fighters’ by Westerners when they were committing their crimes in Syria, thus suddenly ‘became’ savages and terrorists when a number of them crossed over to Iraq?”

What is there to say to the tens, the hundreds of people met at the Marists, on the street or in my office, who express their anguish and panic about the ISIS tsunami: "And what if they invaded Aleppo? What if we were to suffer the same fate as Mosul’s Christians, having to choose between conversion and death, or else fleeing in refugee columns without being able to take anything along? Wemight as well leave immediately before "they" arrive! We do not want to die slaughtered, beheaded, buried alive or crucified by these savages. And to think that "they" are just a few kilometers east of Aleppo and that they have just taken control of the entire region north of the city!

And so, people leave. Our driver, his family, his brothers and their families who have just arrived in Germany. Several interns at the hospital, who managed to get a visa and left for Europe. Our housekeeper, who is preparing to go to Venezuela. Another family, who left for Australia. Others – especially Armenian – who are headed for the USA and Northern Europe.

Meanwhile, the Vatican and Church-run charities ask the Syrian Christians not to abandon their land, the cradle of Christianity. Meanwhile, their local representatives sparingly distribute the aid received, to "renderpeople more responsible”, and not to make them "aid dependent»!!!

In a few months from now, there will still be a lot of money left but no one to give it to. A well-informed friend told me: "If in a few months ISIS were to invade Aleppo, it would be a column of just a few thousand Christian refugees that would be seen at that time on the road to exile. "

At the Blue Marists’ we have no clear or definite answers to offer in reply to queries or concerns. It is also not for us to object to decisions made.

We just try, through our active presence, to be a beacon of hope for those who have no hope left … a source of strength for those who doubt … a source of comfort for those who are tormented.

We also try to relieve pain and suffering, and to offer acceptable living conditions to those who remain so that their destitution would not be their prime reason for leaving.

Thus, all our programs are continuing, despite the cruel loss suffered with the death of one of the pillars of the Aleppo Marists, our friend and brother, Ghasbi Sabe, who died of a heart attack at age 59. Educator, facilitator, member of the food relief team in charge of various food baskets, a member of the MIT team, he was a warm, loyal, simple, humble man, an outstanding cook too, appreciated and loved by all.

The "War-wounded civilians" program continues to treat the injured hit by mortars; today it is a mom, a doctor by profession, and her 8 year old son; we are treating her for open fractures to both arms, while treating him for multiple wounds in the stomach – we were forced to remove the spleen, a kidney and part of the intestines.

Our three monthly or bi-weekly food baskets are used to feed the displaced Christian families in Jabal Al Sayde (‘Mountain’s’ basket), Muslim families displaced from other regions (‘Blue Marists’ basket) and poor families from Midane (‘Ear of God’s’ basket).

We continue with our housing project for the IDPs by renting small apartments for those who have lost their homes. We provide them with blankets, cooking utensils, water containers. …

Recently, we initiated a water distribution system for our volunteers and the beneficiaries of our projects. We set up tanks in a van, fill them with well water that is then pumped into the reservoirs (of 200-1000 liters) of the target group.

At the MIT (the Marists’ Training Center), we continue to train young adults during 3-day workshops. The last one ended last Sunday and had ‘quality standards’ as its subject-matter. We also provide a space for reflection with interactive conferences. The most recent onewas a great success and dealt with "Faith put to the test in the face of war."

Children 3 – 6 years old from ‘I learn to Grow” and 7-13 years old from ‘I want to learn’ come to our school campsfor a period of one week each time, on a rotation basis. Wonderfulprograms are organized for them.

The ‘Skill School’ continues for teenagers, with a variety of programs combining sport, manual skills and educational activities.

The ‘Tawassol’ program for moms is also in full swing. Even under temperatures of 40 – 45 degrees, everyone shows up.

We persevere under very difficult living conditions – water and power shortages (each neighborhood of Aleppo is supplied with water for only 10 hours every 10 days, and electricity 2 times 1h30 per each 24 hours). To say nothing of the threat of mortar fire…

What does the future hold for us?… Should we leave, should we stay?… Questions that can’t be answered for now, until … until what?

A Dominican priest from Iraq recently wrote: "Today’s Iraq is a country in shambles. Its social fabric, clearly torn. Statistics also indicate that the country has become a very dangerous and inhospitable place to live. The country’s poor wonder what the future has in hold. Will Iraq be a modern, stable, democratic country? If you ask any Iraqi, the straight answer is: Iraq is headed for the unknown. But in this chaos imposed by the evil empire, the central question remains: what future for Iraqi Christians? Must they be ousted or exterminated? They see no end to their way of the cross, and their cross is really heavy to bear. The tragedy presently suffered by Iraqi Christians is an outrage. All that we see is concentration camps upon concentration camps, in this diabolical plan to uproot them. While political and religious delegates make their rounds, the refugees spend their nights in tents and in public places. Despite the red alert, time passes and the exiles remain homeless. "

 Now,if you replace ‘Iraq’ with ‘Syria’ and ‘Iraqis’ with ‘Syrians’, you’llget the picture regarding our situation.

This newsletter is dated 1 September, feast of one of the most venerated saints of Syria, St Simeon the Stylite who, in the 5th century, spent 42 years of his life sitting atop a 18-meter high pillar. According to tradition, he had chosen this path to be closer to God! May our sacrifice and ordeal not last quite as long.

Aleppo, 1 September 2014


Nabil Antaki, for the Blue Marists


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