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Letter from Syria: Saving the Children of War

A priest writes of CNEWA’s ‘lifeline of hope’

by Ziad Hilal, S.J.

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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.

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