Accounts of peaceful co-existence between Christ’s followers and Muslims. Visit to the Syrian capital where the future is paved with gestures of openness and solidarity among people of different faiths. The story of Salesian nun Carol Tahhan
Five years of war, have brought Syria to its knees. In the capital Damascus, amidst mounds of rubble and fearful souls that have been prostrated by violence, there are those who have been holding on with tenacity and patience, trying in every way possible to honour and strengthen the bonds of affection, closeness and care, which make life “human”, even under difficult circumstances.
Sister Carol Tahhan, 44, from Aleppo, Syria, is director of the Salesian community that runs a nursery, three tailor’s workshops and a large oratory. She describes daily life in Damascus, emphasising the bonds between people of different faiths, which have not been broken or compromised even in the face of conflict: “In the city, before the war, practically no one paid attention to a person’s religious faith and Christians and Muslims got along well. Today the situation has changed: Muslims are often split into opposing factions and forms of fanaticism have emerged that are causing a great deal of suffering. Nevertheless, relations between Muslims and Christians are still good: these bonds are manifested in the sincere friendships that unite so many young people at school, in the solidarity families show one another, in the complicity that helps them deal with problems together and support one another. We nuns help everyone, giving our all and without making distinctions between Christians and Muslims following Jesus’ example. Our work is also aided by volunteers and Muslim collaborators, good and generous people who work with such dedication. We feel deeply respected by them as well as by the entire population, including the army.”
Life in the city has improved since the start of the ceasefire: all neighbourhoods have electricity at least for some hours each day, although never at set times and the water comes on in the daytime. “We hear explosions or gunshots but only rarely,” Sister Carol continued. “Despite this progress no one feels truly safe: we hope the ceasefire will last but we live in constant fear of clashes resuming and missiles being launched. The biggest problem is poverty: prices, food prices in particular, have shot through the roof and many people can’t even meet their day-to-day needs. My four fellow nuns and I distribute food and medicine packs, we help the destitute pay the rest and cover their medical costs, we spend a great deal of time listening to all those who seek words of comfort and encouragement. We have not once thought of leaving Syria, not even when the fighting was intense. We are here to stay and will continue taking care of people who have been sorely tested.”
Children and war wounds
Most of the 217 children attending nursery are Muslims: parents ask to enrol their children because word got round that children feel a newfound sense of calm and joy here: “We do everything we can together with the teachers (one is a very competent Muslim woman) to create a peaceful and joyous environment, paying a great deal of attention to the needs of each child,” Sister Carol said. “Unfortunately the war has deeply wounded children who are showing obvious signs of trauma: One little girl in particular comes to mind; she arrived just a few days ago and watched her grandfather being murdered by ISIS militia: since then she has not been able to speak, she mumbles incomprehensible phrases and cannot sit still. At the moment we are still trying to work out the best way to help her.
Children often display various forms of aggressive behaviour and when they bring their favourite toys from home, we notice that these are often guns. So we have come up with this solution: when they arrive, they hand in their toys and we give them different ones, soft toys and coloured balls, for example. We try to get them used to having fun and being with the other children without simulating war.”
Sister Carol is responsible for three taylor’s workshops that were set up by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which proposed the project to the Salesian sisters five years ago: the nuns accepted immediately, in the belief that they would be helping many women whose lives have been marked by serious hardship. The first year, there were 14 pupils, today there are 100, both Muslims (the majority) and Christians. Many of them have fled from other parts of Syria and have lost everything, while others have suffered unspeakable violence or are now widows and alone. The project involves an annual course, at the end of which, the newly qualified women have two choices: they can start working at home with a sewing machine provided by the school and then sell their own creations or they can be employed in the school laboratory and earn a salary. In the latter case, it is the nuns that then sell the items of clothing and buy essentials for the needy.
Setting these laboratories up was no easy task, Sister Carol recalls: “We received help from a Muslim man who was very generous: I don’t know what we would have done without him! Still today we can rely upon a staff that includes Muslims, like the two dedicated female sewing teachers who are assisted by Christian women. Pupils are very happy to be able to start over by learning a trade and to do so in a hospitable environment: it is often said that there is a genuine family spirit here; finally, they feel at home, they feel looked after and protected.”
Thinking about the future, Sister Carol commented: “obviously we are all praying and hoping for peace and that the many people who have fled abroad will be able to return home. Reconstruction will need to take place both externally and within people. I think that the familiar spirit – of welcome, respect and benevolence – that still unites many Christians and Muslims will be an important building block in this reconstruction effort.”
Source: Vatican Insider