“Everything is destroyed here, see?” says Guendalina Sassoli, president of Pro Terra Sancta Supporters’ Association. She’s showing me photos of the great souk in Aleppo, now reduced to a pile of rubble or little more. “It was even bigger than the one in Istanbul”. The images of the vaults pierced by the bombs, of the walls collapsed or gutted by the explosions scroll by.
“But then, in the half-light of the closed and devastated shops, a shy little light appears“, says the woman, astonished . “He is one of the few shopkeepers who still believe that it’s possible to start over again. There are only three left in the whole souk. There is a pause for silence. The next photo she shows me is of a man: he’s alone in the pale light of an incandescent bulb barely hanging on a wire. The man is bent over a piece of sheet metal, concentrating on a particularly fine task. Around him, it’s crushed stones, ripped shutters, and endless rubble. “It takes a lot of courage,’ the woman says with a sigh. It is this courageous Syria that we are talking about here.
Indeed, it is in a strange dialogue of destruction and hope that the trip to Syria by Guendalina and Tommaso, two of the operational managers of Associazione Pro Terra Sancta, took place. An itinerary from Beirut, the Lebanese capital, took them first to Damascus and then to Aleppo, along the still bleeding scars of the conflict, opening their eyes to the sun, which asks them to get up again and be reborn.
Getting up again: how difficult in a city like Damascus. In the Syrian capital, the two of them wander through the chiaroscuro of the city’s alleyways, breathe in the spicy air, and feel the people’s suspicious glances on all sides. “It’s better not to talk here, you never know”, how often they hear this phrase. “The political situation is clear to everyone, and it affects people’s lives. You can’t talk about anything that might even be remotely compromising. Even asking: ‘What do you do for a living?’ can put you in a bad light, make you look like one of the secret services.”
Leaving and staying
It is in this climate paralysed by fear, suspended from the twisted threads of mistrust, that one meets a craftsman, a glass seller. He is twenty-six years old, with a well-trimmed beard and a clean shirt, surrounded by the bright colours of the local craftsmanship. He is smiling in the warm light of his workshop. “In a week’s time he will leave everything. He will go to the Emirates, where one of his brothers lives,” says Guendalina. “That’s the only way he can avoid ending up in the army: leaving everything and going away”.
Rebirth: how hard it is for someone who faces the challenges of poverty and violence on a daily basis. “But Pro Terra Sancta is there precisely for this, to offer new hope to those in Syria who feel forced to leave. It’s understandable but you have to try; try to revive them”.
Funding for entrepreneurs
It is this personal revival that is the aim of the project that Pro Terra Sancta launched in Damascus. A competition to reward the best ideas in the field of small entrepreneurship, to allow at least a shred of normality that was shattered by the war. A total of 105 small entrepreneurs responded: “it’s an extraordinary number, considering the context”, says Guendalina. In Damascus, the two meet the top twenty, and the long list of photos of them begins.
They have smiling faces, they sell colourful, fragrant, tasty products, you might say. “This is a craftsman. At forty he lost everything in the war, now he would like to start again by buying machinery and hiring two young people“. Guendalina changes the photo, showing us the inlays the man produces: small masterpieces, embroideries in the wood. “To allow him to start over, we offer him about five thousand dollars“. This is the cost of a couple of household appliances in Europe; two salaries and the professional life of two young people in Syria.
A university that keeps on going
Then there are the cooks, the farmers, the embroiderers, the spice growers, the soap makers; Guendalina lingers on the face of a smiling, clad young man. “He is from the university. That, at least, endures here in Syria. He met a deaf-mute classmate, and now he wants to develop an application to allow her to interact with everyone: she frames herself using the sign alphabet, and the application returns the words in ordinary language. Sparks, sparks in the dark.
“Speaking of the university,’ Tommaso interjects, ‘when we passed in front of it, in Damascus, the man who was guiding us around the city (to act as interpreter, ed.) stopped and asked us to photograph it. He had never done this before: he wanted us to see it, to tell people that the university in Syria is standing, that it works. He wanted us to know”.