The story of Benan Kayyali
Christians and Muslims, side by side, to build a place of peace. It is happening in Aleppo, the scene of violence that has pummeled the land, gutted buildings and left hundreds of devices buried under the ground, vigilantly awaiting the moment when they will be brought back to light with a devastating blast. The long history of the war in Syria has led to the city being the hot centre of the conflict for two years. An interminable time, during which military coalitions and armies of all colours have unleashed blind violence on the city, and uprooted buildings and hopes from the foundations.
Christians and Muslims are there together, to give the future a breath of fresh air, to rekindle a light, faint but alive, amid the smoke of the rubble. This is what Dr Benan, manager and tireless animator of Pro Terra Sancta’s projects in the Syrian city, tells us.
The beginnings, in 2015
“We have to help each other; we have to be on the same side, always. We are stronger this way! And we must stand together to build the best”: this is how Benan speaks on the phone, in excited English, slightly embarrassed by the request to tell and tell about herself. In her early thirties, with a degree, a Master’s and a Doctorate in Psychology and Mental Health, Benan is portrayed in the photos as a smiling woman. Her bright black eyes stand out among the hijab and chalky waistcoat of the Franciscan Care Center, the project in which she has been involved in Aleppo for six years now, since she met Father Firas Lutfi, a Franciscan, who got her involved in Associazione Pro Terra Sancta. “I met Father Firas in 2015, here in Aleppo. The city was then in the middle of the crisis and the fighting front was going through it. We talked for a long time, we discussed together; and we both nurtured the desire to accomplish something concrete, real and useful for the men and women who had experienced and were experiencing the war.” Thus was born this strange dialogue between the multicoloured veil framing Benan’s face and the brown of the Franciscan’s habit. A singular harmony that began to paint the lives of those who met them in Aleppo. Literally painting: “I suggested to Father Firas that we start with a programme of psychological support through art; we went to meet the boys and girls, those who were traumatised, those who had mental disorders, who were made mentally weak by the drama and the bombs”. The project barely lasted two years, sustained by Benan and Father Firas’ desire to sow a seed of peace in the heart of the conflict.
In eastern Aleppo
In 2017, liberation arrived, and Aleppo opened up to everyone’s eyes the catastrophe that lurked in its eastern districts. The eastern part of the city, heavily bombed during the fighting, had been razed to the ground. It was there that the vast majority of the ordnance lay, still unexploded, underground. Benan describes it as follows: ‘Grenades, bombs, mines; everything could explode at any moment. People told us not to go to the eastern districts, it was too dangerous. But Benan and Father Lutfi also ventured into that part of the city: “We went in there, we saw the eastern districts of Aleppo, we talked to the people; and we started to plan: we thought of building something for the people, to meet their needs, especially those of the children”.
Benan pauses. Perhaps the images of the destruction in eastern Aleppo pass before his eyes. Perhaps those of the thousands of children who, in the midst of those ruins, had been abandoned by everyone and were wandering alone, weaned when they were still too young by a violence that had taken away every certainty, even that of a mother and father. In eastern Aleppo, many children were born in the midst of the conflict: “children are the victims of this war; those who were born to a father considered to be a terrorist, or to someone foreign, did not even receive a document bearing their name”. Orphans and anonymous: nothing but shadows, pale and emaciated, in the now silent desolation of the rubble.
The woman resumed her story: “We wanted to do something there too with Father Firas, to build a centre to help the population, to make people’s lives a little better”. The two started, but soon needed funds.
A name and a future is born
That’s when Pro Terra Sancta stepped in,” says Benan, “which Father Firas had known for some time; it was he who asked the Association for help, and Pro Terra Sancta, fortunately, helped us. It was they who found more and more donors for us, to guarantee continuity for the project, to ensure its future”. And so we began to talk about the future: the project that Benan and Father Firas were able to set up in East Aleppo, thanks to Pro Terra Sancta, was called A Name and a Future.
Since 2017, Associazione Pro Terra Sancta, together with the Franciscans of the Custody, has continued to serve the children of Aleppo. Initially, it was a matter of offering them nothing more than a name: “we helped them legally, and we registered them”. Then the project began to take charge of their future, as Benan recounts: “we built an education centre for all those who could not afford to go to school; there was also the possibility of medical care, and we hired a paediatrician”. But not only the children were in need of a revival.
Commitment to women
Women in eastern Aleppo were also the protagonists of a catastrophe. Many of them were now the silent survivors of a storm that had taken away their loved ones, who had left for the front or simply returned to their homes after finishing their mercenary service in Aleppo. Others, whether girls or adults, had been victims of violence, and had often had the courage to give birth to boys and girls who were treated with condescension as the product of immoral conduct. Pro Terra Sancta also took action for them.
“We also wanted to do something for the women, who could neither read nor write,” says Benan, “and we made them study in our training centre. Now almost all of them have received an official diploma. A crack towards the future has opened up in the centre, which has begun to expand, to make room for all the last, the forgotten, the abandoned: “the training centre has also been opened to people with disabilities, for rehabilitation”. Every aspect of the project A name and a future is monitored, “qualitatively and quantitatively”, says Benan proudly, using her academic skills to ensure that energy and money are not wasted.
One last word, Benan dedicates to thanking those who have enabled her to put all this into practice: “It is clear: all this has been possible thanks to the help that Pro Terra Sancta has given us; because it has been the strong and discreet hand that has pushed us, supported us, and helped us to achieve everything”. We hear her laughing on the phone, she stumbles a little in her pronunciation, then, still laughing, she says: “Being part of Pro Terra Sancta is something spectacular, because we can do good to people, so much good. We can help people together, and this initiative is exactly the right thing to do. For the better.