Andrea Avveduto’s journey to Syria.
There are Christmas lights in Syria, but they are off. Like the withered and dead branches of some strange creeper, the sinuous and embroidered lights, which in Italy are synonymous with festivity, simply go unnoticed there.
This is an image taken from Andrea Avveduto’s account of his return on Monday from his trip to Syria, which took him to visit the two cities of Damascus, the country’s capital, and Aleppo, one of the main centres of northern Syria. Andrea tells us about a Syria that is first and foremost poor. More than the war, more than the bombs that – still – continue to explode in the deafening silence of newspapers and the media, it is material poverty that prostrates the country.
The ‘Caesar’ sanctions
And Syrian poverty has a very specific cause: the ‘Caesar’ sanctions imposed by the United States Congress on 17 June 2020 on territories under government control. These measures came at the end of a long process of reflection on the part of the US government, which began in 2014 with the interrogation of a fugitive from Syrian prisons known, in code, as ‘Caesar’. Based on the declarations of this fugitive, a photographer who documented several abuses inside the territories under the government of Syria, the United States decided to launch economic sanctions, also known as ‘Caesar’.
These measures have affected every aspect of the lives of the Syrian population. They prevent the sale of basic necessities (diesel, food, clothes), ban imports of cars, household appliances, foodstuffs… Even before the sanctions came into force, people in Syria were apprehensive about who would pay the price. Now we have the answer: the people, forced onto the streets to scavenge for rubbish, the middle class, wiped out by poverty. Children, begging, living on what they can find, not playing. Lights out.
Christmas and poverty
“Christmas in Syria will be affected by international sanctions,” says Andrea. “Everything is affected and everyone is affected: even Christmas lunch will be difficult if you only have electricity for two hours a day. But that’s nothing. And in fact, well beyond Christmas lunch, the people are on their knees: “if until last year we could talk about a possibility of development for Syria, now we, Pro Terra Sancta, are forced to return to the distribution of food parcels, containing food and basic necessities.
Cardinal Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio to the Syrian Arab Republic, has repeatedly expressed deep concern about what he calls the “poverty bomb”. A strange device that does not deflagrate, does not explode, but grows little by little and degrades, and kills, with the slow inevitability of an irresistible condemnation. A poverty that sanctions only aggravate. The same position is held by Georges Abou Khazen, Apostolic Vicar for the diocese of Aleppo.
Poverty and prayer
Andrea tells us about the distribution of food parcels by Pro Terra Sancta in Aleppo: “You see very dignified people queuing up, members of the middle class that has been wiped out. With composure, they are all waiting for the help that can save their lives. A subtle and very slow strangulation, that of the sanctions, which gives no peace, which continues.
“It was impressive to see how Christmas means hope, even there,’ Andrea exclaims. “Christmas is always hope, and there too we try to live out this hope, through community life,. The elderly people of the Azizeh parish in Aleppo, for example, pray together for an end to the misfortune, for Syria to be reborn on the shoulders of their grandchildren. They pray hoping for a future, and they have the courage to hope precisely because they pray: it is from God’s gift to humanity, that is, from Christmas, that hope is born”.
Christmas: hope in fragility
Christmas is hope, it is the desire for rebirth; Christmas is the fragility of this hope in the midst of poverty, as fragile as a child is, who is all out to grow, who is all out to live. “Christmas, in which we celebrate the birth of a child, urgently calls us to care for the children in Syria”. This is the central point: the future of Syria depends on the lives of these children; without their readiness for peace, there is no credible tomorrow”. The project A name and a future, in Aleppo, says Andrea, “is the place where we try to create this disposition to peace”.
“There, children are welcomed and desired, made protagonists. Many of them are children of the rapes of the jihadists who have occupied the area [we told this recently thanks to the story of Benan Kayyali, editor’s note], and they, with their mothers, are seen with suspicion, they are distanced. To the point that many have never even had a name. This is why Pro Terra Sancta has created the initiative ‘A name and a future’ for them, to give them a chance to grow up, to become someone, a person against the anonymous and desperate background of poverty”. In order to colourfully light up those small illuminations that will warm the devastated streets of Syria, which is waiting for its Christmas of peace and hope.
Andrea pauses, then adds: “Just as the history of the world was changed forever by the birth of a child, so the history of Syria can only be changed by the rebirth of its children”.