The Jesuit Order’s residence in Homs is located in the heart of the Syrian city. The Society of Jesus has paid a high price due to the war, which saw Fr Frans Van Der Lugt killed by jihadists in 2014. Today Jesuits are struggling to give local youth some chance at a better future.
Homs has long been the crossroads of Syria’s trade and industrial routes. Located halfway between Damascus and Aleppo, the city is a gateway to neighbouring Lebanon and to the Mediterranean coast. It was the third largest city in Syria, with some 700,000 inhabitants before the war, and the most devastated by the 10-year conflict. Entire neighbourhoods have been gutted and the impression is that the war only ended yesterday. Time seems to have stopped four years ago.
It is difficult to say how many people live in the city today, as there are no reliable statistics. But, considering the number of buildings reduced to piles of rubble, and the massive number of Syrians who have left the country, including some 1.5 mlllion in refugee camps in neighbouring Lebanon. What is certain is that the local population has reduced drastically.
Christians forced into exile
As it often happens in these circumstances in the region, local Christians have been the first to go. Violence and intimidation by terrorists has left the Christian minority little choice but to flee their homes.
In the Jesuit residence in Homs, young Christians, but also Muslims, meet almost every day to join a number of activities organized by the “Ignatian” parish. Father Vincent de Beaucoudrey, SJ, is one of the Jesuits working here.
The French priest welcomed Vatican News in the small square courtyard of the residence where the Dutch Jesuit Frans Van Der Lugt was slaughtered by jihadi fighters on 7 April 2014. His confreres had moved away from the fighting, but he had decided to stay to continue to welcome all those needing comfort and prayer. But the jihadists had no mercy.
The murder of Fr. van der Lugt in 2014
His confreres buried him in the same courtyard where he was martyred: a cross-shaped tomb is a reminder of his sacrifice. The interview with Father Vincent (Mansour in Arabic) begins with a moment of meditation right in front of the grave.
Then, Father Vincent begins to speak about the ordeals of the people he meets every day, all of them facing lack of work, future perspectives and hope. “We support people as much as possible”, he says. “We try to help them spiritually, and of course, we suffer with them.” The priest explains that his community operates at two levels, social and pastoral, making sure they are kept distinct.
Supporting young people
Overall, about one thousand young people meet up in the Jesuit reseidence to play basketball or football, or to join theatre activities, or parties. These moments of leisure are distinct from the ones dedicated to God. “Kids who come here, and know why they come: either to play, or to pray and listen. We don’t want to mix the two things,” the priest explains.
Homs is so devastated that there are practically no places for diversion, and the Jesuit residence can offer this space: “Many people come here and they increase 20% each year, so we can say that our activities are successful,” Father Vincent says. “But we also know that if we weren’t here, they would have nothing else to do.”
The touch of the Gospel
On the other hand, the moments of listening, sharing and prayer follow a different pattern. When asked about the future of these young people, Father Vincent gets emotional: “I don’t know, I don’t know …”, he answers. “We cannot focus on the long term. We must let the Gospel touch us. The Jesuit charism is to help people make decisions and when you are a student chaplain, you think you should help people build their lives. But what do you do when you don’t know what to decide? It’s complicated…”, he says.
Father Vincent then composes himself and elaborates: “One of our greatest difficulties is to help in discernment. When someone is offered a choice, it means that he/she can decide between two good things. But we cannot talk about choice when there is no way out. Young people have nothing to choose from in this context, there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” he explains.
Local students often find themselves forced to follow academic paths they are not really interested in. Most of them haven’t chosen their studies, but have simply opted for the most practical solutions, choosing university courses according to the public transport available in their neighbourhood.
“When we hear this, when to talk to them about their future, they tell us: ‘Yes, but what comes after?’ There is nothing to sustain their hope anymore,” Father Vincent remarks with a note of sadness.
“This is why we need to go deeper in reaching out to our young people in everyday life. Our social activities can spur a little hope,” he says. But it’s only a feeble glimpse of hope that even Ignatian discernment hardly manages to open for lack of opportunities.
“Young people here can choose between two small jobs, if they are lucky enough to have this choice,” the Jesuit priest explains. “But how can we help them discern, when they have to choose between serving in the army [military service in Syria today can last up to 7-8 years, because the country is at war], or going abroad?”
“When they come to me and ask me if they should stay or leave, I am unable to give an answer. I can only tell them to take care of themselves and wish that God may accompany them,” Father Vincent concludes.