Things are far from normal in the regions of Syria and Turkey struck by a powerful earthquake on February 6.
In the Syrian cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Latakia, local Christian groups are still providing aid to people left destitute by the quake while working on material (and non-material) reconstruction alongside the Franciscan Friars of the Custody of the Holy Land.
The quake killed at least 8,000 people in Syria, adding more misery to a country already devastated by a civil war that started in 2011.
“We were already fed up with the war and, then, the earthquake struck us,” said Fr Khokaz Mesrob, a Franciscan in Aleppo, cited in Terrasanta, the magazine of the Custody, which gave a voice to several people in a long reportage published in its latest issue.
Even before the catastrophe, the city, once Syria’s manufacturing hub, had lost at least a third of its residents. Today, although tempted to leave, many young people remain, finding the strength to stay in their faith, friendships and sharing hardships.
“We grew up in a situation that was not normal,” said George, a 24-year-old Christian man who “was 12 at the beginning of the war.”
Unlike other places, the city was not destroyed by the quake. Afterwards, the local Latin church served as a shelter for several families already displaced by the war. Quickly people began helping each other. Shared past suffering and a totally depressed economy unite young people who survive thanks to humanitarian aid.
Despite everything, “it was possible to create beautiful memories together,” remembers Christine, a young woman. “You stop thinking that grown-ups are superheroes, you pray with others, share thoughts. Happiness is found more in giving than in receiving, and this helps overcome fear.”
Feeling close to one’s parish is preventing university students and other youth from wanting to leave. Still, “There is a constant sense of desperation, a desire to escape, to find any means to get out. No matter the destination, the important thing is to leave,” explains Fr Bahjat Karakash, parish priest at St Francis Church in Aleppo.
“You have the feeling of patching up worn-out clothing good only to be thrown out. Economic hardships not only have a practical impact on everyday life, but also on people’s souls,” he adds.
To keep a light of hope alive in the community, the friars of the Custody organise courses in arts, singing, and theater as well as sports activities, and this is only possible thanks to aid from abroad, Fr Karakash stresses.
Some activities are open to Muslims through cooperation with Mufti Mahmoud Akam. In eastern Aleppo, the poorest part of the city, three centres for women and children have been opened.
According to UNICEF, at least 29,000 children of former Islamic State fighters have been left to fend for themselves in Syria, seen as “children of sin”.
Aid is also important for the elderly, some of whom bear deep and perhaps irreversible scars. One man, for example, has been waiting for eight years for news of his son who disappeared in the maelstrom of the civil war.
In Damascus, things are a bit different. Although residents felt the quake, the city did not suffer damage. Yet, even in Syria’s capital, people face similar challenges; indeed, “getting to the end of the month is a real problem,” explains Fr. Firas Lufti, a local parish priest.
Overall, the country is in a deep economic depression while large swathes of its territory under the control of various armed groups, local rebels, and foreign troops. No wonder, many of those who left do not want to return.
In Latakia, Syria’s third-largest city, one of its main economic activities, tourism, is barely registering with only some Shia pilgrims making the journey. Since 2015, Russia operates a naval base near the city.
Some 700 families make up the local Christian community, mostly internal refugees from other regions of Syria, some very far away.
For Jordanian Friar Azar and Italian Brother Graziano Buonadonna, “Without remittances from relatives abroad, the Churches, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society, and many residents would not make it.”
“We do not have a lot of money because it is often directed to big cities,” they told the Terrasanta magazine. But at least each month, enough money arrives to provide some 500 people with medical care, which they could not afford given local wages.