Christians finding safe zone within bombed out Syrian city
Perhaps anywhere in the United States, if a bunch of kids had nothing else to ask a visitor with money than whether they could get a basketball court renovated, we might be tempted to think, “What a bunch of selfish ingrates.”
But when the scene is a city in Syria that just two months prior had been undergoing horrific aerial bombing, word that young people were thinking of sports had quite a different feel.
“The situation is chaotic but full of hope for the first time,” said Father Andrzej Halemba, head of the Middle East section for the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. “You could sense a certain jubilation. Young people were playing football, thinking about an upcoming tournament. They were asking me if they can restore the basketball field.”
Father Halemba recently was in Aleppo, where the Syrian military, with assistance from Russian forces, had wrested control over the rebel-held eastern sector in late December.
The youth he met there were not the only sign of a renewed hope for a city that had become a living hell in the waning months of 2016. “We have more and more questions on how we can go back to Aleppo from Lebanon or other parts of the Middle East,” Father Halemba said.
Aid to the Church in Need is coordinating with other relief agencies to help rebuild the devastated city, providing funds to rebuild housing and feed the malnourished. The Vatican is trying to assist as well. Pope Francis sent Msgr. Giampietro Dal Toso, acting secretary of the Vatican’s new Congregation for Integral Human Development, to Aleppo January 18-23.
Cardinal Mario Zenari, papal nuncio to Damascus, is launching a project to rebuild Catholic hospitals in Aleppo. Like other hospitals, they are struggling mightily to treat the many wounded and traumatized.
“I’m waiting for His Eminence to meet with the Pope, and then we can see what we can do for these hospitals,” Father Halemba said.
Without denying the material hardships, though, simply the fact that the city is secure is a tremendous morale-booster. Alleppians “welcome peace and are so happy to not hear mortars and low-flying military jets and so on,” the Polish priest said.
Though developments in Aleppo bode well for President Bashar al Assad, a development that, for some, means Syria has a greater chance of defeating what the regime sees as terrorists and thus restoring peace, Father Halemba and others point out that there are forces beyond even the regime’s control.
“There was a kind of feast of victory in Aleppo, and many people were dancing and rejoicing, but the war is far from over now,” Halemba said. “But the most dangerous is the proxy war between Kurdish, Turkey, Russian, Iran, Saudi Arabia. If they are not satisfied with the developments there will be no peace in Syria. It’s not in the hands of Syrian people, unfortunately. The political gains of the neighboring countries count more than the future of Syria itself.”
A Syrian refugee living in North America, who did not want her name used for fear of reprisals against her family, also spoke darkly of a “foreign foot” that has planted itself inside Syria, with competing forces coming from “all over the world.”
But, she said that the regime’s capture of Eastern Aleppo was a positive development.
“Aleppo has a history and a civilization that is beyond Syria itself,” said the refugee, who is a Christian. “The rebels did enough to destroy that entire civilization. The whole history of Syria is in Aleppo, so it’s a good thing that the official government has its hand back in the city of Aleppo.”
The city, she said, “has now become an internal safety zone…. without anybody there from outside. Many people are coming back into this zone of safety inside Aleppo. Including Christians.”