Beginning last Tuesday, and through until tomorrow, we have been offering you a variety of stories which, along with describing to you the situation as it is lived by Christians in Syria, will also offer you poignant testimonials from the religious personnel on site and from the people living through this unspeakable tragedy.
You will see, though Syrians have a capacity for resilience which is quite remarkable, their suffering remains a weight that they cannot bear alone. Prayer, information and action can help them continue to move ahead on their journey, despite the formidable challenges they face. How can you support them?
Hunger, destruction, death: for years, Sister Ani has been helping the people of Aleppo – Aid to the Church in Need lends a hand
By Oliver Maksan, ACN International
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
Hunger, destruction and death: for years, Sister Anie has been helping the people of Aleppo – Aid to the Church in Need supports her mission.
“You can’t imagine in what kind of circumstances the family was living. It was damp and cold in that cellar. It is like a catacomb. You can hardly breathe. The girl lost her teeth, one by one, because of the perpetual darkness down there. It was horrible when I saw it. They lived like that for three years.”
Even after so many years of war, Sister Ani Demerjian is still affected by the misfortunes of the people. The young Armenian-Catholic Sister belongs to a community that was established in France, the Congregation of the Sisters of Jesus and Mary (RJM). For years, the Damascus-born Syrian has endured in Aleppo, a contested metropolis in the northern part of Syria. The government and the insurgents have fought bitter battles there, which is why hundreds of thousands have left the once so affluent, now largely destroyed city.
Those who remain are those who cannot afford to leave and start a new life elsewhere. “On Christmas we had neither electricity nor water. Instead, massive bombs were dropping. And that is the rule, not the exception. We often go for days without electricity. And when it works, then only for one or two hours a day.
Daily encounters with death
The water supply system has also broken down. Old people have to haul water in buckets from wells or tank wagons to their flats on the sixth storey or so. It is also very cold at the moment. Diesel and gas are in short supply. There are people who are burning their furniture. I have heard of a family who was burning plastic bags to keep warm. Afterwards, a child had to be treated in hospital for poisoning. This is our life at the moment. The people have by now used up everything they had, cash, jewelry, or other valuables. They are at the end of their ropes. How often are we in houses in which there is no food. It is not easy to see your own people in such a state.” Then there is the danger that accompanies the universal state of distress. “You may die on any given day. An acquaintance of mine took a taxi. A grenade hit her. There was nothing left of her. This is the life we lead. What will become of us? We are entirely in God’s hands. Our lives belong to Him alone. When it is over, it is over.”
Despite the daily encounters with death, Sister Ani is fighting for life. Together with volunteers – among them many adolescents – she organizes aid for those who are suffering. “At the moment we are helping about 600 families with clothing, food, gas or anything else they need to survive. We are only able to do this thanks to the support of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). I can’t express how thankful we are to those who have made donations.
Pious words are not enough in a situation like this. The people need spiritual food, but also the kind you can bite into.” And the need is great. Many fathers have lost their jobs because the factories they worked in were destroyed or had to close for some reason. This has plunged entire families into poverty who had been quite prosperous before.
New hope to live
Such as the Christian family from the cellar. “The father owned a flower shop,” Sister Ani reported. “However, he had to close it. Bit by bit they had to sell everything they owned. Furniture, electrical devices, clothing: they gave everything away for a little food. At some point they moved into the cellar. The rent for their former flat was too expensive. There was no electricity in the cellar. Both children, a son and a daughter, had to give up their studies because they didn’t have any more money.”
Fortunately, the father went to see Sister Ani last year. “We immediately decided to help the family,” she said. “They now have electricity, perhaps not all the time, but still. We want to help the children continue their studies. And we want to help the girl get new teeth. You can’t imagine the joy in their hearts. The girl has told us that we have given them new hope to live.”
Sister Ani was also touched by the story of another family in Aleppo. “It is a family of four, also Christian. Their house was bombed and with it everything they had. They were forced to move into the small shop the father uses to make tea and coffee to sell on the streets. Poor people, you see. The mother couldn’t take the hardships any longer or went out of her mind and ran off with a Muslim. She now lives in Raqqa, where ISIS rules. The father stayed behind with his two daughters. The oldest is 15. Both girls were hit hard by the hardships and their mother’s departure. They did poorly in school and also began to look completely neglected and dirty. The younger girl even became sick. We are now supporting the family by helping them meet their everyday needs. We are also looking for a new flat for them. In the district they now live, they are gossiped about because of the mother. And so they can’t stay there. Most importantly, the girls should return to school. We are trying to make a new life possible for the family.”
All of this suffering has left its mark on Sister Ani. “Somehow, all of this is bigger than I am. It doesn’t matter which house you go into, each has a sad story to tell. We are really surrounded by evil. However, as time goes on it becomes ever more apparent to me that the Lord is with us.” Holy Mass in the morning, Adoration and prayer strengthen Sister Ani and her fellow sister so that they can carry out their everyday work. They volunteered for this work. “Our superiors told us that we could leave. As the crisis began, my sister and I decided that we would stay. You can’t just share in the good times with people.” However, at this point the good times are just a vague memory, Ani said. “I don’t ask God about the why. I only ask Him to give me the strength I need for the day. This removes the burden from my shoulders. And I have realized one thing: the Lord acts subtly, but He acts. We see this every day. This is the only reason we can go on.”
Tomorrow : “ The Christians want to stay”
“There was fierce fighting in Nebek all through Advent.”