In photo: Pastor Abdalla in a church service in Syria
For so long, they’ve longed for an end to hostilities in their country. The war has been terrible. When a loved one left the house, you would never know if he would return. Shelling, bombs, gun shots, and collapsing buildings could easily end one’s life. People were scared, always on high alert. They suffered from a lack of food, fuel, electricity and water. People thought that when the fighting was over, things would go back to normal. How mistaken they were.
Ibrahim*, a staff worker in our local partner organization in Aleppo, Syria, said: “When the fighting in Aleppo stopped in 2016, people thought things would be better but the currency plummeted and the economic situation became worse.”
“People can earn small amounts of money now but they are still desperate, unable to meet even their very basic needs. Because of the bad situation, people intend to leave the country, even more now than before the fighting in Aleppo ended.”
The fighting in Syria isn’t over yet. While we are talking with Ibrahim, we hear explosions in the distance – outside the city, rebels and still fighting with the Syrian and Russian armies. The war has destroyed big parts of cities like Aleppo, Damascus and Homs.
It seems a contradiction that things could be worse after the war. But everyone we speak to in Syria during our visit says the same thing. Pastor Edward Awabdeh of the Alliance Church in Damascus, for example: “We believed that, after the war, everything would be okay. We thought that Syria would flourish, that reconstruction would start, that we would be happy. But the frustrating thing is that things get worse. We have a bad economy, many are in deep need. We’re now reaping the results of war.”
The consequences are clear, he says. “People see no future. Many young people see their best hope as leaving the country. Yesterday I was surprised again by a phone call. A family from our church called from Erbil, Iraq. They stayed in Syria for the duration of the war. Their daughter had even planned to hold her wedding next week and then, all of a sudden, they left for Australia.”
Such a call affects the pastor. “Sometimes I feel frustrated, I feel pain. It hurts the most when I find young people lost, young people who can’t make sense of the future. People who are struggling to satisfy their basic needs of survival and making a living.”
Wages in Syria are low, far too low to cover monthly expenses. This is caused by the devaluation of the Syrian Pound. When the war started, one US dollar was worth about 50 SYP, now one dollar is around 650 SYP (September 2019). For example, Fadi Korkis (31): “I finished my studies in law in Aleppo. It is impossible to find a job for graduates. The economic situation is so miserable. I work in whatever temporary job I can get. I’ve had many jobs. In my current job as a cashier at a restaurant, I earn about 80 dollars a month, for 56 hours work a week. Soon I will have a fixed job as a civil servant, where I only earn about 45 dollars a month. To be able to start a family I need at least to earn 400 dollars. When I start to work as a civil servant I will need another job in the evenings but, even then, I won’t earn 100 dollars a month.”
Edward’s colleague, Pastor Abdalla Homsi in Aleppo, sees the same happening. In his church about 80 per cent of families have an income under 100 dollars a month. “Right now, there are more people knocking at my door saying that they want to leave the country than during the war. That has to do with two things. First, during the war, people were preoccupied with only surviving, staying alive. When the war ended, they started to think of the future. Because of the bad economic situation people who want to buy a house need to save all their salary for 150 years just to afford it. For that reason, they can’t get married. In the past, people got a bank loan to buy a house but now people go for a loan just to buy a refrigerator or a washing machine. You must save money for years to buy such a thing now.”
The churches do their best to help those needy people and try to persuade them not to leave Syria for economic reasons. Pastor Abdalla: “I need the finances to keep on helping people, plus I need the people to help others to stay. When we help them in their economic situation, we help them in their lives, in their community in their family. I believe Christians shouldn’t leave. Our help goes in parallel with people serving people.”
There is a waiting list for income-generating projects
One of the ways the churches do help needy people is by distributing food or giving support to pay rent or to buy medicine. Each month the church of pastor Abdalla helps 850 families that way. Through churches in different locations in Syria in 2019 we estimated that an average of 3,500 families are supported.
Another way to help the people is to give them work, having them start their own (small) business. Abdalla said: “The number of people in need is huge. What we can do is work according to our financial capability and our capability as a team. We have about 25 income-generating projects. We do our projects without announcing that we do them. We have a waiting list of 5 – 10 proposals waiting to start. But if we announced that we did help people starting up a business, we would have a 1000 for sure.”
The advantage of having your own business in Syria is huge according to the pastor from Aleppo.
“We only do income-generating projects with Christians. Many, many Christians need to start their businesses. We also need to think of those who can’t have their own project, for those we should start bigger projects that are overseen by the church and where they could work as employees for a decent salary.”
Such a bigger project started about three years ago in the town Maaloula, about an hour by car to the north, from Damascus. There, the Catholic Order of Jesus and Mary started a sewing factory where more than 24 women are now employed. These women produce underwear for men and women.
“You could compare the people of our country now with someone who just underwent a surgery,” says Sister Annie Demerjian. After a surgery, a person needs time to recover and needs time to return to normal life. That needs time, that is not magic, people need to be prepared and they need to have jobs.” She then adds how she sees hope: “Hope for me is when you lose your legs, you look for means to get up, when you lose your hands, you look for hands to hold; hope makes you stand again, even if you lost your legs or your arm. It helps you to start again.”
Our mission is to give hope, where there is no hope
Through their projects and programs, the churches want to stand against the hopelessness of the people. “Our mission is to give hope, when there is no hope. We want to mark the lives of people. Many people of good will are doing that. There is hope, there is a future, we need to believe in that,” says Sister Annie.
“We need to be circulated around Christ, Christ in the crisis. It is about Hope restored through Christ, through the local church,” adds Ibrahim. “When people ask me about Syria, they ask me about two things – ISIS and the crisis. But I want them to ask me about Jesus; it’s not ISIS, not crisis but Jesus. Jesus is here, that is why we can do what we never could imagine. The church is the representative of Christ, Christ dwells in the Church. There is no hope for [and through] the church without Christ. Each person needs Christ. Jesus is the real hope of any community.”
He goes on explaining how that is done: “We implemented 19 Centers of Hope in many dark places. A Center of Hope represents Christ, with Him people can overcome their challenges. As the war is ending, people keep picking at their wounds, there is a lot of trauma, hopelessness, darkness, pain and distress. We need the Centers of Hope. Jesus is the only hope for all the country; with Him we can be healed. In the Centers of Hope, people see acceptance, love, mercy and unconditional love. When Christ is with you, you can be released from suffering.”
Pastor Edward, Pastor Abdalla and Sister Annie all have churches or an organization that is functioning as such a Center of Hope. “Our aim is to respond to different needs of the people, when they arrive in a Center of Hope, they will see their needs being provided,” Ibrahim explains. “The vision of the Centers of Hope is resting on four pillars: the first is to help the Church to be able to speak up in the midst of justice and defend the offended and needy; second to help the Church survive in the midst of the economic difficulty; third to help the leaders to be mature enough to reflect the character of Christ; fourth to understand their calling and have sufficient material to serve the church.”
Ibrahim points at the about 100 projects that could be started in Syria up to September 2019. “Income Generating Projects are one of the things I feel personally happy with. Christians in Syria are thinking of how to leave. We now help them to start again, help them to see that it is worth starting again. A hundred is a very impressive number already, but this also helps other Christians who might have some savings. It is contagious when a Christian sees his brother or sister starting a project and sees his intention to stay. He might then also want to stay.”
“We could help the church to start some very appealing and very successful projects. For example, one of the beneficiaries lost his house during a bomb shelling. He was desperate, thought of his life as meaningless. We offered him to have a small project where he works with making and repairing furniture. He started with this project and he now is extremely satisfied; he found meaning in life again. We helped the church to implement many income generating projects like taxis, barber shops, clothes shops, crafts shops and even small factories.”
It’s now time that you again say: “I stand next to you, I want to hold your hand”
The need is big in Syria. Sister Annie says: “Where are the jobs? Where is the food? Support cannot suddenly stop. That would be a great mistake. It’s now time that you again say: ‘I stand next to you, I want to hold your hand.’ We need that more than before.” Ibrahim thinks the same: “Up to now we made a small start with a great impact. I believe the work has started, we want to invest in many more churches and cities, we want to reach many more. We should do more. The need is far bigger, we need to do it now. Otherwise we will lose the Christian’s existence in the country.”
*Name changed for security reasons