Can you introduce yourself?
– i’m fr Sami Hallak, the director of the Jesuit refugee Service in Aleppo. i have been living in the city for eleven years, since the beginning of the crisis in Syria. i saw people fleeing the war from other cities to settle in Aleppo, which was a safe city, and i saw them leave again with the town’s citizens when the conflict ravaged the city. During these five years of war, the number of inhabitants has dropped from four million to one, the number of Christians from 160 000 to 22 000.
In the news, we hear of the bombing of hospitals and schools. what can you tell us about that?
– the war is absurd. the fighting in Syria is usually done inside towns and villages. there are civilians, and they will be inevitably hit by the bombs. these civilians remained because they are poor, and they do not have the means to move. they had the choice between going to live in camps and tents, to endure the cold and bad sanitary conditions, or to stay at home with dignity and face the danger of shooting and bombing every day. they chose what seemed to them the least of the two evils. the media convey the news in a partial way. they give the impression that there is a good side and a bad side, a culprit and a victim in this conflict, but we are both guilty and are victims. We are called to do something to bring about peace and brotherhood in the country. We must stop accusing and blaming. if we begin to change our mentality which judges and adopts a spirit of forgiveness and mercy, then peace becomes possible.
The people’s ordeal seems immense, how do they survive? is there any normal life in the city?
– the word survive is right. We have been living without electricity for five years, the water is cut often and we have to fetch the water from the wells and carry the containers up two, three, four flights of stairs. in winter, we suffer from lack of fuel: paraffin, gas and petrol. We must endure the cold. When i visit a family in winter, it’s normal for me to get a blanket to cover myself because the house is cold. it’s funny. We are seated, each one wrapped in one or two blankets, and the candle is lit to see and speak. this has become a normal life. When you travel outside, and you see the lights on all the time, people open the taps and the water flows in abundance, you feel that this is not normal.
Do you feel insecure for your lives?
– everyone feels in danger. it is not a personal but general danger. As people say here, living in Aleppo is a source of martyrdom, because we do not know when a shell falls on us or bullets from a sniper hit us. Do Christians continue to flee? Where and how many are there?
– there is a wave of emigration every year during the months of August and September. the students have finished their studies, and they have to do their military service, so they flee because they do not want to carry guns and kill. i said that the number of Christians dropped from 160 000 to 22 000. the majority of them are elderly, and people who do not want or cannot leave the city. last year, for example, the Greek orthodox community gave 900 scholarships, this year only 600, because 300 students are no longer in the city. Some went to live in another city, others, the majority, emigrated from the country. they will never return.
What are the main activities of the Jesuit refugee service (Jrs) you lead?
– i am not exaggerating if i say that JrS work in Aleppo is a pilot project. Several humanitarian officials say that JrS has taught the people in Aleppo how humanitarian work has to be done. We have four projects in Aleppo that meet the present needs of the poorest: aid, cooking, livelihood, and a dispensary. We serve nearly 90 000 people in all. in the aid department, we distribute food baskets to 10 000 families, the kitchen offers 9 500 hot meals a day, and the dispensary treats 4 000 sick people each month. the livelihood project employs 40 women and gives courses to 30 women each month so that they learn a job that allows them to earn a living. Currently, we have a programme for vocational training of 100 youth who have finished university and cannot find work.
How did this crisis affect the christian faith?
– i can compare this crisis with the trial of the Cross that generated salvation. the Christian community was obliged to leave its petrified faith which does not ask questions about God, about humanity, and about the meaning of its presence in the country. Concerning God, two ideas about God are confused: divine protection and divine providence. We speak of divine providence, but it is the image of divine protection that comes to our heads: the image of a God who intervenes to push physical evil away from us. An image that never asked the question: if God is so, why did He not protect His only Son? Why did He leave all the young martyrs that we know and celebrate to die in a frightful way? With the crisis, this image of God fell. innocent children, pious youths are killed by bombs, and the question arises: Where is God? Does He really exist? Why does He not do anything? it is an opportunity to be aware of the false image that we have made of God, to recapture the mystery of the Cross, to draw from the thought of the martyrs who went to their death without doubting God’s Providence, and finally, to know how to distinguish divine protection from divine providence.
Concerning humanity, the old idea that the righteous enjoyed a long life, dominated Christian thought despite the teachings of Jesus, His life that lasted only 33 years, and the teaching of the ascetic fathers dear to the eastern Christians. these fathers insisted on the nature of our existence and said that we are “travellers in this life to the father”. As it is the wish of every traveller, we want to reach our destination as quickly as possible. lost lives are an opportunity to remember that the important aspect of faith is not how many years we will live, but how we will live these years. Quality takes precedence over quantity.
This leads us to the third question: what is the meaning of our presence in the country? if our presence does not make sense, immigration is a good decision. through this crisis, Christians have discovered their responsibility to each other—to the displaced, the poor, and muslims. it was not easy. Christians lived long with a feeling of islamophobia. now, they face the challenge of evangelical charity. About 99% of the displaced are muslims, they have come and settled in the Christian quarters, and their presence poses to the disciples of Christ the embarrassing challenge: “i am a displaced muslim, i am now your neighbour, can you accept me as i am?” therefore, we have discovered the hardness of our hearts, and the call of Christ to conversion. it will not be easy. it requires a pastoral policy based on the love and acceptance of the other which is different. this is our goal for the present and for the future.