‘Why’? Is the one question that is uppermost in one’s heart and mind? Why the violence and war? the death and destruction that has ravaged Syria for more than six years now? A conflict which has left millions displaced, desperately seeking security in safer parts of the country or fleeing as refugees to neighbouring countries after braving many odds. Why? Why? Why? Why is Syria in the doldrums today? Why have millions of children become a lost generation? Why is the economy in a shambles? And numerous without a livelihood? There are no easy, black-and-white answers. Most are aware that there are powerful vested interests who would like the conflict to continue. The tragedy however, is that the ordinary Syrian citizen is the one who continues to suffer. But as one journeys in the midst of devastation, one cannot but pinpoint some other dimensions:
Syria is a country of amazing beauty! As one traverses the hilly slopes of the Al-Khafroun one is struck by the sheer grandeur of the region. At a distance is the picturesque and historic town of Safita: a city on a hill. Beautiful orchards with fruit-laden orange and apricot trees and vast expanses of olive trees dot the country-side. The road to Damascus from Homs has a world of difference: rugged, barren hills, with large tracts of desert-land. Syria is rich in flora: flowers everywhere are in full bloom. The Syrians consider the Jasmine as their national flower; but there are a variety of others including rare orchids. Syria has it all: just beautiful!
Faith is palpable among the Syrians. The muezzin’s call to pray is loud and clear. Most cars and taxis have either a masbaha or a rosary dangling from the front rear-view mirrors. It is quite normal to find a Syrian fingering a masbaha whilst doing business or just walking down the street. Old Damascus has several Churches and mosques alongside. The main street displays several vinyl banners welcoming the new Melkite Catholic Patriarch. At the House of Ananias (where St Paul was converted and baptized) on Straight Street a group of people are in deep prayer. On the Feast of St. Thomas, the Apostle of India at Bab Tuma (the Gate of Thomas) one cannot help but feel an aura of the place, from where it is believed that St. Thomas left for the shores of India.
Fr. Frans Van der Lugt, the Dutch Jesuit was killed in Homs on April 7th 2014.An iconic figure he was a source of inspiration and strength to many. Today he continues to live on, in their hearts and lives. He was deeply spiritual; a real bridge between persons, touching and impacting on their lives in a very profound way Frans loved nature; his hikes are still very much talked about.
He ensured that everyone: Muslim and Christian; old and young were welcome at the Jesuit Centre in Homs. This continues today. He lived among his people; took a visible and vocal stand for them and ultimately he had to pay the price! At his graveside one only experiences a serene peace and the inspiration to do much more.
Sunday 2nd July was one of those violent days in Syria. The people woke up to three explosions that rocked Damascus City; the one in the Tahrir Square area of the city was particularly severe: leaving about 19 dead, several others injured and with much destruction in the vicinity. It was the first working day after the holidays for the Eid festival. By early afternoon however, there was an apparent air of ‘normalcy’ in several parts of the city. The well-known Shaalan Street was bustling with activity late evening: with the eateries rather crowded and the shoppers on a spree. People from all walks of life: children, women and men; young and old, visibly from different cultural and religious backgrounds thronged the street. The resilience of the people is remarkable, inspite of a reality which make their lives consistently insecure and unsafe.
There are numerous stories of hope in Syria. Ordinary people who want to live in peace and harmony; who want the war and violence to stop immediately. The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Syria is one such organisation that enkindles hope in the lives of thousands who are affected.JRS does phenomenal work especially in education, child protection, livelihood training, medical support and being in the midst of the most affected. The field kitchen in Aleppo provides nutritional food to thousands of the most needy. The JRS team reaches out to those affected at great risk. The Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s Sisters) care for the destitute: those who have nowhere to go. Beacons of hope everywhere!
The children who frequent the JRS Centre in Homs have brought their parents along for an afternoon of fun and games! It is a delight to watch the expressions of joy on their faces. At another JRS Centre ninth graders celebrate their accomplishment. An elderly lady, who has suffered from the trauma of displacement, insists that we listen to her reading and to see that she can now write. She is effusive about the programme which has been providing her the necessary literacy skills. A ten year girl comes running up just to say how happy she is to come to a place (the Albert Hurtado Centre in Jaramana, Rural Damascus) which is like a second home for her.
To ‘rebuild’ is like a catch word in Syria today- and urgently needed. As one leaves the country towards Lebanon, the billboards along the way speak about the need to rebuild Syria and of a forthcoming Exhibition to be held in September (www.re-buildsyria.com) the regularization of commercial activity is perhaps an important step in helping restore Syria’s multi-cultural and pluralistic society.
So as the world still pursues the elusive answer to the tragedy of Syria today and the lack of political will to ensure peace and stability in the region, one can certainly take consolation from the fact that there is a wealth of values that still thrive in the hearts and lives of the people.
* (Fr Cedric Prakash sj is a human rights activist and is currently based in Lebanon and engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service(JRS) in the Middle East on advocacy and communications. He can be contacted on [email protected])