CARING FOR CHRISTIAN IDPs FROM NORTHERN SYRIA, Father Hugo Alaniz is a missionary priest of the Institute of the Word Incarnate. An Argentinian, he came to Syria at the end of 2017. During an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Father Hugo recalled travelling at the height of the civil war from Damascus to Aleppo, a city that was still under the control of rebel groups. “It was a very long and dangerous journey. We travelled through the desert because the main road was not fit to travel on. I witnessed a desolate scene, with many abandoned towns and villages, and in the outskirts of Aleppo nothing but ruins.”
“Until a year and a half ago many of the areas around Aleppo were still full of terrorists, and we witnessed clashes very close to us. We saw some very sad and shocking things in the hospitals, with many people wounded by bullets or shrapnel from terrorist attacks launched from outside the city,” Father Hugo recalled.
The fighting has now ceased in Aleppo, but the economic situation has changed little. At the present time, according to official figures, some 90 percent of Syria’s population is living below the poverty threshold.
“I estimate that a family of four or five people would need around $350-$400 a month to live on, yet salaries are usually around just $25. In other words, they are not living, but simply subsisting. It is very difficult for them,” Father Hugo said.
He reports that there is food in the supermarkets, but people cannot afford all the necessities, like milk, because the prices are so high. Besides, because of sanctions it is almost impossible to get products from abroad, such as medicines, spare parts for machines and cars and certain types of clothing and food that are not produced in the country.
When he arrived in Aleppo in 2017, in response to an appeal from Aleppo’s Latin-rite Bishop George Abou-Khazen, Father Hugo took charge of the church of Our Lady of the Annunciation, in the eastern part of the city. It was an area that had been very hard hit during the fighting and most of the population had abandoned their homes.
“People had either moved to the center of the city or left the country altogether. Even the religious community who lived in this church had gone. Bishop George felt it was time to start renewing the church and a small parish center in order to encourage people to return,” Father Hugo explained.
Work began in April 2018 and Father Hugo is pleased with results so far. “It was significant, because amidst all the ruins all around there was something like a little ray of light for the local people. Slowly, they began to return, not only from other parts of the city, but also from elsewhere within Syria. In the last two years some families have even returned from Lebanon.”
Among those who have suffered most since the end of the devastating war are the elderly and the sick. During the war, many families who had male children left because of military service. Even now, after the war has ended in most of Syria, compulsory military service still lasts many years. Many families prefer to leave the country, but as a result, the elderly, the sick and the handicapped are left behind on their own. The missionaries of the Incarnate Word are trying to ease the burden of their terrible loneliness.
“They are very much alone. We visit them and see what they need. We start by providing medication, and incontinence pants for the sick and elderly. We also have a community kitchen, where a group of volunteers cook three days a week, in order to provide these people with food in their homes. On the other three day Moufida recalled how the armed Islamist groups invaded their village. “They took away our livelihood, our money and our homes. They cook for the other people living or working in the surrounding area.”
Many of the old people living in the area are getting this help, including Moufida Jallouf and her husband Mousa Ogzan, who fled to Aleppo via a humanitarian corridor from the north of Syria, where the armed conflict is still ongoing. They have effectively become internally displaced: refugees inside their own country. Moufida recalled how the armed Islamist groups invaded their village. “They took away our livelihood, our money and our homes. They wouldn’t let us ring the church bell either, but we continued praying and making the sign of the cross privately inside our homes.”
“We can’t afford even the basic necessities of life now, so thank God the Church is helping us. We want to thank ACN for supporting the parish of Our Lady of the Annunciation, so that we can also survive,” Moufida added. The work to be done is immense, and the situation might seem absolutely desperate, but the Argentinian priest is quite clear: “It was from here, from Syria, Palestine, Jordan and what is today Israel, that the first Christians came. I believe that it is an obligation for us, as Church, to help the Christians of the Middle East. Not only because this is the Holy Land, but also because it is thanks to them that we came to know the Gospel message.”
“Thanks be to God, we have been able to help many families, and so our appeal to the benefactors of ACN is ‘please don’t forget us, please don’t forget our communities here who still need outside help.’ Thanks to your help we can continue to play our small part in supporting the Christian community, here in Aleppo, in Syria, in the Middle East. It is an immensely precious help. Whatever you can continue contributing will have great significance, especially for these people, who have lost everything, who continue to be in great need, who need your help,” Father Hugo concludes.
—Maria Lozano, AID TO THE CHURCH IN NEED
PHOTO SOURCE Nick Vidal-Hall