This was posted today by ANS.
(ANS – Aleppo) – Fr. Munir El Rai, the Salesian provincial of the Middle East Province, has visited the SDB communities in Syria. He sent a note to ANS about his journey among people who are intimidated by war, young people thirsting for hope, and SDBs who are staying to help the population; in all of them he heard the same cry: “Haaj” (Enough)!
Fr. El Rai first passed thru Beirut, Lebanon, to meet the Salesians of that country. Among the issues addressed were the procedures whereby displaced Syrians have come to Lebanon to find peace and work. “Many Syrian Christian families find refuge from the war by emigrating into Lebanon,” writes Fr. El Rai. “This is desirable because of the strong Christian presence, and the possibility of finding work and of emigrating to other countries. I then asked the Salesians of Lebanon to prepare an emergency plan for the reception of Syrian refugees, as was done with the Lebanese during the Lebanese war.”
On Wednesday, September 26, by public transportation he began an overland trip to Damascus. During the journey, Fr. El Rai had a discussion with the people about the condition of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the suffering in which the people are now living. His arrival in Damascus coincided with the final phase of the attack on the Ministry of Defense: the whole city was on alert and full of army roadblocks. The climate of fear, sadness, and insecurity was very strong. As a result of the attack, the provincial reached the Salesian Center with difficulty.
The community of four Salesians is situated in an area which is safe enough. They are trying to give signs of hope to young people and families, organizing meetings and spiritual and recreational training. The Center is becoming an oasis of peace, sharing, and hospitality, increasingly valuable to young people in the area. “All the confreres have confirmed their determination to remain in Syria to serve young people,” says Fr. El Rai. “On the occasion of my visit we relaunched visits to families with very young children who now avoid the Center for fear of the dangers they might encounter along the way, trying to support them on the spiritual, moral, and material levels.”
“This vision of many young people who have lost all their hopes for the future and for their country saddened me a lot, insofar as it is the collapse of a lifetime of teachings based on having confidence in the future, and I was taken back to the image of a Syria without Christians and without a future, as is happening in other areas of the Middle East,” noted Fr. El Rai.
On Saturday, September 29, at Tartous Fr. El Rai met the bishop of the Maronites, who thanked the Salesians in Kafroun for the activities they have carried out. Focused on that work, Fr. El Rai went through several villages, coming across countless images of those who had died in the clashes. He reports: “At Kafroun I met the Salesian who had been in this house for the summer along with two younger brothers, and has remained with a new confrere who joined him for this new mission. Then we decided to leave the house open all year to continue to host the displaced people of Aleppo: about 40 people, including the families of Salesian brothers and of Salesian Cooperators, and our young people. Currently the number of these displaced people is increasing rapidly due to the escalation of the clashes. The house is also carrying out educational and recreational activities with young people from the city of Homs, the hardest hit by the clashes. The Center is also running an oratory with the youths of the area.”
The internally displaced persons and the Salesian Family at Kafroun share a common life in a family style. They coordinate activities and moments of common life. Guests are engaged in housework, such as maintenance, care of the garden, the kitchen, and laundry; and in pastoral work with the other evacuees and with the children of the area. With the Salesians, the families feel safe, but they remain anxious for loved ones who are still in Aleppo. They are thinking about the future, torn between fear, the desire to flee abroad, and the hope to be able to return to their homes.
“I left for Aleppo on the afternoon of October 2, traveling on a 25-seat bus along with a Salesian Cooperator from Aleppo. The bus, already loaded with the luggage of the refugees it was carrying, was also charged with tension and fears for the trip, which led us through the areas hardest hit by clashes, and the expectations of people who hoped to return to their places of origin to try to reach their loved ones.” The gasoline to start the journey was obtained from a seller who had hidden his supply – because fuel distributors are no longer operating.
“Along the deserted highway you notice the signs of war: armored cars and tanks, damaged and abandoned houses, various Syrian Army checkpoints, where we were stopped for inspection of our documents. After a stretch of road outside the control of the Syrian Army, just an hour from Aleppo, we ran into a rebel roadblock to check the documents, and they let us go. After another rebel checkpoint we reached Aleppo, aware of how fortunate we had been not to be attacked.”
Having arrived at the Salesian house in the evening, the provincial received a surprise greeting and the thanks of two Syrian SDBs, a Syrian prenovice, and some youths who were playing in the small courtyard. A decade of the Rosary made it possible to close the day with relative equanimity.
But the next morning the awakening was abrupt: “The Salesian house shook due to a huge attack on the main square of Aleppo, which is eight minutes away on foot. At 9:00 a.m. along with another Salesian, I wanted to visit the site of the attack, which resulted in about 50 deaths and more than 100 wounded in the center of Aleppo; but this was impossible because they feared new attacks.”
|As recently as last April, the youth center at Aleppo was able to hold a soccer tournament.|
Another young Syrian confided to Fr. El Rai that the first help people need on the part of the Church “is a strong sign of spiritual and moral support, and later the support of solidarity.” War is not made only by acts of violence; it is also a moral and psychological matter. The streets are full of roadblocks and of armed people and cars; one sees weapons everywhere. All now speak the language of war, children know the names of weapons, and when there is an explosion they recognize the weapon used. In the evening the hits intensify, and the kids fall asleep and dream of finding everything resolved upon awakening.
At Aleppo Fr. El Rai had various meetings with the SDB community to think about how to continue to help young people and their families, on spiritual and material levels. The house of Aleppo is another oasis of peace. The few that attend start coming at 4:30 p.m. and remain until the evening, when the day ends with a prayer to the Virgin Mary.
The SDBs with the help of the Salesians Cooperators and other laity started initiatives with internally displaced people at state schools, but then they stopped because of threats. Now this activity is bouncing back, thanks to the young priests of different rites and various lay groups. “The value of giving oneself to others and the fact of still believing in coexistence, once Syria’s pride, is one of the signs of hope that I found during my trip.”
The provincial departed by plane from Aleppo for Damascus on October 7. “The taxi cost more than the flight, because of the risks which the driver took to accompany me.”
“This trip,” continues Fr. El Rai, “has touched my life from the human, Christian, and Salesian points of view. It took me to see the horrors of war that so quickly have brought destruction, insecurity, sadness, hate, and division to our country. I was also shown the minds of men who strongly want only peace and security, and have realized that the solution can only come about thru dialog. I also witnessed a strong return to faith and to prayer, and the will to live, to the point that, paradoxically, the number of marriages has increased.”
“To me it seems that there are now two major challenges: (1) supporting the population in this emergency phase, facing the current lack of humanitarian aid, dictated by the fact that the situation in Syria is treated only as one of politics and media, while the humanitarian level is being neglected; (2) succeeding in erasing hatred after so much violence, is how peace will finally be restored.”
“On behalf of many Syrians that I met during this trip,” Fr. El Rai concludes, “I ask you to pray for us.”