This report is contributed by Oliver Maksan of Aid to the Church in Need.
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From the Christian town of Deir al Ahmar it’s only a few miles to the Syrian border. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have sought refuge in this area, camping in tents on the vast, fertile plain. Bumpy dirt tracks lead to one of the ten camps which have been set up around Deir Al Ahmar.
The families who live here are all Sunni Muslims. They come from Raqqa, the East Syrian city that now serves as the capital of the ISIS caliphate. “We lived under ISIS,” a man says, agitatedly. “They’re not Muslims. They’re criminals. Our women had to completely veil themselves. We men were no longer allowed to smoke. They control everything.” A woman adds: “We knew God before ISIS. They don’t need to explain anything to us.”
These refugees literally came only with the clothes on their backs. Some 800 Syrian Muslim families are now in the care of a group of Catholic nuns, who are running a local aid center that provides food and medicine. Each day, the sisters run a school that serves 350 Syrian children, who are assured of a hot meal as well. Local Christians are also pitching in.
“God bless Sister Micheline,” says one woman. Sister Micheline makes a gesture of dismissal, saying, “What was I supposed to do? In the middle of winter 2011 I suddenly had more than 150 people, some wearing only sandals, standing in the deep snow at my door. As a member of the Order of the Good Shepherd I couldn’t possibly send them away.”
Sister Micheline explains the historical context: “This area suffered considerably as a result of the Lebanese civil war [1975-1990] and the Syrian occupation. There were tensions both with the Shiites and with the Syrian army of occupation. Many Christians therefore left. Whole Christian villages were abandoned. To improve life a little, my order decided in 2005 to open up a center to support native Christians here, and especially the children.
“We offer not only catechetical instruction, but also homework courses and leisure activities. People have responded enthusiastically. It’s important that the children get out of their houses. Throughout the winter, which is very long here, they all sit in one room and get on one another’s nerves. Then the Syrians suddenly came. The people again thought someone was going to take something away from them.”
During the civil war and up to the withdrawal of the Syrians from Lebanon in 2005, 300 adolescents and young men from Deir Al Ahmar were killed in battles with the Syrians. Not surprisingly, local Christians were very reluctant to come to the aid of the Syrian refugees at first, but they have come around, the sister explains, even as building up mutual respect and trust between the communities is a slow process.
“We offer manicure courses to enable the women to earn a little extra. This means that Christian women from the village are meeting with Syrian refugee women. This also helps to break down prejudices,” says Sister Micheline.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)