Damascus, Sister Antonietta with Jacqueline and her children 

By Vatican News

Dec 7 2021

In Damascus, the Sisters of Jesus and Mary help dozens of Christian families in difficulty. They were forced to flee the war and have taken refuge in the Syrian capital Damascus, where they live in extreme poverty and depend almost entirely on the support of the Church.

Sister Antonietta is a young energetic nun  with an ever-smiling face. She is one of the five Sisters of Jesus and Mary working in Damascus to bring relief to empoverished Christian families who fled to the Syrian capital during the war. The Congregation, founded in Lyon, France, in 1818 by St Claudine Thévenet with the fundamental mission of educating children, has been in Syria since 1983. 

Meeting displaced people

Sister Antonietta walks along the narrow streets of the Old Town. The city is teeming with shops and restaurants, but small alleys only a few meters away from the main streets present a far more depressing appearance.  She enters one of these lanes, before walking up a staircase under a porch to visit Jacqueline and her children: Sidra, 8 years old, who throws herself in the arms of Sister Antonietta with a smiling grin, followed by her brother, 11-year-old Azar. Jacqueline welcomes the nun in a small courtyard, which opens into a damp  room where she lives alone with her three children. The oldest daughter, 12-years-old Sarah, is not there.

Flee or die

Jacqueline used to live in Maaloula, a predominantly Christian city some dozen kilometers northeast of Damascus. She and her husband owned a farm where they grew grapes and figs. When war broke out, things changed overnight. In 2013, Islamist al-Nusra militias surrounded the city and showed no mercy, especially to Christians. They carried out public executions in the central square of the town and also kidnapped several people, including Ghassan, Jacqueline’s husband. She had no choice but to flee and left for Damascus with her three children, as thousands of Syrian families did, because they considered the capital to be much safer.

After making contact for ransom, her husband’s kidnappers and intermediaries never got in touch with her again. She had no news for three years, until the a Syrian sodier calle ine day in 2016 to tell her that  human remains of five people had been found in Lebanon and that  the DNA test indicated that  Ghassan was one of the victims. She was told the five men had been executed by the Islamist militiamen. According to accounts, they had all refused to convert to Islam and chose to die instead.

Surviving in Damascus

In Damascus, Jacqueline supports her family with odd jobs. For the most part she helps the nuns at the convent. She just about manages to make ends meet: armed fighting has stopped in most of the country, but the ongoing economic crisis is deep and inflation is rampant making food unaffordable.  In the room there is a bed, where she sleeps with her two daughters, a sofa on which Azar sleeps, an old fridge, a television and an oil heater. On the edge of the only window, there are a few cans and some bread. On the other side of the courtyard there is a cooking area with an old sink and a gas stove. There is also a toilet, but no bathroom. Sister Antoinette is collecting money to install a shower, which would allow Jaqueline’s children not to go to the convent to wash, although the nuns are happy to welcome them.

The Sisters of Jesus and Mary help hundreds of families like Jaqueline’s one .They prepare food packages, collect clothes and money to help them pay their rents. Despite the enormous every-day life difficulties, Jacqueline wants to stay in Damascus, while the majority of people in her situation choose to leave Syria. She wants to give her children a chance and “the schools are better in Damascus”, she says.

In Maaloula, Ghassan’s brother has restored the familys house and is trying to take over their small farm. Jacqueline goes there during the Summer school holidays, but can’t face the trauma of returning to live there.

Georges and Marie

On the same day Sister Antonietta visits another family: a couple with three children aged 16-18. It’s raining, there is no electricity (it only works one to four hours a day across the country), and a few drops of rain seep through the corrugated iron roof dripping in a bucket. Like many families who cannot afford an electricity generator, Georges and Marie (ed. the names are fictitious as the family has received death threats) have a battery to power a neon light. They come from Homs, where they were beekeepers. They had to leave everything and flee from the “terrorists” overnight. They escaped on foot, then by car and finally managed to catch a bus for  Damascus.

Shortly after arriving in the capital, Georges barely survived a heart attack, but still bears its consequences and is no longer able to work. The family therefore survives on Marie’s meager income as a seamstress, which is however insufficient to feed five people. Moreover, she has had to slow down due the pain in her hands. To supplement their small income, Georges and Marie have been forced to withdraw their eldest son from school. At 18,  he now delivers cereals  from Homs to Damascus. He is the only member of the family who has been back to their hometown since they left.

Christian identity

In Homs they have nothing left. The house  they lived in was razed to the ground and the trees supporting their hives were cut down to be used as firewood. The number of abandoned houses in Homs is huge and families still continue to leave the city and the country. Often local Muslim families offer to buy property from Christians who are leaving.  But an overwhelming majority of Christian families refuse to sell their lands to Muslims in an extreme attempt to preserve their presence in the land. Marie and Georges are one of these families. And yet they could have a better  life by selling their land in Homs, because they don’t  intend to go back there there.

They are only willing to sell their property to other Christians. Their aim is to use the proceeds of the sale to leave the country, as some 6.6 million reported Syrians have already done. However, they  promised Sister Antoinette not to leave until their eldest son passes his diploma.  In exchange for the support provided by the nuns, including food and money to pay the rent, the boy will return to school next year to finish his education so he can hope for a more stable and better paid job.  

Some figures

There are an estimated 7 million internally displaced people today in Syria. 90% of the population  lives below the poverty line like the families of Jacqueline and Georges. 13,5 million people in the country are in need of humanitarian assistance. 2,5 million children are out of school, largely due to the destruction of 40 per cent of schools during the war. -Vatican News