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Letter from Aleppo No 29

 

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March 15: the sad 6th anniversary of the beginning of the war

23/03/2017: Syria

On December 23rd 2016, the nightmare ended for the inhabitants of Aleppo. On that day, the last convoy of rebels and terrorists, who had occupied the eastern and southern neighborhoods of Aleppo since July 2012, left the city to go under neutral supervision to a neighboring province, Idlib, which is still under the control of Al Nosra’s terrorists.

The Alepins were delighted about the liberation of their city. There was no longer East or West; Aleppo was once again, as it has always been, one city under the control of the Syrian Government. Only 15,000 inhabitants of the eastern neighborhoods were evacuated, at their request, with the rebels towards Idlib. The rest, more than 100,000 who were enduring the occupation without a choice, only because their homes were there, remained in Aleppo. They suffered a lot, but are relieved, after 4 years of terrorist occupation and 3 months of siege of their neighborhood, by the Syrian army. For the 1.5 million inhabitants of the western neighborhoods, which were under the government control, the liberation provided a sense of security that they had lost for more than four years: the security of no longer receiving mortars, propane tanks used as bombs and snipers gun shots. But, cautious optimism: bombs continue to fall occasionally on the peripheral western neighborhoods of Aleppo launched by the rebels still settled a few kilometers away in the western suburbs.

Like all the Alepins, we went to visit the ex-front lines, the historical neighborhood of Jdeideh, the old city around the citadel and the eastern and southern neighborhoods. The extent of the destruction exceeds what we had imagined. In Midane, the Armenian neighborhood, in Jdeideh, the historical Christian neighborhood, in Hanano, in Sukari etc.…, reality often surpass fiction.

 

Cautious optimism

With the liberation, the city is returning to a more normal aspect, more civilized. All the streets, many had been blocked by barricades or walls of rocks during four years, were opened to the traffic. There are a lot of pedestrians on the streets. People walk serenely without fearing death that was looking out for them before the liberation.
The traffic is very congested. The traffic lights and the illumination of the roundabouts, powered by solar panels implanted at each crossroads, are working again. The garbage collection has resumed. The gardeners of the municipality are working again in the public gardens. All schools and the university are functioning normally.

The conditions of everyday life remain, however, very difficult.

This winter we were very cold. There was a shortage of fuel oil. With the absence of electricity, there was no way to get heat while the temperatures in December, January and February were very low.

As for the past two years and despite the liberation, we still don't have electricity. We continue to buy it, at a high price, from private generators that are installed abundantly on the sidewalks of our beautiful city which has become very ugly with the generators that pollute and the electrical cables hanging from everywhere. The authorities worked hard to connect, again, with high voltage towers, Aleppo to the national network. it seems that they have succeeded as for the past week, we have electricity for one hour a day.

As for the running water, it is still cut off. During the occupation, the water was coming from the Euphrates to the water treatment plants in Aleppo, but not pumped into the pipelines because the pumping station was in the hands of the rebels of eastern Aleppo. With the liberation, the pumping station is again under the control of the Syrian Government but Daesh no longer allows the water to be pumped from the small town of Khafsa on the Euphrates. The Syrian army is trying to take over that city.
But cautious optimism: meanwhile,1.5 million of Alepins continues to use the water, often not safe for drinking, from the 300 wells drilled in the city. The number of intestinal infections has recently reached a record level.

Certain displaced families were able to return to their homes ; others have to do some major repairs; others are waiting for the mine clearing of their neighborhood to be completed and for the restoration of the destroyed infrastructure, and at last others who lived in buildings which are now completely destroyed must wait for the reconstruction.

In fact, the reconstruction projects in the city are numerous. Multiple international or national organizations have requested authorizations to participate in the reconstruction : one to rebuild ten schools, another to restore 200 apartments, a third to rebuild the old city etc…But cautious optimism: nothing started yet, wait and see.

 

The economic crisis

The economic crisis remains very serious. In 6 years of war, people have become impoverished because of unemployment and the dizzying inflation and cost of living. Paradoxical situation: the Alepins cannot find work but on the other hand, the small businesses which started to open timidly don't find skilled workers, the majority of the young men are either enrolled in the army to do their military service or as reservists, or have left the country looking for better opportunities. The Alepins now, more than ever, need help to survive.

Meanwhile, the war continues in Syria with the involvement of many foreign forces. Many territories and small towns were liberated from Daesh’s control. Some are now under the control of the Syrian government, others are under the control of Kurds, Turkey or islamists. During the last 2 months, there have been inter-Syrian negotiations under the aegis of Iran and Russia in Astana; and under the aegis of the UN in Geneva, no progress has been made. But cautious optimism: a list of negotiation points was established and agreed upon and the date of another round of negotiation has been scheduled.

The Blue Marists

None of the hundreds of the displaced families who benefits from the various programs of the Blue Marists could return home. We, on the contrary, accepted many newly displaced families who used to live in the eastern neighborhoods and now came to live with their relatives; who themselves were formerly displaced.

We, the Blue Marists, don't have neither the abilities, the skills nor the mission to participate in the reconstruction of the city. On the other hand, we believe that human reconstruction is the most important and we are putting, within our abilities, all our efforts behind it. This is how we have further developed our educational projects and initiated new ones.

Our adult training center the “MIT”, continues to organize two seminars a month on specific topics for the adults aged 20 to 45 years. In February, Br. Georges led a workshop on the theme “From Forgiveness to Reconciliation”, and we are considering, due to its importance, to expand it to other groups soon.

Convinced of the need to help the young adults to work, to live and to get out of the vicious circle, -war-catastrophic economic situation- unemployment- poverty- assistantship or migration, we organized, at the end of 2016, a seminar of 100 hours over two months for the young people aged 20 to 35 on the theme “How to Start Your Own Project”. Twenty participants learned from the best experts how to think, realize and develop a project. At the end of the session, the jury selected the 4 best achievable projects in terms of profitability and chances of success, and we partially funded them. Because of the success of the project, we have just started a second session with 15 participants.

Several educational and psychological support projects have recently been launched.

“Cut and Sew” allows about thirty ladies to learn to sew and make clothes for their families and also to find a job in the sewing workshops that are opening and looking for workers. The first class will soon finish their 4 months of training and there are numerous applicants for the next session. We take advantage of their presence in the sewing classes to organize, for them, personal training and psychological support.

“Hope” is a project that aims to teach a foreign language, English or French, to young mothers who have children in the elementary schools. Indeed, since first grade, the program imposes teaching a foreign language to the young children. Teaching the mothers, allows them, in addition to providing a personal satisfaction, to be able to follow the studies of their children.

“Douroub” welcomes the children aged 10 to 11 years who have been neglected so far by our projects. With a team of 3 educators, they get together for educational and recreational activities.

“Eradication of Illiteracy” continues on two levels. The higher level, for those who have already participated in a 1st session of two months, to teach them the 3rd grade level. Which means to make sentences, read them and write them. And the beginners level with a group of parents or of illiterate young adults to help them learn to write and read words.

“Skill School” for 75 teenagers, “Learn to Grow” and “I Want to Learn” with 200 children aged 3 to 6, are continuing, more than ever, their very beautiful programs to educate, teach and support children and young people.

Our various relief programs continue to help the displaced and the poorest. “The Blue Marists for the Displaced” help approximately 1000 families, Christians and Muslims, to survive thanks to the distribution of fairly consistent monthly food and sanitary baskets, money to pay for 1 ampere of electricity purchased from private generators, and a monthly voucher to buy meat or chicken. We are also helping the displaced families pay the rent of their temporary housing.

The program “War wounded Civilians”, which for many years, treated and saved thousands of wounded, is fortunately slowing down with the liberation of Aleppo ; but we continue to treat either new wounded injured by mines left by the rebels prior to their departure, or formerly injured persons already treated, but who need further treatment or other surgical procedures.

On the other hand “The Blue Marists Medical Program” grew much more because of the increase in poverty, unemployment and the cost of living. For the patients who cannot afford it, we contribute to the costs of surgeries, hospital stays and inpatient treatments, or simply prescriptions costs (the price of locally manufactured drugs has just been increased by 400%), X-rays, scans and laboratory tests.

“I Am Thirsty” distributes water, with our 4 vans, daily to the homes of 40-45 families. Due to the difficulty of refilling our vans with water from the wells drilled almost everywhere in Aleppo -which are stormed by crowds of people from 8am to 10pm- and the lost time waiting for their turn, we started drilling our own well. This will enable us to rapidly replenish the vans and distribute water daily to more families.

Finally, “Drop of Milk” is at its 23nd months of milk distribution to 3000 children each month. This project is essential to the growth and development of our children and has not stopped for a single day despite the difficulty of obtaining milk, especially the formula for the infants, and the high cost of the project.

The task is even more important than before

With the liberation of Aleppo, despite our cautious optimism, the task is even more important than before, it is huge. Would we be able to physically, morally and financially face the challenges? Help the displaced people return home when the time comes? Help the unemployed find a job? Bandage the wounds of the traumatized? Help the desperate to regain hope? Help the children to live their childhood stolen by the war? Help people to forgive? to reconcile? Would we be able to convince people not to leave the country? The exodus continues and everyday friends, acquaintances, volunteers, collaborators or beneficiaries come to say a goodbye that sounds more like a farewell.

In spite of everything, we continue to live our commitment. With cautious optimism, we make ours this extract from beautiful text from our friend Father Jean Debruynne:

“To resist, is to persist in looking at a piece of sky even if it is gray or black, even if it is held in a pocket handkerchief, incarcerated between very high walls.
To resist is to never give up looking out for the sun from the opening of a manhole. 
To resist is to be stubborn enough to see the day rise from behind the barbed wires.
To resist is not to give in to the obligation to remain silent.
To resist is a pride.
To resist is to refuse intolerance, indifference and the denial of differences.
To resist is to never give up.
To resist is to never accept tranquility.
To resist is to choose to be responsible.
To resist is to stand in front of God, standing, not laying down or kneeling.
Because to resist is to invent love.”

We also believe that to resist is to hope, as in Easter, that after death there is resurrection.

_________________

Nabil Antaki - For the Blue Marists

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