Since the battle for Aleppo ended over a year ago, Syria’s historic second city has fallen out of the headlines. The rebuilding of shattered, impoverished lives is a slow process, but it has presented the churches there with opportunities, says one aid worker with the Christian charity Open Doors.
On black billboards by main roads in Aleppo, messages printed in stark white announce: “It will be back.” Surrounded by ruined buildings, the signs could appear premature. But after rows of near-empty streets, with destruction on both sides, comes a splash of stalls and colourful shops, some newly opened. And while explosions just miles away can be heard all day long, rebuilding after the seven-year civil war is beginning.
Fr. Ghassan Ward is a priest at the Greek Orthodox church in the old city. Another three are nearby. “All four are damaged,” says Fr. Ward. He looks at the damaged building and pauses. “I lost everything in the war. My bishop [Boulos Yazigi] was kidnapped in April 2013, my church was ruined by rockets on 8 August 2013, I lost my wife two years ago because of cancer, I lost my house because of the rockets, and I lost my two sons, who had to leave the country, otherwise they would have had to join the army. So you can say I am like many Syrians, who also lost everything.”
Boulos Yazigi, the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo, and his Syriac Orthodox counterpart, Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim, have not been seen since their abduction en route from the Turkish border almost five years ago. They were kidnapped from the car they were travelling in by armed men believed to be of Chechen origin.
Fr. Ward steps through the old gate to the church where Greek Orthodox Aleppans have worshipped since 1425. Large holes in the ceiling, covered with UNHCR plastic, show where the rockets hit – though mercifully the church was empty at the time. The church’s guard gestures with his arms to describe how the rockets flew in the direction of the church and other buildings around it.
Fierce fighting left Aleppo cut in two, the eastern part in control of rebels – or terrorists, according to many Syrians – who enacted a harsh sharia-based regime. The government of President Bashar Al-Assad has finally regained control of those areas after four long years of fighting.
Although more than four years have passed since the church was hit, the damage has not been cleaned up yet; priority has been given to helping needy families, Fr. Ward explains.
“You know, everyone who visited this church before the war said that this church was a pearl,” he says. “Now it’s a wounded pearl.” But the church’s famous 17th century icons were not damaged after the first rocket hit the building. “I was able to save them all,” he says, with a smile.
With the recapture of eastern Aleppo, Christians can enter what had become a no-go area for them. It is the most destroyed part of the city. Out on the streets you can see many children and women, but almost no men. “Many men are in the army, have been killed or have ‘travelled’,” one of our guides says. Syrians say that someone has “travelled” when he or she flees Syria to escape the violence or to avoid joining the army.
Over five million Syrians, including many young people, have left their country. But their exodus leaves a hole in the social infrastructure that kept Aleppo working: many older people are now without the children who would have taken care of them.
“Many of them have no-one in their life right now. Some are in such poor health that they can’t leave the house or even their bed,” says Joseph Hallaq, who volunteers alongside nuns from the Sisters of Jesus and Mary. The group supports some 650 families. “About 70 per cent of those families are elderly people,” says Hallaq.
Roula Makdissi, who also works for the group, says those who fled abroad want to support their parents financially but find it hard to do so. “They struggle to find work in their new countries, so they can barely support themselves,” Makdissi says.
For people of working age who stayed in Aleppo, money is also scarce. “The economy is in a very bad shape. The exchange rate of the dollar was, at the beginning of the war in 2011, 50 Syrian pounds; now one dollar is over 460 Syrian pounds. Prices went up, many people are without work and because of that without salary,” says Fr. Toni Tahan from Aleppo. “We help an average of 230 families a month. You know, most of them were financially OK before the war.”
Fr. Tahan has opened two pharmacies and created jobs for several young pharmacists, with support from Open Doors.
Yacoub Habib relies on aid from one of the city’s Protestant churches. “I had my own company in Aleppo, whitening jeans. I had a good life, had my own house, a car, and I invested money in the factory,” he says. “In 2013, the area was bombed and I lost everything. I ended up in this apartment.”
The apartment is sparsely furnished; his bed is a mattress on the floor. He heats the apartment by burning paper he collects in the streets. “I was so ashamed that in the first months I hid myself inside,” he says. “I kept the windows closed, and didn’t really take care of myself. I started smoking and drinking. I was big, now I am nothing.”
With the help of the Church, Habib received some furniture and was able to get his life organised again. “I hope and pray I can work again, but I have no money to start a new factory,” he says.
Creating opportunities for training and employment is widely acknowledged as a priority to help the city recover. “We need to prepare the people for the future,” says a local Jesuit priest, Fr. Sami.
Fr. Sami also sees another important task for the Church: developing understanding between the different religious groups in the country. “We opened a clinic, distribution and educational centre in eastern Aleppo,” he says. “It is the first time that the Church has a presence in this Muslim environment. This is the time to be open instead of closed … in the first place, as different churches to each other, but also between Christians and Muslims.
“We were criticised by all when we started helping Muslims as an organisation – by the Church, by our own bishop, by the government and by the Muslims. But this is what Jesus teaches us. Some of the Church said ‘Christians first’, but I say ‘together first’.”
Aleppo might be liberated, but war continues nearby. Huge parts of the city have been destroyed and many people are still dependent on charity. But restoration has begun, the first people have found new jobs, and in a part of eastern Aleppo the Church has a presence for the first time. The willingness of people to be in contact with those of different backgrounds could create the unification the city will need to recover. Aleppo will be back, the billboards are right; the first steps have already been taken.