After five years of war, Damascus, has been reduced to a pile of rubble. Violence is everywhere. People are scared, their lives have been broken by hate. Despite all this, there are still those who, with tenacity and patience, try to make life ‘human’, even when it is lived in dramatic conditions.
Sister Carol Tahhan, 44, a Syrian, is the director of the Salesian community which runs a nursery, three tailoring laboratories and a large oratory. “We never thought of leaving Syria, not even during intense fighting. We are here to stay and will continue to take care of the people so harshly tried”.
The nun wants to emphasize the ties between people of different faiths, which despite the conflict have never been interrupted: “Before the war, one hardly noticed the religious affiliation of people and also the coexistence between Christians and Muslims was good.
Today the situation has changed: the Muslims are often divided into factions, and the forms of fanaticism which have risen cause great suffering. However, the relations between most Christians and Muslims are still good: I can see this in the sincere friendship that unites many young people at school, in gestures of solidarity that families exchange facing problems together. We the sisters help everyone, without sparing ourselves and without making any distinction between Christians and Muslims. We feel very respected by them as well as by the entire population, including the army”.
Since the beginning of the truce, last February, life in the city has slightly improved: almost all the districts are provided with electrical power at least for a few hours a day, and also water is available during the day. “We can still hear explosions or gunfire, although less frequently now”, continues Sister Carol. “However, despite these improvements, no one really feels safe: we hope that the truce will last but the fear that fighting and rocket fire may resume never abandons us”.
“The majority of the 217 children attending the nursery is of Islamic faith: their parents want to enroll their children in our nursery because they heard that here kids find serenity and joy. We, along with the teachers, some of whom are Muslims, do our best to provide children with a calm and joyful atmosphere, and pay attention to their needs”, explains Sister Carol. “Unfortunately the war has left deep wounds, the children show clear signs of trauma. A little girl, who arrived here a few days ago, was present when her grandfather was murdered by ISIS militiamen, since that day she has not yet been able to speak, she just mutters unintelligible sentences and moves constantly. At present we are still trying to understand what is the best way to help her. Children who have been exposed to traumas, often show some forms of aggression and their favourite toys are often toy guns. When they arrive here we substitute their toy guns with other toys such as stuffed animals and coloured balls. We try to teach them to have fun with the other kids without playing soldiers at war”.
Sister Carol is in charge of the three tailoring laboratories, which are part of an initiative promoted by the agency of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with the intent of helping many women whose lives have been marked by great tribulations. The first year there were 14 women who attended the laboratories, today there are a 100, both Muslims (the majority) and Christians. Many fled to other areas of Syria, and have lost everything, others have suffered unspeakable violence, some others are widowed and alone. The project includes a one-year course, those who successfully attend have two options: they can work at home with a sewing machine provided by the school and sell their own products or can work at the school laboratory and receive a salary. In this case the sisters sell the clothes produced in the school laboratory in order to purchase basic necessities to be distributed to needy people.
“The set up of the three tailoring workshops was not an easy task”, Sister Carol remembers: “We were helped by a very generous Muslim gentleman, I do not know what we would have done without him! Many people of our staff are of the Islamic faith, like our two sewing teachers who are flanked by some Christian assistants. The people attending workshops here are enthusiastic about having the chance of learning a trade and doing it in a friendly environment. They say they feel an authentic family atmosphere here, that they finally feel at home, secure and protected”.
With regard to the future, Sister Carol says, “We all, of course, hope and pray that we can live in peace soon and that those people who were forced to seek refuge abroad can return home. The reconstruction will have to take place not only in the cities but inside the souls of people. I think that the family spirit – a spirit of welcome, respect, compassion – which even today binds many Christians and Muslims together, will greatly contribute to this reconstruction”. (J.L.)