It is six months now since the bombs stopped falling on the city of Aleppo in Syria. Although in the distance, at night time, you can still hear explosions in some still disputed zones on the outskirts of this large city which, before the war, was home to over 2 million people. The precise number of inhabitants at the present time is difficult to know with any certainty, since many people have fled to other parts of the country and others have even emigrated abroad, to nearby countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, or still further afield to Europe and America. For those who remain this will be the first summer since 2012 they will be able to spend in peace and even enjoy an occasional moment of rest outside the city. For this reason, the Syrian-Catholic Archbishopric of Aleppo has organized summer camps for them in the so-called Valley of the Christians, near Homs. The Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is now stepping in to help fund the summer camps with a contribution of $44,000.
Among the beneficiaries are some 1,200 children, young people and adults belonging to the Syriac Catholic parish of Saint Ephrem in the Old Syriac Quarter, a parish founded by survivors of the great Armenian genocide in 1915, Catholics from Turkey but of Syriac origin. Fr George Sabounji, the parish priest of Saint Ephrem's parish writes: "Our summer camp will include not only Syriac Catholics but also young people from the Orthodox and Greek Melkite communities. We are organising this project so that the young people can feel they are being accompanied and cared for and gain first-hand experience of God's love for them and a sense of the communion that exists within the Church. And also so that they can have the opportunity to meet and communicate with other young people and not feel alone".
Fr Sabounji has a seemingly inexhaustible energy. He is the only priest in charge of this community and also provides food, medicines and lodging for hundreds of families who have been left homeless by the war in Aleppo. For even though the fighting has stopped now, many people are still unable to return to their homes on account of all the destruction. "This is more than a church, it is our home", is the cheerful comment from Magdalene, a young mother who acts as our interpreter and who is also helping Father George to organise the summer camps.
Magdalen is also going to take part in the summer camp, together with her husband and her three-year-old daughter. "This year, quite exceptionally, we have organised a summer camp for families as well. It will be the first time we have gone outside the city since the war began four years ago", says Father George, adding that if it were not for the help from ACN to cover the various expenses, such as food and lodging, transport and rental of the various facilities, not one of these families could have afforded the cost of a few days holiday during the summer. "Being able to go out will be a great encouragement for them; it will help them to regain a sense of hope, so that they will not want to go away from here."
The ages of the young people involved in the summer camp range from six, the age when they make their First Holy Communion, up to 18 years. There will also be a group of adult helpers, in addition to the family groups. For Amanda, aged eight, this will be the first time she has ever been anywhere except Aleppo. "I'd like to go to Kafroun, and see the Wadi Al-Nasara (the Valley of the Christians)", she says excitedly. The area where the summer camp will be held is renowned as one of the prettiest regions in Syria, a fertile region close to the frontier with Lebanon, in a majority Christian area. "What I like most about the summer camps is that we will be able to grow deeper in prayer and in faith. And also, we will get to know new friends. Your generosity is helping us to understand that we are not alone", adds Miriam, aged 15, who is a member of the Confirmation group in the parish of Saint Efrem.
"Sometimes the Christian children also find it difficult when talking to their Muslim friends, because they ask them to tell them about Christianity, and sometimes they don't know how to reply. The camp is intended to give them an experience that will help them grow stronger in their faith", says Father George, while thanking ACN for the indispensable aid it is providing. "You can be quite sure that the help you are giving is doing a great deal of good. We really feel as though we are your brothers, and we pray that the Lord may grant us the grace to be united in the same spirit so that you may live in the love of God. Please pray also for us."
The parish of Saint Efrem is a place that is open to all. Among the parishioners there are various Focolare groups and communities of the Neo-catechumenal Way. Amidst the pictures and photos in Fr George's office there are photos of him meeting with the last three popes. When asked about the photos Fr George said: "When I met with Pope Francis in an audience, I invited him to come to Aleppo. We know that he is a man of God and that even though his mission is a vast one, he is very close to Christ. And so I asked him to pray for us, and he told me that he never forgets Syria."