On the Road to Damascus...
Pope Francis denounced the "cruelty" prevailing in Syria, where “so many parties are involved in the conflict, each bent on seeking its own interests and not the freedom and well-being of the people.” The pope said, “Where there is no tenderness, there is cruelty and what is unfolding in Syria is a ‘workshop’ of cruelty.” During the audience which took place November 17 at the Vatican Clementine Hall, a man from Aleppo, Syria, thanked the pope for his encouragement and underlined the importance of the church's presence in the Arab-Islamic world.
The pope told his audience that a “revolution of compassion was needed in order to overcome hardening of hearts, especially in a world dominated by a culture of rejection.” Being tender and close to the people means holding them, embracing them, and “not to be afraid of the flesh,” the pope said. God chose to become flesh through his Son so he could be even closer to humanity; the church, too, must be near the people and show this same love, this “tenderness of the Father.” The pope pointed out that the people who are unwanted, exploited and victims of war are the flesh of Christ today. He warned that solutions cannot come from spirituality proposals that are too theoretical but from concrete gestures.
I have been working with the Good Shepherd Sisters for many years. It was my pleasure to meet the Sisters one Christmas Eve while we were conducting fun activities for Iraqi children (Jeunesse Mariale Vincentienne) who were being cared for by the Sisters. We dressed up as Santa Claus and gave the children Christmas gifts. That day I asked a Sister about the congregation and its mission in Damascus. The Sister told me that they specialized in working with women in prison and those subjected to violence. I felt a great desire to participate in this humanitarian work. I started as a volunteer at the reception center then applied for a job and got it. Now I work as director of the shelter in Old Damascus.
In this article I will try to describe the various ministries of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd in Damascus, share my experience as a mission partner, and communicate how we live the apostolic dimension of our work.
The Sisters have been working in Old Damascus since 1982. They opened their house, the first shelter in Syria, and received people with great love, serving approximately 570 people from 1982 to 1995. Today the shelter continues to offer free, confidential services to women, girls, and children who are victims of war, displacement, trafficking, or domestic violence. The goal is to protect them and work toward their reintegration into society.
In 1995 the sisters established Ebrahim Al Khalil Center to help victims of conflict through listening, support, and diversified relief services. They have served about 525,000 people.
In 1997 the Sisters started to support women and their children in Damascus prisons through a program designed to provide assistance, legal advice, and moral support.
In 2007, to respond to the needs of people affected by war, the Sisters established the Reception Center where two groups provide services in two different places. Their aim
is to provide psychological and social support for men, women, and children through a variety of activities including movies, theatre, individual and group counseling. They have served approximately 6,504 people.
Another service at the Reception Center is the first hotline in Syria, which aims to provide free, confidential psychological, social, and legal support. The number of beneficiaries has reached 14,043.
As the ongoing conflict in Syria requires an urgent and humanitarian rapid response, the Sisters started relief services in 2014 for affected families and have served 79,523 people.
I would like to tell you about a Muslim woman who came to us from desperate circumstances. She was wearing a long black jacket and veil that seemed to symbolize the darkness of her situation. She came to us with her two young daughters from an area of great conflict where people were fleeing from certain death. She was seeking safety for herself and her two daughters. From the beginning, our kindness and Christian approach amazed her because she had a different idea about us.
Gradually she began to change and take advantage of all the psychological support available to her. For example, she took off the black veil, replaced it with a white one, and started wearing ordinary clothes. She wanted to divorce her husband who mistreated her severely. Optimistic about the future, she decided to start her life over and the smile returned to her face. Subsequently, the woman attributed the positive changes in her life to the loving care of the Good Shepherd and his mother, the Virgin Mary.
I have tried to trace our history in Damascus which is not simply a success story of large numbers of people encountered and served. Rather, it is about the common faith of mission partners, sisters and lay. This mission bears fruit because the Shepherd’s crook guides and cares for it.
What has been happening in my country for the past six years is something intolerable. Syria is suffering the worst inhumanity in the world, according to the United Nations.
In the midst of such a calamity, one has two choices: be patient, work, and wait for God’s moment of deliverance; or, give in to despair and allow hopelessness to end life before being killed by a bullet. We, Syrians, try to live day by day, full of hope that Jesus Christ will save us.
From the house of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Damascus we send you our greetings and love. This house is very close to the Street Called Straight where St. Paul passed on his way to restored sight and new life. With St. Paul we have the feeling of new life after each day that we experience peace and survive the war. It’s our cry of victory over the forces of death that surrounds us.