SYRIA: Salesian Missionaries in War-Torn Syria Provide Shelter, Youth Programs and Education
(MissionNewswire) More than four years after the outbreak of civil war in Syria, Salesian missionaries continue to operate three centers in Kafroun and the particularly high conflict areas of Aleppo and Damascus. Each of the centers is staffed by three Salesian priests and a deacon and have been in operation since well before the start of the war providing educational classes, meeting space and social development and sporting activities for youth and their families. The centers also offer trauma counseling, emergency shelter, nutritious meals and medical referrals to those in need.
For the first time in four years, Salesian missionaries held five-day summer camps to give young Syrians the opportunity to leave Aleppo and take refuge in the mountains near the Salesian center in Kafroun. More than 180 junior high school students and 140 senior high school students, accompanied by several Salesian staff and youth leaders, enjoyed the retreat from the violence and war in their home communities. For many, it was the first time in years they were able to sleep soundly without hearing sounds of war on the streets outside their homes.
“Every time I visit Aleppo, I see a city increasingly destroyed, and until a few years ago this great city, one of the oldest in the world, had about 3 million inhabitants. Now it is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world,” says Father Munir El Rai, Provincial of the Middle East who visited his home city of Aleppo in July. “The number of young people connecting with Salesian centers is increasing. One of the reasons is our youth centers have been relatively safe so far compared to other parish youth centers.”
During his visit to Aleppo, Fr. El Rai was able to take part in some of the summer camp activities at the Salesian center in Kafroun. He was impressed with the organization and management of the center. Through the use of a shuttle service, the center is able to provide programs and social activities in a peaceful, family-like atmosphere to more than 700 young people from various parts of the city.
Father El Rai also visited other areas of Syria and found much devastation and destruction. The lack of running water has forced people to survive on reduced amounts of water, especially drinking water, with serious health consequences while a shortage of electricity makes the most basic daily activities difficult.
“The country is increasingly exhausted and impoverished by the war and the consequences on the living conditions of the population have been devastating,” says Fr. El Rai. “People are getting tired and exhausted at the moral, spiritual and material level. As well as the tragedy of death and destruction, every family is now faced with the drama of emigration, with people fleeing the country in search of a better life outside Syria. I have seen the suffering of the people who remain and the loneliness they feel for those who are gone.”
Despite the ongoing violence, Salesian centers continue to meet the needs of their communities through the distribution of food, economic aid and scholarships to help young people continue with their schooling. Salesian missionaries have noted the absence of youth in the area as many have fled to safety in other areas of Syria and in neighboring countries.
Since the March 2011 outbreak of civil war, 7.3 million Syrians have been internally displaced within the country and 4.1 million registered Syrian refugees are in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq and a recent flood of refugees are now seeking asylum in Europe, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Refugee camps in these bordering countries are overflowing with families in need of basic supplies, adequate shelter and safety as well as technical skills training so they can begin to earn a living in their new host countries. More than 6 million of those affected are children who have been put at risk of violence and are subject to a lack of essential supplies and destroyed infrastructure that has closed schools and hospitals.
In addition to Salesian centers within Syria, Salesian missionaries have been helping Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt since early 2012 assisting between 400 and 800 refugees each day, many of whom are women and children. At these refugee sites, missionaries provide emergency relief by meeting basic needs and providing shelter, safety and medical assistance. Missionaries also offer technical skills training to assist refugees in the task of finding stable employment in their new host countries which for many is particularly challenging due to labor laws and a lack of established social and professional networks.
Salesian missionaries seek to assist the most disadvantaged and vulnerable refugees, particularly those living outside of protected camps who take risks in order to support elderly parents, wives and children. Offering skills training, advocacy and counseling programs, Salesian centers provide safe spaces for vulnerable refugee families to find a sense of community and peace.
UNHCR – Syrian Refugee Response