Residents in and around Aleppo live life on the brink of disaster
by Emily Enders Odom, Mission Communications | Special to Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Bernadette thought that she had seen the worst of it.
For well over a decade, she and her family had unflinchingly withstood Syria’s ever-worsening humanitarian and economic crisis, the country’s ongoing localized hostilities and its collapsing infrastructure.
But then — following the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey in February 2023 — the longtime school supervisor’s own home began crumbling beneath her very feet.
“The building we live in had cracks, and in the apartment above us, five pillars had cracked,” she said. “In our apartment, there were cracks in the beams and columns and the wall.”
And yet, despite the significant damage to their home and the danger to their family, they stayed.
Although most of their neighbors had quickly left the unsafe apartment building to seek refuge with relatives, Bernadette’s family remained in their home because they had no choice. Not only did they have no other family to take them in, but they also simply couldn’t afford to pay the escalating rent costs elsewhere. Between her meager salary and her husband’s — even lower than hers — their combined income is barely sufficient to meet the family’s basic needs.
“I have a daughter who recently got married, and a son in his final year at the Faculty of Computer Engineering,” Bernadette said. “My husband and I financially support our son and my brother, who is 72 years old, suffers from diabetes, and recently had his leg amputated due to gangrene caused by high blood sugar. Our economic situation is very bad. We can only buy essential food items like bread, rice, bulgur and vegetable oil on a daily basis in small quantities.”
In the midst of such dire conditions — families pushed to the brink, many without access to water, shelter, education, medical care and other essential services — the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), a long-term partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), works around the clock to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.
“What we offer can really bring hope and show a certain solidarity,” said Samer Laham, regional director of Diakonia, the branch of MECC that administers its social, humanitarian and development services programs. From 2004–05, Laham also served as an International Peacemaker through the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.
“Whenever people are unable to secure basic needs, some families adopt negative coping mechanisms, such as reducing meals, resorting to child labor, or, as a last resort, many simply find a way to leave Syria,” he added. “What the MECC does, in cooperation with our partners, is continually seek to support the people of Syria. We have aided families like Bernadette’s, whose homes were damaged by the earthquake in Aleppo, working to ensure that they live in a stable building where their children can sleep safely.”
The humanitarian mission of the MECC is made possible, in part, through a grant from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which is in turn supported by Presbyterians’ generous gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.
For 75 years, the Offering’s purpose of helping neighbors in need around the world remains constant, giving the PC(USA) and other Christian denominations a tangible way to share God’s love. In addition to PDA, One Great Hour of Sharing also benefits the ministries of the Presbyterian Hunger Program and Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP).
Although the Offering may be taken anytime, most congregations receive it on Palm Sunday or Easter Sunday, which this year fall on March 24 and 31 respectively.
“The PC(USA)’s relationship with MECC dates back to the council’s beginnings in 1974,” said Dayna Oliver, associate for International Program Administration for PDA. “It is because of our longtime association with MECC not only in the area of disaster relief, but in other areas as well, that we are able to most effectively implement PDA’s mission and activities with local partners who are on the ground.”
Laham explained that to best address the humanitarian crisis in the earthquake-ravaged areas of Aleppo, northern Syria and in some parts of the coastal area, the MECC undertook an ecumenical approach to avoid any duplication in funding or intervention with the people living in the affected areas.
“As much as we can offer to people, it will not really change their lives dramatically, but it will be a remedy to their situation,” Laham said. “This is why whenever we launch an appeal, our purpose is to join hands with our local actors working in the same field — the humanitarian field — partnering with the local churches in order to meet people’s needs. The sustainability of such support, however, cannot last forever, because even our partners are facing economic problems due to rising inflation everywhere. The inflation rate is 200 times higher now than it was at the beginning of the crisis.”
In Syria, around 90% of the people live below the poverty line while more than 50% of families are food insecure.
“Some workers are earning less than $8 U.S. per month, whereas only a few months earlier they were earning $18 U.S.,” he added. “This means families can hardly afford one meal a day.”
Because of the sheer magnitude of Syria’s crisis, the MECC’s interventions were very strategic in nature, designed to contribute to the overall well-being of the most vulnerable — consistent with the goals of the Matthew 25 movement.
“We weren’t only traditional by just distributing food or hygiene kits, which are very important, but at the same time what we did was to establish a special engineering committee to assess the damage of buildings affected by the earthquake,” explained Laham. “The committee then classifies them by different categories to see which flats or buildings need emergency intervention to retrofit them to make them safe to live in again. They also determine which buildings need to be demolished completely because they can’t be retrofitted.”
Bernadette, for one, is grateful that her building could be stabilized and her apartment rehabilitated.
“Now that we have our living place safe again and our son can enjoy safety, we can only offer our prayers and thanks first to all who have given so generously,” she said. “Our prayers likewise go out to all who stand by us and collect the Offering to ease our economic burdens and encourage us to stay in our country and continue witnessing to our Christian faith.”
Laham laments that whenever there’s a disaster, people can be moved very quickly to donate, “but once the disaster is finished, not the same money will come.”
“You cannot imagine people in such destitute circumstances who need cancer treatments, for example, that cost thousands of dollars or else they’ll die,” he said. “Here we can see the suffering and the very critical conditions that many families are facing today. This is why we want to be a sign of hope to many people through the One Great Hour of Sharing. In the end, we are working as one team, as one people, to bring hope to affected people. This is part of our faith.”
Give to One Great Hour of Sharing to enable Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to respond quickly to catastrophic events.
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