How the Church is helping rebuild the first hundred homes of Christian families in the Syrian city of Homs, following their destruction during the war.
by Josué Villalón
The historical Old City of Homs is a quarter of narrow streets and buildings in dark stone, characteristic of the traditional architecture of the city. Before the war, this area was home to a large part of the city’s Christian community, and it is here that one finds the cathedrals and episcopal sees of the various rites and denominations.
“We are now living not far from our old home, which is in the next suburb just around 500 metres away,”, says Elias Ghattas, a father, who had to look on as his family home was destroyed during the bombardments that laid waste to the city, especially in the year 2013. “Around 40 Christians stayed put, most of them elderly people who refused to flee, or sick people who were unable to do so.” An expression of resignation and helplessness crosses his face at being forced to live so close to his former home, yet still unable to resume his normal life.
Elías is welcoming a delegation from the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), in the living room of his present home. With him are his wife, Lina, and Bashar, his youngest son, aged 25. “Thamin, our eldest, is not here. He has been in the Army for seven years. He was conscripted when the war began. Thanks be to God, he is still alive. He has only been able to visit us a couple of times in all those years.” Lina serves freshly made coffee, which fills the whole room with its aroma.
The Ghattas family tell us more about their story. “We didn’t want to leave; we remained in our house as long as possible, but then one day a mortar hit our roof and it all collapsed.” Lina and Bashar’s eyes meet, then she explains: “My son lost one eye, and I was knocked unconscious. Fortunately, an army tank was able to get through the rubble in the street and take us to hospital. It’s a miracle we survived.”
Since then they have had to move three times. First they went to the Al Arman suburb, around 4 km away. From there they were forced to move house again, and then finally they came here, their fourth place, a one roomed flat with bathroom, living room and kitchen. The living room doubles as a bedroom at night-time, a fact borne out by the mattresses piled up against the wall. “It takes a real effort for me to get up the steps with my leg, broken as a result of an illness”, Elias tells us, “but this is all we can afford. The rents have gone up so much in the last few years.”
The Ghattas family have not given up, however, and they want to return to their old home. “It’s our home, all our experiences and memories are linked to that home. It’s the only place we own and we want to recover it because it symbolises our lives”, says Elias and Lina adds, “For us it’s the most beautiful place to live; we don’t want to go on moving from one house to another.”
The courage shown by Lina, Elias and their sons has meant that their family was one of the first to be able to begin reconstructing their home, with the support of the local Church and thanks to the financial aid supplied by ACN. The team of engineers has already assessed the state of the buildings concerned and worked out a meticulous project, so that the families can return to their homes as soon as possible.
Hassib Makhoul is the engineer in charge of the programme for rebuilding the Ghattas family home, and he has taken them to visit the site and see how work has progressed in the last few weeks. “We have been working for more or less a month, and in that time we have been able to restore the electric wiring and plumbing, the front entrance, facade and the distribution boxes”, he explains. “All of this has been done with government approval, of course, but we were able to begin work promptly above all thanks to the financial support from the Church.”
Bashar helps his father negotiate the rubble that still clutters at the entrance to the house, all while explaining to us that he too was able to help with the electric wiring. In fact Bashar would very much like to be able to have a little repair shop as a means of earning a living. “We want peace; we don’t think about the politics. I want only the best for my country, which is for there to be peace soon. We didn’t want to leave, because that costs an awful lot of money, is dangerous. Besides, we don’t want to leave my brother Thamin on his own, fighting in the army.” From the roof of the building you can see how part of the quarter is still sealed off. “
The engineer Makhoul points to the first works completed to fill the gaps in the walls and make them safe: “This is also to prevent possible theft”. Looking from the balcony of the roof one can see a part of the city quarter: “From the next street onwards there is an uninhabited zone, patrolled by the army. It was formerly a rebel area, and you still can’t enter it.” Then he thanks us for the emergency aid provided by ACN which has made it possible for this house – along with around 100 others – to start being rehabilitated. “We are still in the first phase. We are going to need more aid to be able to finish the work and to rebuild many other homes”, he adds.
Lina explains the reason for her profound hope and optimism. “Prayer is what keeps us going here. Our family was always close to the Church, and the contact with other Christians also strengthens us. We want to thank the benefactors of ACN for everything they are doing for us. It is very impressive. Thank you for remembering us and thank you also for praying for Syria.”