Interview, 22.03.2018 / Syria by Josué Villalón
Having just recently completed seven years of conflict, the situation in Syria is starting to deteriorate again, according to Maronite Bishop Antoine Chbeir of Tartus
ACN (Josué Villalón, Tartus).- The day-to-day life of a Syrian family in Tartus, a region controlled by the government and far from the bombing in Damascus, continues to be very difficult. The duration of the conflict having recently reached seven years, the situation is now critical. This was the view expressed by Maronite Bishop Antoine Chbeir, who spoke to a visiting team from the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) who are currently visiting Syria and evaluating various pastoral and emergency aid projects.
What is the situation like at present in Syria?
During these seven years of war we have had moments when the fighting was more intense and moments of lesser intensity. The war is in the hands of the international community. Today it seems that the decision is that nobody is either winning or losing this war, but that the conflict will continue. Today there is new bombing in Damascus, and at other times in Aleppo and Idlib. Many people think that the war will never end. We are losing many lives in the process.
Has the economy improved in this last year?
The economy continues to be very bad, and has even grown worse. In Tartus we have an unemployment rate of 30%. In other parts of the country it is 60%. Inflation has begun to increase again. Last year a dollar was worth 400 Syrian pounds. Today it is around 520. We are providing immediate aid to 30,000 refugees in our diocese. Given such economic conditions, it is not easy to help them. Those people who do have work are earning barely 60 US-Dollar a month. And so, quite apart from the refugees, many other people are in need of our help.
What is daily life like today for an average family in your diocese?
Given the economic situation, people inevitably live in real poverty. It is estimated that around 70% of Syrians are living below the poverty threshold today. Every day, here in the diocese, we receive numerous requests for help. There are people who need help with heating, others ask us for computers so that they can study or work. Others again ask us to buy them basic tools so that they can work and earn a living. People are hoping that someone will help them to rebuild their lives.
What kind of help do you think is most appreciated by the people you are supporting?
The financial help for the studies of children and young people. And also aid for healthcare, for medicines and medical treatment and even operations. For example, we had the case of a man who had been confined to his bed because he could not afford an operation. We helped him to get the necessary medical checks and do the necessary paperwork and finally gave him the money to undergo the operation. We are trying to help in every way we can, and above all in order to prevent people from choosing the solution of leaving the country forever, and in many cases risking their lives trying to cross the ocean.
What is the reaction of the families you are helping?
Every family has its own particular needs and problems. All of them are very grateful for the help, without which it would be very difficult for them even to keep going. We have teams of aid workers, led by priests and lay people, who visit the families every month to find out what they need. Last month we gave out 2000 food parcels. We also paid the rent for 800 households, funded 900 study grants and over 100 medical operations.
And do the refugees want to return home?
Although a few of them have been able to go home to assess the state of their houses, the general sentiment is to wait and see if things improve. People don’t yet feel safe enough, because there is once again more bombing, above all in Damascus.
When will the war end?
Nobody can say, but what is clear is that the decision is in the hands of the international community, in the hands of Russia, the United States, China and Europe. Last year it looked as though there might be a possibility, but in the end there was no agreement.
Do you have a message for the benefactors of ACN?
We always pray for you. We recently celebrated the feast of Saint Joseph, and we asked everyone during the celebration of the Eucharist to pray for ACN. Without your help it would be impossible to continue. We greatly appreciate your aid, especially when you come to visit us. We no longer feel alone.