Thursday 1 March 2018
From Syria to Syria

While millions of Syrians do not cease to hope for the rebirth of their country, new winds of war are blowing in the northwest of Syria. Interview with Robert Chelhod, from Aleppo, local coordinator of AMU’s projects.

Robert was born in Syria, Aleppo, in 1963. But has spent much of his life in Lebanon, right in the years of the Syrian civil war. We meet in Italy, at AMU’s HQ, during his convocation to take stock of the social projects he follows and AMU’s aid organization. For some time now there was no mention of Syria in the Italian media. Sad prophecy because with the ignition of the Kurdish front, unfortunately the war reports have regained space in the news.

“I open the map every day to see where we are fighting”, explains Robert, showing the war map of Syria in real time. “Now there is the Kurdish area that is already inflamed. The red zone is under the control of the government, the green one of Al Nusra, near the Turkish border. Isis is said to be gone. I say their role is over now. Are we back to the stability of before, though? No, military action is not a solution. It is a patch; this pseudo peace is only temporary. Nobody knows the future of Syria. Will it return to be a united nation? Will it be a federation of autonomous regions? It is all linked to international politics, and to the interests of many nations. Each one makes its game. And who pays the highest price of all this? The population. And the greatest pain is that people keep going away.”

In 1990 you returned to your country of origin to open the first Focolare Centre, and you stayed in Aleppo for 18 years, before returning to Lebanon in 2008. What is your memory of Syria of that period?

“In those years I saw how Syria evolved. The regime has not prevented the progress of the country. I witnessed a flourishing at all levels: Syria was full of tourists; the economy was at its best. Before the war the minimum wage was $ 500, now it’s $ 50, for example. The climax was in 2010. But with the Arab Spring in 2011, internal problems began, so did the war.”

How did you live the years of the war in Syria, staying at a distance in Lebanon?

“I suffered greatly. I saw my country disappearing, the population agonizing, I constantly received news from our friends in Syria. I felt as if I couldn’t do anything, but I was happy working with the social projects. I wanted to be close to my people, but it was not possible to leave Lebanon at that time. It was hard to see my country in those conditions and be unable to do anything. The greatest pain was seeing Syrian refugees arriving in Lebanon. I knew some of those people! Honest people, who worked well, which would have been a resource for the country, but was forced to leave. We could do nothing else “.

In January 2017, you return to Syria, a month after Aleppo’s release. What did you find?

“First of all I got in touch with the people I knew had remained there, and I also met for the first time the many people who had come into contact with the Focolare Movement during the crisis, especially many young people. But for the first months I didn’t move much. I did not want to go see the ruins of Aleppo. Only after three months I found the courage to go out and see the most beautiful parts of the city, razed to the ground. The old market of the 6th and 7th centuries, or the Omayade Mosque … places that I knew very well because working in tourism I travelled all over Syria, discovering all the archaeological, historical and artistic richness. The places I have always “boasted”, no longer existed; it was a shock. When I went for the first time to the old Suk, where you find only rubble, near the Mosque destroyed for more than half, someone explained to me: “here the rebels entered, here came the army…” I was silent; I did not want to hear none of the military details. I could only think of how many people had died there, and how they died. Rebels or non-rebels, what has passed in their heart in the last moment of their life? I was wondering. And I felt I could not judge even those who destroyed my city. These places destroyed were sacred places.”

How did you find the population on your return?

“Discouraged and disappointed, but also eager to move forward. Who has decided to stay has all the strength to want to do something for the country. There are mixed feelings. There is certainly a weariness of the past years, of the conditions of life, but at the same time the good will to start again.”

Does anyone start coming back to Syria?

“Yes, but few. Perhaps those who went to Europe and did not like it, or who is still in the refugee camps. But especially those who had taken refuge in more peaceful areas of Syria, those of Aleppo who had gone to the coast or to other areas, almost everyone is returning.

What would you say to those who watch Syria from the outside? What can be done for Syria today?

“Surely, for those with faith, keep praying. And then, bet on the Syrians that the country is alive. We need hope in Syria. We need support – and I’m not talking only from an economic point of view, certainly important – but to believe with us that this country, the cradle of civilization, can be revived again. That peace is still possible. The important thing is not to remain indifferent. And for those who ask themselves: what can I do for Syria? I say: pray, make a personal contribution, a professional can come for a period of voluntary service…now the situation is safer. We need to feel that the world feels our suffering, the suffering of a country that is disappearing. Syria must be there.”


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