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Syria emergency. Now that the crisis eased a bit, aid funding decreased as well, but there are still many needs to be overcome. Robert, you coordinate all social projects supported by AMU on the field. What actions do you take?

Yes, aid comes less while the need is always greater. This situation has been going on for 7 years now… The projects range from food security, as an income supplement – 1 kg of meat costs 10 $, on a salary of 60 $, so the cost of living is very high – help with schooling to allow private education, because public education is poor or non-existent. Then there is the health aid, because the public health that previously guaranteed free assistance to everyone, today, due to the lack of doctors, medicines and medical equipment, cannot meet minimum compliance standards. For 2018 we have forecast a program of assistance to 200 families in Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, and on the coastal territory.

Beyond aid to families, some more stable projects have been structured:

– Two after-school classes in Damascus and Homs, with 100 children each, both Christians and Muslims, to respond to the emergency of primary schooling. From the countryside they arrive in the cities, with a very low background, and the classes are very crowded (even 60 children), because teachers are missing and therefore the performance is very low;

– Two specific health projects, aimed at the economic support of cancer and dialysis treatments. There is a front desk office for the presentation of the various cases, and then people are assisted economically, psychologically and morally. It’s like treating gravity within another greater gravity; that is treating an illness in an already critical situation of subsistence.

– A school for deaf and dumb children, already active since before the war. It is the only school in Aleppo that offers the professional assistance of 30 operators to 75 children.

These are also job opportunities for the population…

All these projects offer a chance to many young people. At this moment the work question is fundamental. We are dreaming that in the near future there will be the possibility of working on microcredit to restart activities. Aleppo was a city full of merchants, which today would restart immediately, but the initial capital is missing. Being able to give them this chance means giving the possibility to go back to work and therefore to maintain their own family.

Why many continue to leave instead…

The exodus, especially of Christians, is unstoppable. The reason is the insecurity and the little work there is. The church suffers from this; historically this is the land of Christians, before the arrival of Islam. The church tries to do everything possible to help and support, but the resources are very few. And you cannot stop people from leaving. I recently went to see a young couple, newly married, waiting for a baby. They are getting ready to move to Sweden. That is a potential of the country that goes away. The majority of young people are in the army. There are some university students, or teenagers. But the age-range 25-40 is not there anymore. Christian neighbourhoods are empty. In the city of Aleppo between 40 to 130 thousand Christians are estimated to have been missing. Two-thirds have left their homes, while so many displaced Muslims arrived from their destroyed cities. This demographic change in the geography of the city has been felt very much so.

What reflection does this have on the interreligious dialogue?

Of course, it is challenging, but I must also point out a positive result. It is true that Christians have left, but it happened – in Aleppo for example – that the Christians considered themselves a bit like the country’s elite, chic, educated, the city where they eat better, maybe a little closed as group. With the war, since the Muslim areas have been hit, many have taken refuge in the Christian areas. So the Christians opened up to the Muslims, who were looking for houses, etc. They had to welcome them. The Bishops say: this is the testimony we must give. The Latin bishop of Aleppo, your Excellency Armando Bortolaso, during the war told me: “Now is the time to be true Christians.

At the same time, Muslims have got to know Christians more closely. They have been touched by the example of love and tangible help they gave. They were intrigued, during the Christmas period they entered the churches to see what the nativity crib was, or the Christmas tree … for them it’s all new. If at the beginning there was a certain reluctance, now they are happy to have come close to the Christian community. There is some positive; there is some negative, of course. But all of them, the state, the Christian and Muslim associations, the churches and the mosques, have all done everything to help the population, without differences. The positive thing of this war is that it has united us more among Syrians, because we are all living the same drama.”

 

 

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.”

 

 

Building a system for respectable work is one of the goals of the PROFOR project – PROGRAM FOR THE STRENGTHENING COMMUNION INCLUSIVE BUSINESSES. The aims of the projects are to start-up and support the entrepreneurship of people that are in socio-economic difficulties.

The results are already clear. After the training phase, the receiving of the funds and the support of consultants and coaches for the start-up phase, six out of eight businesses are in business and one is about to start in the healthcare sector.
The Frutos da Terra project in Rio de Janeiro, which concerns the production of frozen vegetables (cultivation, harvesting and processing), continues to grow. Machinery was purchased with start-up capital and the building has been restructured and reorganized. In addition, training courses have been developed to employ local women in the preparation of the vegetables.
The project also received several awards. Waldemar proposed this idea for the improvement of the rural community and for the benefit and direct support of 15 farmers. It has furthermore been proposed for a partnership with a young member of the community in which the company resides.
The freezing-related agriculture project also had set up exchanges with the university up to an agreement that allows students to use the farm as a social lab.

Campo Fértil in Pernambuco is a cooperative that produces organic vegetables. Thanks to the start-up capital obtained with the project, a truck was purchased that improved production and therefore increased income (profitability went from R $ 6,000 (1,800 Euros) to R $ 18,000 (5,365 Euros)).
Much of this capital was used for the construction of a processing plant. The number of direct jobs created in this process is 8 units, and the number of families involved has increased from 11 to 20. The cooperative is structuring and organizing more and more, and the entrepreneur has decided to open up to a new market: the sale to private people who live nearby, with a delivery at home service.

Also the manager of Premosam, a company that builds prefabricated buildings in Pernambuco is finding confidence and is changing attitude towards his business, thanks to the courses that the project’s coaches proposed. With the start-up capital, new equipment was purchased in order to respond better to the demands. The company’s consolidation has also allowed the entrepreneur to welcome his brother who was unemployed. Once again solidarity multiplies, starting in a form and assuming several others.

 

Living Peace, in the following October, organize a training course on Peace, in the framework of Development Education.

This training course for teachers, educators and trainers, promoted by AMU, New Humanity and Teens 4 Unity,  will take place from 25th to 29th October 2017, at the Mariapoli Centre, Via San Gattista de la Salle, Castel Gandolfo – Rome.

Today Living Peace is a world peace network of over 40 organizations working around the world and working for peace. Over the years, the project has attracted more than 200,000 people from 113 countries around the world.

Please go to this link for more information on the course, on the program and on how to sign up.

 

 

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