Domingos Dirceu Franco is a Brazilian economist and focolarino who has been living in Aleppo since 2019. We spoke to him about the complicated situation in Syria, a country where AMU is active with two programmes: Seeds of Hope (emergency projects in health, education and vocational training for women) and RestarT (income-generating activities) which according to Domingos are essential for ‘restoring dignity to those who lost everything during the war’
What is the situation like in Syria today?
It is a tormented country. After 12 years of war, it’s impossible to even describe or measure the pain of this people. People are living in despair because of the cold, increasing hunger and electricity, diesel and gas shortages.
In most Syrian cities, electricity is only supplied for a few hours a day (one to four) and people are suffering the harsh cold of winter unable to warm themselves. And in summer, when the heat becomes unbearable, there is no fresh water to drink as the refrigerator only serves as a place of storage.
And what about the economic situation?
Prices are skyrocketing: they have risen by about 150-300% in the last three months and many products’ prices have risen by about 800% in a year. The embargo imposed by the West is terrible and it’s the people who are paying the price. Although Syria is rich in oil and gas resources, because foreign forces are occupying the country, much of the local oil production is stolen or diverted elsewhere.
It is simply absurd and inhuman to think that what a pensioner earns in a month is barely enough to pay for 10 litres of fuel or 12 kg of bananas or even 4 kg of meat. When I arrived in Aleppo in 2019, the average fare I paid to travel about 2-3 km was 500 Syrian liras. Today, the same route costs 8,000 Syrian liras.
People tell me that life was very good in Syria before the war (in 2010). In Aleppo, for example, people went to restaurants every week. They had a car, a house, gas; they were able to travel and petrol was very cheap.
One of the protagonists of the RestarT programme in Homs who opened a small grocery shop told me that some people come to him to buy just one egg or 100 grams of coffee. They cannot afford more. The Syrian people’s dignity has been wounded.
Does this mean that most people are now living below the poverty line?
Of course! 90% of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. How does a person survive like this and cover basic needs?
And how is the security situation in the country?
The residential areas are no longer being hit by missiles but the war goes on. It never stopped, even though it is no longer in the news. Damascus airport has been hit several times in recent months, as has Aleppo airport.
I hear from people every day that the situation is now much worse than it was during the hard years of armed combat. And what saddens people even more is that, apart from Pope Francis who often mentions Syria, hardly anyone talks about the situation here any more. We really feel forgotten by the rest of the world.
How are the Syrian people reacting?
In the three years since I’ve been in Syria, I’ve learned to appreciate the enormous capacity of these people, whom I love and esteem so much, to endure the harsh situation they have had to endure because of the war.
In spite of everything, many, anchored in a solid faith in God, still manage to bring joy to those around them: a kind of paradox that the West and affluent societies might struggle to understand. Social relations here are warm, people help each other, robberies are few or non-existent, children are brought up with solid values and there is little room for loneliness.
In this context, what is the value of AMU’s work?
The generosity and concrete love of many in the West with big hearts help us to continue to believe in a better future, or at least to survive in the present.
Last year, among the many educational, health and emergency activities for the elderly, families, young people and children carried out as Focolare Movement – especially through AMU – we were able to start 30 income-generating activities in Homs (more than 60% destroyed during the war). Now we are concluding another 20 new projects in Aleppo, with the RestarT programme.
These are meaningful experiences that can bring hope to people and simply restore dignity by enabling people to get back to the job that may have been lost during the war.
Can one still speak of hope in Syria?
It’s hard to speak of hope here in Syria, but you can generate it through concrete actions of support and closeness to those who are suffering and in despair.
Christian hope makes me believe that better days will come, even though the whole situation around me makes me see the opposite. The number of people who still believe in a better future is unfortunately decreasing every day.