Six years after the uprising against the regime of Bachar El Assad in 2011 was answered with force, thus plunging the country into complete chaos, the ICRC states today that there are 6.3 million people displaced within the country, 5 million people live in besieged areas and 4.8 million refugees living abroad. While a new meeting of opening for negotiations and peace for countries involved in the conflict: Iran, Turkey, Russia took place in Astana (Kazakhstan) on 23 January 2017, the number of those affected continues to rise.
“The war rumbles on: “if you do not want me anymore, then leave,” Michel Béni, SSVP President in Damascus
In spite of the massive forced exile of people to neighbouring countries, numerous inhabitants have chosen to remain in the country, in risk of there lives. Many humanitarian organizations are working at a local level, attempting to respond to the needs of the population. Among them, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, which has been present in Syria since 1863. SSVP continues its activities in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Hassake. For this reason, Michel (President of the SSVP in Damascus), Joseph (President of the SSVP in Aleppo) and Yolanda (President of the SSVP in Hassake) continue, not without difficulties, to put into place regular emergency aid in order to fight against all forms of material and human suffering: food, medical and financial aid.
This year, Society of Saint Vincent de Paul members and volunteers have been able to spend Christmas a little more serenely in the three cities: In Damascus, in partnership with Caritas Syria, 500 children have participated in a theatre production and have received a present. In Aleppo and Hassake, the SSVP have distributed winter clothes to the families that have been visited and have reconnected with isolated people.
“In spite of the destruction and precariousness, our Society is mobilizing”
In 2015, according to a UN report, more than 83% of the Syrian population was living below the poverty line, as Michel testified: “the longer the war continued, the more the destruction spread, eliminating factories and employment, accentuating the devaluation of the currency. The longer the war continued, the more the number of people displaced increased and the more the prices grew, exhausting middle-class incomes and making the poor each time more vulnerable, until one is not able to obtain food or able to hold on to human dignity….”
In Aleppo, the number of people is decreasing. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul has no more than 12 conferences and 70 members. There were 125 members before the war broke out. As Joseph Ahmar Dakno, President of the Aleppo Council sets out, the city has been object to numerous massacres and acts of destruction. “It is impossible to describe the destruction, enormous destruction of housing, industry, factories, infrastructure, schools, mosques, churches due to large-scale shelling, but also killings …. The OAP nursing home was bombed a few months ago and has become uninhabitable”. In spite of all of this the Society has been able to finance the relocation of around 40 elderly people to another centre, providing shelter alongside medical aid and food.
Local actors provide support in order to improve aid
As resources reduce, the needs increase and the SSVP has established and strengthened partnerships with international organisation and various institutions with the aim of improving the effectiveness of its action on the ground. In Damascus, the WHO (World Health Organisation) has provided specific material to allow the SSVP to carry out 300 sessions of haemodialysis within its specialist centre. Damascus SSVP has cooperated with Caritas on psycho-social support for children aged 6 to 15 who have experienced the trauma of war.
In 2016, the three councils (Damascus, Hassake and Aleppo) received grants from Syrian non-governmental organisations (Syrian American League, Syrian Wish Association), from a French NGO (l’Oeuvre d’Orient – the Project of the East) and the SSVP National Councils. (SSVP – France, SSVP Belgium).
SSVP Syria, in partnership with SSVP France, SSVP Belgium, l’Oeuvre d’Orient – the Project of the East, the Pontifical Mission, the Syrian NGO American League and the Syrian NGO American Wish Association (SAWA) have put into place several medical, educational and humanitarian projects:
- Contribution to the purchase of housing reconstruction material
- Contribution to the purchase of petrol
- Support in rent payments for people displaced within the country and for refugees outside the country.
In addition, recently, through the International Cooperation and Development Commission, the SSVP has benefitted from the renewal of a grant from an anonymous donor in order to support projects for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Around 1.5 million Syrians are refugees in Lebanon which today represents a third of the population. The SSVP provides support to refugees in the camps of the Bekaa region and to the south of Beirut: Family visits, food distribution, electricity bill payment.
“We need the support of the Vincentian Community,” Michel Béni, SSVP President in Damascus
Through the International General Council (IGC) the Councils of Damascus, Aleppo and Hassake have launched and appeal to the entire community of volunteers of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul throughout the world. Alongside material requirements, it is moral support which is sought by the active members of the Society in Damascus; a need to feel held by the fraternal community so as not to sink into indifference and oblivion. As Michel Beni sums up: “we will not let either distress or despair overcome us.”