(Rome) October 2, 2013 — The outbreak of the conflict in Syria, which began more than two years ago, has affected around eight million people with food prices tripling, constant power cuts and worsening water sanitation as well as the destruction of hundreds of hospitals, schools and homes. It is only through this destruction, however, that one sees the true character of men and women.
There are those who turn away people in desperate need of help. Others who decide to look after only their loved ones. But, then there are those who go a step further and discover the key to dealing with their pain. While they may be the ones who ironically suffer the most, they use their inner pain to find the strength to help those around them. If there can be any "winners" in war, these Syrians, driven by love and charity, are the only true, real winners.
Hero for children. Claude Semaan is one of these heroes. The 30-year-old woman helped establish the Jesuit Refugee Service Al Mukhales Centre, a children's counseling center in Homs, in April 2012.
"It is difficult to change this reality and to return them their smiles and their joy, but the smile of one child is always enough to give us energy and support," said Claude. "There was no security then and we began working after one year of feeling imprisoned in our homes. We felt fear and frustration."
JRS launched the center after schools in Homs were closed. In addition to educational, psychosocial and recreational activities at the center, the students receive a light meal daily and families receives a monthly food basket. Claude noted that the team had to set up the centre quickly as nearly 100 children arrived within just the first few days.
"We didn't expect any children initially, but on the first day we were surprised to have 64 registered and on the following day, 95," she said. Claude explained that the center decided to use more classrooms on the third day although they doubted that so many children would attend because of the violence.
"We were scared and we felt we didn't have enough experience but we felt great energy within us," she stressed.
Education under bombs. "One day we woke up to the sound of shelling and gunfire. The phone lines had been cut. So I went to the monastery afraid that some children would come and not find anyone there," she said. Instead, Claude found all the volunteers and 82 children ready for classes. When she asked the children why they had come, they replied they would have come "even if the shells were over our heads."
"Even when it's really dangerous, we take this as an opportunity to go to the bomb shelters and sing at the top of our lungs until it stops. We have a lot of responsibility because the school is a place of joy and peace."
Overcoming trauma. Claude, who specialized in counseling female university students, described the mental state of the children as "very bad" when they arrived at the center. "When we asked one child the name of his street, he replied 'I live in the street of death' and, when we first asked children to draw anything that was on their minds, they drew tanks, weapons and dead people."
Even the songs the children sang were about the conflict and the regime. It was difficult to teach them songs about life and love. However, after a year, she believes they are now in a far better mental state, drawing rainbows and singing nicer songs. Since its establishment, the center has given humanitarian assistance to more than 500 families in the greater Homs area, as well as providing education and psychosocial support to nearly 900 children.
With the humanitarian situation deteriorating, JRS plans to extend assistance — food, rent assistant and healthcare services — to 3,000 more families in the city. School support and psychosocial activities will also be offered to approximately 1,000 more children in four centers, including Al Mukhales. Through their unity, JRS volunteers deal with their pain by offering their help to others in more need. Convinced they only offer minimal help, in reality, their transformed pain has a powerful impact.
by Wael Salibi, JRS International communications assistant