Reflecting On Ten Years of War in Syria
“Don’t bother, it’s only few days and we will go back to our homes.” Bishop Demetrios Sharbak, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Safita and surroundings, remembers how he and the people thought when the war in Syria started ten years ago. He started helping the displaced people who flooded Safita and the villages around it with the little means the church had. “The war is truly horrifying, it only caused us pain.”
Safita is a village in Tartus Governorate, located southeast of Tartus and northeast of Homs, it lays on a hill around 600 meters above sea level. The village has an old fortress in its middle, dated back to the Phoenician civilisation. At the beginning of the 21st century Safita was a predominantly Christian village, with about 95% of its population belonging to one of the churches. Now, according to our partners there, only half of its population are Christians. The other half is mostly Alawites, belonging to Shia Islam. This is largely due to Alawites buying houses in Safita and residing in the area and having more children than Christians, but also because of the emigration of Christians from the village.
The fifty-year-old Bishop Demetrios Sharbak has been our partner for almost a year and a half and a bishop for around 12 years. He is responsible for 23 churches in 23 different villages that are centred around Safita; around 13,000 families are under his authority. This includes people who were displaced from other cities to Safita and the villages around; 7,500 families are committed to the church and its meetings.
Syrians line up for food. A decade of war has ravaged the economy of the nation.
The Bishop sighs with a deep breath when he is asked about the effects of war on him and on the church. “The war is a horrifying thing, it only caused us pain. First, the war doesn’t differentiate between colour, gender nor religion, it destroys all. The war kills innocent people, souls who are unbiased - not fighting for any side - are killed. What made our country truly bleed is emigration, we mostly lost the young generation. They are the ones who can rebuild the country, rebuild the church. Only the elderly are left here. The war is cruel. It resulted in displacement for many people and in destruction. The war also deprives people from their emotions. This is what we witness today, people are becoming more selfish, not caring about others and only thinking of themselves.”
When asked about the impact on him personally, the bishop takes a long pause, to dig in his memory. “Before I became a bishop, I was in Greece studying theology. My friends and I visited a home for elderly people, we were talking, and I asked them to wish something for us. One man looked at me and said, “I hope you’d never go through war.” I thanked him but deep down I thought ‘what kind of wish is that, Syria is in peace and we live in harmony with others.’ Since the war began, every now and then I remember that man and what he wished for me and I realize how meaningful it was. After ten years of war, I feel like I am aged 100 years. The worries and the burdens increased. The church became a refuge for all kind of hurt people, now we are busy with providing for people’s needs, food, drink, clothes, medicines and other needs. This is more than the spiritual role that we were doing before.”
“As Christians from all denominations we have lost men and women in the war,” he adds with sadness in his eyes. “In this area alone there were 22 men who died serving in the army, around 14 college students who were killed due to random missiles and bombs. Besides that a high percentage of young people have fled the country. I can’t give a precise number, but we lack the young generation in our churches, that will affect the future of this area demographically and will impact the marriage rate.”
As a first response to the war ten years ago, the bishop thought as all Syrians that this crisis would not last long. He stopped all the activities of the church and focused on supporting people, especially since Safita became a safe haven for displaced people from the terribly war-affected cities Homs and Aleppo. “We didn’t have relief work nor organizations to help us. With very limited means we bought mattresses for displaced people, a small cooking kit, canned food, pillows and covers, since people left their houses with nothing on them but the clothes they were wearing. People would tell us ‘don’t bother, it’s only few days and we will go back to our homes.’ They were hopeful like all of us that it would pass soon.” Although difficult, the bishop also has positive thoughts about that period. “It was a blessed period, sitting with people and entering their homes; I cherish that time.”
Eight years later, Bishop Demetrios became a partner of our organization. “With your help we started with food aid. We distribute to 250 families every month. Later with COVID-19 spreading wildly in Syria, we added a package that contains sanitizers, alcohol, detergents and soap. Every three months we distribute medical aid to 214 individuals, especially for persons with chronic disease like diabetes and high blood pressure who need permanent medication. We also started a program for children called ‘a smile of joy’. With that we want to heal the emotions of children who grew up in war and destruction, helping them forget about missiles and rockets and plant hope and joy in their lives. We do so by helping them focus their energy on sports with competitions and various activities like basketball, volleyball and tennis.”
The Greek Orthodox Church led by Bishop Demetrios is a very active church. The church also gladly participated in the youth leaders training with 75 participants and in a training for priests, called ‘Fathers and Priests’, with 25 participants. Another planned training they would participate in for women called ‘Mary and Elizabeth’ was unfortunately cancelled due to COVID-19-restrictions. “We welcome any opportunity for improvement, our people need to step up and support the church,” the bishop says. “Unfortunately the war has left us with minimum capacity. We need to train new leaders and this is where your organization is helping in a very efficient and effective way. We now have curriculums to teach and a new perspective on how to deal with modern day youth. The priests have gained new appreciation for their pastoral work and how to connect the parish with God.”
When asked about the situation after ten years of war for the Syrian Christians he says, “The war in Syria is not over yet, I always say. May God rescue the Syrian people. At first there was the war with weapons and bombs, in which blood was shed and we lost precious souls. Now it has changed its face and turned into an unprecedented economic crisis that is sucking the life out of our people, due to the inflation of our currency. Syrians are now suffering from hunger more than ever; the numbers of needy people are doubled if not tripled. Everything is expensive, beyond what a breadwinner usually earns. The war today is crueller on people, it doesn’t spare anyone, hunger, pain, sickness, the pandemic, wildfires; they’ve all made life unbearable for people.”
At the end of the meeting, Bishop Demetrios sends a message to the world, a message of pleading, “I call upon everyone, today we desperately need your help. Now is the time to act fast to support Christians in the Middle East, if you hope to keep their existence in this region. I can assure you that today, if any country opens its borders for Syrians, the vast majority will leave. Staying here means [that they have] a very high cost to pay. People are tired from paying that price, the need is bigger, the pain is bigger, and our calling is louder. I thank you from the bottom of my heart, you are truly spreading hope and helping people to stand on their feet with everything you give them, thank you.”
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