“Christmas with no joy in their hearts”
In the midst of the hell of Aleppo Sister Annie is endeavouring to give the people a merry Christmas – Aid to the Church in Need is supporting her.
Christmas music, colourful balloons, lights and a Christmas tree: Sister Annie and her helpers have decorated the church hall for the festive season. Gifts are being handed out. Happy faces can be seen. Small children are racing around. There’s a lot of laughter. And yet –this pre-Christmas idyll allows the people of Aleppo to forget at most for a short while the circumstances in which they are forced to live. “Two days ago missiles struck quite near us. Six people were killed. A few days before an apartment building had been hit. Nobody was hurt but a lot of people were injured. Injured often means that people have lost arms and legs. This is an everyday occurrence for us. No-one knows whether he’ll get home alive whenever he leaves his house. All we have left is our trust in God,” Sister Annie reports.
This Armenian-Catholic nun of the Community of Jesus and Mary has held out for years in Aleppo, a town ravaged by the Syrian war. The government and the rebels hold different parts of the town. Time and time again they fight one another. Together with her co-sisters and helpers she is serving Aleppo’s Christians by endeavouring to provide clothing, heating, rent assistance and medicines. Aid to the Church in Need is supporting her in this. Hundreds of thousands of Christians once lived in this prosperous commercial metropolis in the north of Syria. Today only a few tens of thousands remain in the town, large parts of which have been destroyed. “Life here is so difficult. For days on end there is no electricity or water. It’s bitterly cold in the winter in particular. Recently I visited a family who were living in their apartment which had been destroyed by a missile. My heart wept. It was such a terrible sight.”
As in previous years, Sister Annie is endeavouring to give the people a merry Christmas. “We distribute trousers, pullovers and jackets to the people. They’re often unable to buy new things for themselves. That’s why such things are so important for them specifically in the winter.” Since September Sister Annie and her helpers have been preparing the project. 12,000 items of clothing have been made for 3000 needy people. “The clothes have been made by Christian tailors here in Aleppo. They told me that they are so grateful for the orders. This is how they get work to feed their families.”Christians are not only being helped in Aleppo but also in Hasake, a town in the north-east of Syria. “Formerly we were able to transport the relief aid from Aleppo to Hasake by truck. But because Daesh (the terrorist group “Islamic State”) has now conquered the area between these two places this is no longer so easy. We have therefore sent the clothes by air. The priest with whom we work has reported that they arrived safely.”
Aid to the Church in Need has supported Sister Annie’s Christmas project for years now. “Without Aid to the Church in Need I wouldn’t be able to give the people anything. For me it is one of God’s miracles that things are different. We are so grateful to the benefactors for their generosity. Just now we celebrated a Holy Mass to pray for them. And the people also bless the benefactors when they hear who the gifts are from.”
Since Friday last week Sister Annie has been distributing clothes to the needy from ten o’clock in the morning to four o’clock in the afternoon. “We don’t want the people to feel they are beggars. That’s why we’ve decorated the distributing room so nicely. We’re also trying to talk to them all. It isn’t only supposed to be a clothing distribution point, but a place where people can meet one another.”
When they come, Sister Annie says, the people complain about their everyday sufferings. “This is the fifth Christmas festival that Syrian’s Christians will be celebrating in conditions of war. The people no longer have any joy in their hearts. Of course, they will go to church. But the joy which we all used to feel at Christmas has gone. It has been replaced by sadness.” She reports about an old man who told her despondently that he and his wife were alone at Christmas. “Formerly all his sixteen children and grandchildren celebrated with them. Now they’re all gone, fled. Only the two old people are left.” Many have suffered the fate of this elderly couple. They had lost relatives in the attacks, their sons were serving in the army or the children had fled. “In every household there is a sad story to be told,” Sister Annie explains. “But the people trust in God. And they are happy that their fellow Christians in other countries have not forgotten them.”