ROME— Aleppo, once a thriving urban center and Syria’s second largest city, has become a sad shadow of itself. Underneath the rubble lie underground schools, families live in shelters, and half-destroyed buildings have become a no-man’s land with the East and the West of the city divided between rebel and government forces.
In an attempt to raise awareness over the situation, Syrian children risked their lives on Tuesday to have a long-awaited Skype session with members of the European Parliament. It was a video call that almost wasn’t.
Bombings are daily occurrences in Aleppo, and according to a Wednesday statement from the United Nations envoy to the country, those who are left are at risk of extermination in a city where the clock is ticking as winter sets in.
According to Stephen O’Brien, at least 51 civilians were killed on Wednesday as they were trying to flee the government ground offensive in rebel-held east Aleppo.
Yet many in the international community claim there’s nothing they can do, since after the war began five years ago, most countries have closed their embassies and cut diplomatic relations with the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Perhaps the cry of children who risked their lives, at the request of one of the members of the European parliament, to take part in the recent Skype call, might help move the powers-that-be in the international community to take further steps towards the end of the conflict.
The call took place on December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas (also known as Santa Claus or Father Christmas), whom the Church celebrates as the patron saint of children.
In the weeks leading to the event, a group of 25 Christian and Muslim children gathered in West Aleppo under the guidance of Franciscan friar Father Ibrahim Alsabagh. They prepared songs, drawings and special messages of peace.
In parallel, Italian Antonio Tajani, one of the 14 vice-presidents of the European Parliament, in coordination with papal charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), prepared a special exhibition in Brussels of drawings by Syrian children that a delegation of Syrian bishops brought when they visited the headquarters of the EU last October.
They had more than “a handful” of drawings to choose from, since that delegation presented over a million drawings, collected in over 2,000 schools in Aleppo, Homs, Tartus, Yabroud and Damascus by ACN and local churches.
Together, they also arranged a song of peace from a Catholic Chaldean choir in Brussels, tested the Skype connection between Aleppo and Brussels, and sent invitations and reminders to the parliament’s members.
And then the bombs came.
According to Marcela Symanski, the ACN liaison to the European Union, six hours before the call was supposed to happen, Alsabagh declared the conference wouldn’t go ahead because the bombings were too severe: schools were closed, the roads empty and the children’s mothers refused to see their kids leave their side.
Foreseeing that this could happen, Symanski and the others working in Brussels had a “Plan B”, which was to broadcast pre-recorded messages with the children and hold a WhatsApp dialogue with Alsabagh alone.
Yet 30 minutes before the appointed hour, she got a note from the priest: six of the 25 expected children had gathered in the small room at the back of Alsabagh’s church, so Skype was a go.
Hence at 6 PM Brussels time, the screen went on, and the faces of six shy, waving children appeared on the giant screens placed in the parliament room, which was fuller than normal. The panel introducing the event was chaired by Tajani and Anna Maria Corazza Bildt along with ACN’s representative from Aleppo, Father Ziad Hilal.
The message that came from Aleppo was loud and clear: Stop the bombings. The children don’t know who’s behind them, and at the end of the day, they don’t actually care.
“I don’t sleep at night because of the bombs” said Jean Paul.
At the young age of 10, he’s “lost a lot of friends because of the war. We have lost our places to play – now we can only play at home because it is too dangerous.”
Salim, who’s 14, lives in West Aleppo, where the conditions are allegedly better because it’s not under rebel hands, hence not bombed by the government. He spoke about being unable to live a normal life because of the war.
“If we go somewhere we are not sure if we will come back alive,” he said. All of his friends have either been killed in the war or migrated to other countries because they’re afraid of dying.
“And we are also afraid of the bombs dropping on us,” Salim said. “We hope you can bring peace to us.”
Syline’s witness was a reminder that, despite having “grown up during the war”– she’s only 10 — the children in Aleppo are just that, children.
“The bombs are falling on our houses – we have no water, our parents cannot work as there is no work in Aleppo … and our parents cannot buy chocolate or meat and clothes,” she said. “We hope that you can help us bring peace to our country.”
The last child on the video was 10-year old Christine, whose witness was interrupted by her tears, mirrored by many of the parliamentarians who wept with her.
“Each day I leave my house and each day I am not sure if I will return,” she said. “My friends leave the country and leave me alone. Many of our friends are dead.”
In his introductory remarks, Tajani said that the European Parliament is close to the people of Aleppo and called for an end to the bombings.
“Christian and Muslims can live together – it is possible to live in peace,” he said. “We want to live together in peace.”
Symanski, the ACN liaison in Europe, told Crux that Christians and Muslims living together in peace is not a far-fetched dream in Syria, where this used to be a reality until the war broke out.
She strongly believes it can be the case again once the war is over, because beyond Daesh (ISIS), Christians are not particular targets in this war. They’ve only recently become targets from Sunni Muslims, for instance in the historic city of Palmira, but because it’s believed they can pay ransom.
“The situation in Syria is very different than in Iraq, where there’s an interreligious issue going on for many decades,” Symanski said. “In Syria there’s not, certainly not between Christians and Muslims. Christians are always the ones living among Sunni, Shiites and Alawite.”
Christians in Syria play a very particular role, she said, and they have been accepted and welcomed. For instance, now that Christmas is coming, the small Christian communities take for granted that their Muslim neighbors will come and celebrate in the churches, because that’s what they’ve always done.
“You’ll never find a village that’s both Sunni and Shiite without Christians living there,” Symanski said.
Hilal, the ACN representative on Tuesday’s panel, had flown in to Brussels from Aleppo the day before. He warned that unless peace is achieved, “we will lose a people, a culture and a civilization in Syria.”
“As a priest [I tell you] we need peace to continue our mission in the Middle East as a bridge between East and West, Christians and Muslims, Eastern culture and Western culture,” he said. “That is our vocation – and without this the Middle East will be emptied of its mediator of peace.”
Symanski underlined the fact that, despite popular belief, the majority of Syrians remain in the country, with the war being over in many places. Yet in places such as Homs life hasn’t yet started again because international help is needed for the reconstruction of the cities.
The European Union as a whole has committed to help with this once peace is achieved, but Symanski fears this won’t happen until well into the next year. However, she acknowledged that individual countries have begun helping restore basic things such as water and electricity networks in the cities where the bombings have stopped.
ACN is currently the largest funding entity for all the actions led by the Church in Syria, which includes reconstruction of churches, schools, hospitals and other buildings needed for the Church to continue being of service to the local population.
For instance, they provide funds so that the Jesuit Refugee Service can prepare 12,500 daily meals in Aleppo, something that is getting more expensive every day. The program gets rice and flour from the United Nations World Food Program, but everything else they have to buy locally.
“We give what’s needed so that the priests and religious sisters can stay in place, helping the community,” Symanski said. “We fund the Church so that it can continue helping others, whoever they are. We don’t help only Christians, but the Church, that helps those in need.”
Since the war began, over 400,000 people have been killed, 2,960 schools destroyed, and almost two million of the 2.9 million children still left in Syria can’t go to school.