|Electrical stoves purchased with Mennonite Central Committee funds help to keep the children warm as they attend National Evangelical School in Homs, Syria. (Photo courtesy of National Evangelical School)|
February 18, 2013
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The first time I went to Syria through my work with Mennonite Central Committee, almost four years ago, I was unable to access social networking websites. Today, the armed conflict prohibits me from entering the country, but I get a lot of my daily updates through my Facebook feed.
Recently I was chatting with a friend in Aleppo:
Me: How are you? Are you safe?
Friend: No one is safe here.
Naive question to someone in a city under siege, I admit. He’s right. Throughout the country, no one knows where violence will break out next. As the conflict has grown, cities that were home to people of all faiths and ethnicities and enjoyed calm for months have suddenly been caught up in the violence.
My friend goes on:
Friend: They are fighting now around the main electric generator. My friend who volunteers in the area told me that both armies won’t leave the station until it is totally destroyed. No electricity now and soon no water.
Me: Who’s benefiting from all of this destruction?
Friend: Everyone but the Syrians are benefiting.
Theories abound about what’s going on in Syria. The growth in the number of non-Syrian fighters, coupled with weapons shipments to both government and opposition fighters from other countries, raises questions about who is really fueling the conflict. MCC partners in Syria often wonder aloud what other countries hope to gain, either from the status quo or from a change in regime.
Meanwhile, millions of people are struggling to feed and shelter themselves. Cooking gas is no longer available in shops and is prohibitively expensive on the black market. People can’t heat their homes in the current freezing temperatures because they can’t afford the diesel needed for the heating stoves. Forests that were hundreds of years old have been cut down for firewood.
Hundreds of thousands of children have been forced to stop their schooling, and state of the art vocational training centers have been turned into shelters for displaced people. Young boys that are able to go to school have been kidnapped on their way to class as opportunists seek a quick profit, requesting high ransoms for their release.
Local churches and community groups have worked tirelessly to meet the needs. To help them in their efforts, MCC has contributed food, blankets, hygiene kits, skills training and other support worth more than $2 million. I speak with Syrians each week who express gratitude that they have not been forgotten.
So my friend asks:
Friend: How do you see the situation in Syria developing? Where is this country headed?
Me: I wish I knew. I don’t know why the international community is waiting to push for an end to the violence.
Friend: We are sick of waiting. But there is nothing we can do on the ground. We have no support.
Me: It seems everyone’s fate is in the hands of a few powerful people and the regular people are forgotten.
Friend: Exactly. But listen. There are still many guys here really working who want to change the situation for the better.
Sometimes it is easy to forget that Syria is not composed only of a government army and opposition fighters. Yet, I know from MCC’s work with church and community groups and youth that millions of Syrians don’t believe violence is the way to end the increasingly complex conflict.
In Homs, volunteers risk their lives to bring basic food and medical care into conflict-riddled areas, and families open their homes to displaced people. In Aleppo, where schools have been closed due to the violence, teachers have set up informal centers where children can keep up their lessons and add a familiar routine to their otherwise terrifying days.
In Qalamoun, people of goodwill have turned their homes into staging grounds for donations and distributions. In Ras al-Ayn, where Christians have been displaced and churches have been vandalized, residents of other faiths enter the church towers each day to ring the bells and keep the spirit of unity alive.
My friend says he wonders how long hope can carry people:
Friend: We need more than food. We need to stop the violence, stop the destruction.
Me: Many people I know are putting pressure on the U.S. government to do something to end the violence and destruction.
Friend: If it lasts much longer, we will be starving. But if the war stopped now, everyone would be ready to work and life would go on, and the money that is being spent now on food could be spent on developing the country.
Until then, MCC’s Syrian partners have new people come to them each week with urgent requests for daily survival. For the many people who lived a comfortable life until just a few months ago, there is much shame in asking for help. Finding ways to help people maintain a sense of dignity as they seek assistance is an important part of the MCC work.
The only hope to reduce the resources needed for the humanitarian catastrophe is to end the violence. While aid addresses the very real symptoms of the problem, it will never solve the conflict. As long as the conflict rages on, the suffering will only intensify.
Because of the power outages, my friend has been chatting on Facebook with me through his cell phone. It’s time to say goodbye:
Me: I wish there was a voice among Syrians who want an end to the conflict that is as strong as the voice of the government or the voice of the opposition.
Friend: We are here. We just need others to hear our voice.
The conflict in Syria has reached its two-year mark, and for many Syrians, it is a time of mourning. Those brave enough to stand on the side of peace and to speak out against both government and opposition violence deserve to be heard. Women and men of all faiths, in all areas of the country, are praying each day for an end to the violence, serving their neighbors as they wait for peace to come.
Join the people of Syria in their prayers for an immediate end to the violence. Tell your government officials to urgently seek a nonviolent, political solution to end the conflict. Stand with the Syrian people by donating funds for food, shelter, education and reconciliation efforts inside the country.
To learn more about how to speak to the U.S. government on this issue, how to send humanitarian support to Syria and how MCC is responding, visit mcc.org/middleeastcrisis.
Mennonite Central Committee: Relief, development and peace in the name of Christ