Two Sisters speak to ACN about the situation in Syria and Lebanon – and the vital work they are doing to support a suffering community, particularly women who have been driven to despair by the ongoing crises in the countries.
Shortly after the end of Lebanon’s terrible civil war, a cardinal visited the country and asked to meet with members of women’s congregations, recalls Sister Helen Mary Haigh, an English Sister who was working in the country at the time, and has closely followed the situation in Lebanon and Syria for more than 30 years.
“He told us we can go anywhere, we are able to go to the dark places in families where others cannot, simply because we are women, and Sisters. This has become true again in Lebanon, and also in Syria. The women can go where others cannot, and the Sisters can go to darker, difficult or dangerous places because we are not a threat to anybody,” Sister Helen of the Sisters of Jesus and Mary told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Women bear the burden
Sister Annie Demerjian, who also belongs to the Sisters of Jesus and Mary, ministers in Syria and Lebanon, helping hundreds of families receiving support from ACN and other charities. She says that families are suffering, and mentioned a recent event that showed the despair that many are feeling. “There is much abuse of all kinds targeting children and women. Divorce and suicide are increasing. Just two weeks ago we heard of a woman who tried to throw herself from a bridge because she had no way to feed her children. People talked her down – but for how long? We need a solution. This cannot be solved by two or three people.”
Sister Annie, who is due to come to the UK as a guest of ACN next month said: “We used to find ten children begging – now we see hundreds. We didn’t see this before the war. There are many organisations helping women, but the needs are great. I help 100 or 200 women, but what about the rest?”
In the wake of the financial crisis in Lebanon, many men emigrated seeking jobs abroad, and in Syria many fled to avoid being drafted into the army. This has exposed women to further hardship, but also opened opportunities for leadership roles that were previously taken by men. “We depend totally on the work of the women now. We need to prepare women to take risks and be functioning members of society. They need to step up and fulfil this role,” says Sister Annie.
85 percent of Syrians are in poverty
“Many people say they wish they could go back to the time of war, at that time we used to at least have food to eat and to feed the children. Due to the economic crisis, 85 percent of the population live below the poverty line in Syria. The salary of one family is not sufficient for a week, prices are always rising, many people are really hungry”, says Sister Annie.
“We help a family with three children, the husband has psychological problems, because of the war, and because of his medication he sleeps all day. We help with food and money for rent, but it is not enough. The child got sick because of malnutrition, and they have nothing in their fridge, they depend on what they are given. And this is only one family, we help hundreds like this.”
Still there is hope
One project run by the Sisters – with the help of ACN – quite literally speaks about hope: The Hope Centre was founded by two businessmen who could have left the country, but preferred to stay and help. “They started opening small spaces for university students to come and study. The idea developed, and became a way of trying to help families as a whole. Many families do not want to depend on aid, they want to work.”
Sister Annie continues: “These centres have already helped 750 families get new jobs, and thousands of families are receiving aid,” adding that she hopes that these centres will open in Lebanon as well.
Hope is also what ACN provides every time it sends aid – and Sister Annie insists that prayer is even more vital in providing hope. “Spiritual support is more important than the material. Continue to pray for us that we do not lose hope, and our people do not to lose hope. We want Christians to stay in this holy land.”
In 2021 ACN supported 79 projects amounting to more than £4 million in Lebanon. In Syria, 118 projects were carried out last year– since the civil war started, Syria has received more than £40 million in aid from ACN.